As a senior at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida, a young DeMario Douglas had a decision to make: attend the Nike Combine or take the SAT to prepare for college.
Although he was a 7-on-7 football legend in the area, Douglas was overlooked by Power Five programs due to his size. He mostly received offers from FCS and lower-level FBS schools, so despite his dream to play in the NFL, he did what any student-athlete would do to prepare himself for a college education and sat for the SATs.
Douglas didn't give up on his dreams of playing football professionally, committing to Liberty University. He "Popped" on the NFL's radar following a standout sophomore season, catching passes from pro prospect Malik Willis. With NFL personnel on hand to scout Willis, teams began to notice the jitterbug wideout, including the Patriots brass.
Then, Douglas was invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he worked with the Patriots coaching staff per a request from Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh. This time, he attended the NFL Scouting Combine, putting down an impressive 4.44-second 40-yard dash.
Douglas went from a High Schooler thinking about his future without football to a sixth-round pick by the Patriots in the 2023 NFL Draft. To take the remarkable story a step further, Douglas now has the most receptions (44) for a rookie wide receiver in the head coach Bill Belichick era. With two more catches and 46 more receiving yards in the season's final two games, Douglas will have the most receptions and yards for any Patriots rookie pass-catcher since Belichick arrived in 2000.
Speaking to Patriots.com, Douglas reflected on his journey and stellar rookie season, where he's brought much-needed youthful talent to a position the Patriots have struggled to draft effectively.
"I didn't go to the Nike Combine. I had to take the SATs. I had to get into college, so I took the SATs instead of going to the Nike Combine," Douglas recalled at his locker inside Gillette Stadium. "I got to college. I'd say probably my sophomore year. That's when I had a crazy year. [NFL scouts] were coming in because they were looking at Malik [Willis] and were like, 'Oh snap, who is this?' I feel like that gave me a little noise."
Douglas is having the most productive season for a wide receiver in Bill Belichick's 24 seasons as the Patriots head coach. For a student of the game who studies all of New England's past slot receivers, Douglas had a very Patriot-like response to his early career success.
"It's a blessing, but I feel like I ain't done yet. I have a lot of work to do. But it's a little stepping stone, you know? I'm trying to be a great, and I just have to keep stacking days and getting better. Don't let up," Douglas told me.
From the start of training camp, it was apparent Douglas's separation quickness in his routes would translate to this level. It also quickly became clear Douglas would stick on the Patriots roster and push for a significant role. But he had to learn the nuances of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's system. As an inside receiver, Douglas's routes often convert with options based on the defense's coverage. With a long lineage of highly productive slot receivers, including Douglas's current position coach, O'Brien views inside receivers as top playmakers in his system.
Starting with wide receivers coach Troy Brown to Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Jakobi Meyers, shifty route-runners have thrived in New England. However, to succeed in their Z/slot receiver role, a high IQ and stellar route detail are key. According to Brown, Douglas has improved significantly in those critical nuances.
"I just think he's continually developed his savviness and his ability to play inside. Everything doesn't always have to be at full speed all the time. Just developing a good sense of how to play in the slot. He's continued to get better at that," Brown told Patriots.com. "He's confident. He believes in himself, and that's half the battle to go in there and play well."
"He had to learn some of the stuff that we do here. It was a little different than what he did in college. It was a work in progress, but he has continued to get better at all that stuff [route conversions] and learning the differences between when and when not to do it. He's been great to work with. Great attitude, great in the classroom, great on the field."
In Sunday's win over the Broncos, Douglas led the Patriots with 74 receiving yards on five catches. His progress as a savvy route-runner was on full display, where he helped the Patriots take a commanding lead with a 20-point third quarter.
During the second quarter, Douglas aligned in the number two spot to quarterback Bailey Zappe's left in an empty formation, where O'Brien puts his top playmaker. Zappe gives Douglas and teammate Jalen Reagor a hand signal to change the route combination. With the defense showing a two-high shell, Douglas has an option route to find the opening in the defense, and he dusts Broncos CB Ja'Quan McMillan for a 13-yard gain.
Later, the Patriots lined up in the same empty formation with Douglas again in the No. 2 weak spot against McMillan. This time, Douglas does exactly what his position coach mentioned by varying the speed of his stem. By slow-walking his release like he did on the slant, McMillan begins to look for an inside break. Instead, Douglas hits him with a whip/return route, gaining another 13 yards for a first down.
"I just have to have that pre-snap read, reading the defense. That helped me know my route. Before I line up, I look at the safeties to make sure I know what I'm doing," Douglas said. "I try to make most routes look the same. I may come off the line like that and run a slant, so it's like you have to choose one of the routes. You better hope you choose right."
The Patriots rookie has become New England's answer to man coverage, posting a team-best 77.2 receiving grade against man-to-man. Along with lining up in the slot, the Pats will also put Douglas off the line in stacks and bunches where he can use free releases to burst off the line to beat man coverage defenders on crossers and angle routes.
Another added bonus in Douglas's game is that he can stretch the field vertically and horizontally with his speed. In that sense, the best comparison to a Pats from the past might be Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch, who could win down the field and on quick-hitting routes.
"Most definitely, most definitely. I see it," Douglas said with a smile to the Branch comparison.
Going back to the win in Denver last week, Douglas showed off his vertical speed and ball-tracking skills on a 41-yard catch. With Zappe under pressure in the pocket, the Pats QB and receiver improvised when the Broncos defended the initial play-action concept well. Douglas drifts behind the coverage as Zappe steps through the pocket and makes a terrific high-point grab to set up a Patriots touchdown with 54 of the 70 yards on the scoring drive.
Douglas has also emerged as a dangerous ball carrier on schemed touches and yards after the catch chances. Among 76 qualified receivers, Douglas ranks third, averaging seven yards after the catch per reception (7.0), trailing only 49ers WR Deebo Samuel and Chiefs WR Rashee Rice. New England hands Douglas the ball on jet sweeps, throws him the ball on screens, and passes to him off "cheat" motion to get him into space.
"I love [schemed touches]. I was getting a lot of that at Liberty. Liberty helped me. When I come to the league, I'm running the same thing," he said.
Although his rookie season has been productive, it hasn't come without adversity for Douglas. Following a first-quarter fumble vs. the Dolphins in Week 2, Douglas was briefly benched in a coaching moment about ball security. He has also missed three games due to two separate concussions. The Patriots assured Douglas if he wanted to shut it down after his second head injury, but the rookie pushed to get back in the lineup.
Despite that, Douglas is still on pace to pass several Belichick-era high-water marks for a rookie receiver. Plus, Pop is playing in arguably the worst offense of the Belichick era with unstable quarterback play. Imagining him in a more stable offense with other receivers around him to draw attention is an exciting proposition moving forward.
Patriots fans have been clamoring for the team to hit on a wide receiver in the draft, and it appears the sixth round has done it again for an under-the-radar prospect in New England.