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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Wed May 29 - 04:00 PM | Thu May 30 - 09:55 AM

Film Review: Analyzing Second-Round WR Ja'Lynn Polk's Fit in the Patriots Offense

The Patriots selected the former Washington receiver with the 37th overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Washington WR Ja'Lynn Polk was drafted by the Patriots in the second round (37th overall) in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Washington WR Ja'Lynn Polk was drafted by the Patriots in the second round (37th overall) in the 2024 NFL Draft.

The Patriots took huge steps toward weaponizing the offense by double-dipping at wide receiver in the 2024 NFL Draft.

With the selections of wideouts Ja'Lynn Polk (No. 37 overall) and Javon Baker (No. 110 overall), de facto GM Eliot Wolf gave first-round pick Drake Maye, who is known for his excellent deep ball, two competitive downfield ball-winners that he can grow with over the next four-plus seasons. The cool part for fans is that these two rookie receivers will develop alongside Maye as a young offensive nucleus in New England. This scribe is already excited to watch Maye throw to Baker and Polk this summer at Pats Camp.

Wolf's double-dip is reminiscent of the approach the Packers, where his roots are in scouting, took in the 2022 draft. After drafting QB Jordan Love the year before, Green Bay selected receivers Christian Watson (34th overall) and Romeo Doubs (132nd overall) in a similar range as the Pats took their receivers. Now, Doubs and Watson are big pieces in a young core around Love.

Hopefully, New England's two selections will work out as well as the Packers duo. If they do, the Patriots will have cost-controlled assets at quarterback and receiver for the next four seasons (plus Maye's fifth-year option). With the quarterback and receiver markets exploding, that's very valuable.

As we transition into a detailed breakdown of second-round pick Ja'Lynn Polk, it's easy to see how his skill set aligns with Maye's strengths. Polk is a fearless downfield target with magnets for hands who isn't afraid to operate in high-traffic areas and ate up single coverage in Washington's vertical-based passing system.

Polk's production speaks for itself last season, with 14 receptions on passes over 20 yards, ranking tied for sixth-most in the FBS. The Pats second-rounder also ranked in the 93rd percentile in PFF receiving grade against single coverage and the 84th percentile in yards per route run (2.29), two metrics that are usually good indicators of pro success.

Although the micro-level details on his film and analytics profile are positive, there are macro-level question marks with Polk's separation ability. Polk ran a below-average 4.52-second 40-yard dash, and although timed speed isn't everything, he's a short strider whose movements don't lend themselves to separation at the top of his routes. Polk also isn't a difference-making ball carrier, averaging 5.2 yards after the catch (T-194th in FBS).

Table inside Article
Player (Draft Pick) Separation Rate vs. Single-Coverage (via PFF)
Roman Wilson (No. 84) 85th Percentile
Ladd McConkey (No. 34) 78th Percentile
Jalen McMillan (No. 92) 77th Percentile
Jermaine Burton (No. 80) 67th Percentile
Ja'Lynn Polk (No. 37) 65th Percentile

In my pre-draft receiver rankings, I had the receivers listed above in the same tier as Polk. Polk was my WR12 because I always gravitate more toward the pure separators. Polk ranked in the 65th percentile in separation rate vs. single coverage, near the bottom of my tier four receivers, who I project to have WR2 upside in the NFL. New England selected Polk as the tenth receiver off the board last Friday night, so we were in the same ballpark. However, time will tell if Polk was the better option over more dynamic route runners like McConkey, Wilson, Burton, and college teammate Jalen McMillan, who all went on day two.

That said, I'm not hating on Polk or the pick. He has good explosiveness off the line and great inside-outside versatility. The Washington product also plays faster than his timed speed suggests. According to Reel Analytics, Polk tested in the top-10th percentile with an in-game athleticism score of 91.3. He creates enough separation to consistently finish at the catch point through contact with excellent hands.

Although he's not a burner, the 6-foot-1, 203-pound receiver gets it done in a souped-up Jakobi Meyers mold. This is a detail-oriented football player, not a track star like Tyquan Thornton or a size-speed athlete like N'Keal Harry, who were busts in New England.

Let's dig into Polk's film to show where he wins and where he'll fit into the Patriots offense:

Before getting to Polk, we should discuss the similarities between Maye and Polk's college quarterback, Michael Penix, because we believe they were a huge reason the Patriots drafted Polk.

Maye and Penix both thrive throwing the deep ball. Penix is a great example of a generally accurate quarterback, but his ball placement isn't precise. According to charting by The Ringer's Ben Solak, Penix was only pinpoint accurate on 44.3% of his throws despite having a 65.4% completion rate. Maye was pinpoint accurate on 58.4% of his throws with a 63.3% raw completion rate.

Although the Patriots draft pick was better than Penix, Maye was fourth in pinpoint accuracy among the five QBs selected after Caleb Williams. As we know, consistent accuracy isn't necessarily a strength for Maye as he enters the league.

With Penix throwing him the ball in college, Polk was excellent at hauling in passes that were catchable but not ideally placed, like a crosser thrown behind him or a go ball over his head. By having strong hands that are also quite large for a receiver (9 3/4", 78th percentile), Polk was his quarterback's best friend, and he'll do the same for Maye.

Vertical Route Tree

When it comes to winning vertically, we envision offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt setting Polk up for wins by moving him around the formation to hunt matchups.

Although he doesn't have top-end long speed to pull away on vertical routes, Polk has good burst in the early stages of his routes. At the combine, that translated to great explosiveness scores with a 37.5-inch vertical jump (75th percentile) and a 10'9" broad jump (88th percentile). With good burst off the line, Polk is able to get man coverage defenders in a trail position. If they do catch back up to him, Polk has the play strength to finish through contact.

In this play, Polk is the point man, or on-the-line receiver, in a two-receiver stack to the quarterback's right. His alignment gets him a matchup against a press-man corner without safety help over the top. Polk uses a hesitation release to freeze the defender, then zooms past him to create initial separation on the fade route. The defender tries to drive the catch point from out of phase, but that's where Polk's strength at the catch point comes in, as he finished through contact for six.

Along with good acceleration in his releases, Polk can also change speeds through his vertical breaks. Above, Polk is running a post-corner route as the isolated receiver where the primary defender is playing with outside leverage off his post-safety help. The Pats rookie needs to sell the break on the post fake to get the defender off his leverage. He does well selling the route fake, then bursts through the break to create separation for an explosive play.

The other area where Polk can win vertically is running the seam. The Pats second-rounder ran 222, or 41.2%, of his routes from the slot. Typically, Polk would run a hitch or crosser when he aligned inside. In fact, hitches were his most targeted route (25 targets, 18 catches, 213 yards in 2023), followed by crossers (18), out routes (14), and then fades (10).

Polk runs a stick-nod route from the No. 2 spot inside the three-receiver side, with the defense likely anticipating a horizontal break. By faking an out, Polk gets the primary coverage defender to take the cheese, opening a pathway for him to get vertical in the seam. Polk then goes up between two defenders to get the ball in some traffic for a chunk gain.

Based on his 40-yard dash time, one wouldn't expect Polk to be an effective vertical threat. However, his burst off the line, deceptive route-running, and finishes through contact at the catch point allow him to win on vertical routes at a highly efficient rate.

Horizontal Route Tree

Polk needs to add more branches to his horizontal route tree. This may have been a usage thing rather than an ability issue, but he wasn't targeted much on in-breaking routes.

Despite being targeted 108 times, Polk was only targeted once on a slant and had two targets on dig routes. The Huskies were a vertical-based passing offense where Penix's average target depth was 10.7 yards. For comparison, Rome Odunze was targeted six times on in-breakers, while Jalen McMillan had three such targets: it's just not a big part of what Washington did offensively.

Still, Polk has stiffer movements in his sharper cuts, rounding them off too often. Instead, where he won on a horizontal plane was on crossing routes. Polk caught 11 of his 18 targets on crossing routes for 230 yards with a 105.1 passer rating. Along with his ability to horizontally stretch the field, this is where Polk's magnet hands help out his QB.

This time, Washington uses a flea flicker to pull the defense in to hit the crosser over the second level. The Pats might not major in flea flickers, but play-action will have a similar effect. With the vertical route drawing the deep coverage away from the crosser, Polk fills in at the second level. Although the throw is behind him, Polk makes a terrific adjustment to make the catch.

Here, the Huskies use play-action out of a run formation to freeze the second level. The nickel on the opposite side of the formation falls underneath the crossing route, but Polk does an excellent job to keep climbing as he's running across the field. Polk gets depth to create a passing window for Penix, who throws a dime, but it's still a low throw that Polk digs out.

Polk has the burst to stretch the field horizontally on crossing routes, where his body control, hands, and fearlessness in high-traffic areas really stand out. By adding crossers to his vertical routes, it serves as a solid foundation for Polk to build off of in the NFL.

Bottom Line

During his introductory video conference last Thursday night, Maye clued in reporters on his favorite area of the field to attack in the passing game.

"I think throwing across the middle. I'm a big 6'5" dude back there where it's a seam shot, big dig, corner routes, corner post, anything across the middle of the field," Maye told reporters.

The Patriots first-rounder was an elite thrower between the numbers in college. He also ranked third among 165 qualified quarterbacks in deep passing grade (96.8). You can see why the Patriots decision-makers targeted Polk when considering Maye's strengths and weaknesses.

In the clips above, we highlighted Polk running go's, crossers, post-corners, and seams for a reason: the Patriots top two draft picks thrive working the same routes/areas of the field, while Maye's playmaking ability and Polk's magnetic hands can cover up each other's deficiencies.

We also expect these routes to be a major part of Van Pelt's offense in New England. AVP has spoken about majoring in bootlegs, where crossers are effective and early-down vertical shots off play-action. You can see how Polk fits that mindset as a willing blocker who can stretch the field. The best part of these selections is that you can envision how the pieces fit together stylistically and schematically with Van Pelt at the helm.

Although the complementary skill sets are intriguing, Polk's success at the next level will depend on whether the nuances that are strengths of his game can make up for a lack of dynamic speed and quick-twitch movements that create separation.

There's a chance we are underrating his explosiveness, which could see Polk break through his projected ceiling. He can also work on his craft to become sharper at the top of routes, which would help him create more separation on digs and slants to add those to his repertoire.

Polk has a comfortable floor projection comparable to Jakobi Meyers and Tyler Boyd. If he can become a more angular route runner at the first two levels, he could find another level in the pros. Polk mentioned Bears veteran Keenan Allen as a player he models his game after, and if he continues to improve, Allen could be his ceiling (yes, it's lofty. That's why it's his ceiling).

The good news is that the Patriots got a scheme-fit receiver who pairs well with their third overall pick at quarterback, and most scouts believe Polk will stick in the league as a high-floor prospect. Word out of Washington is also that Polk is a big-time competitor with some dawg in him who will do the dirty work over the middle and as a blocker.

However, New England's search for a bonafide number-one receiver might not be over just yet.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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