The first-year returns for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's unprecedented spending spree last offseason were mostly positive.
New England acquired a Pro Bowler in Matt Judon, Hunter Henry finished tied for the league-lead in touchdowns by a tight end (9), Kendrick Bourne proved to be a diamond in the rough, cornerback Jalen Mills held his own in his matchups and is now emerging as an even bigger contributor in his second season with the team, and the arrow is pointing upward on defensive tackle Davon Godchaux as well.
Along with selecting quarterback Mac Jones with their top pick in the first round, the Patriots upgraded roster improved the team's record by three wins and got them back to the playoffs.
However, two players who didn't have the production that the Patriots were hoping for were wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Jonnu Smith. Agholor and Smith had just 818 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns combined despite signing significant free-agent deals.
Smith is under contract for three more seasons, so he'll be a part of the team's plans, but Agholor's two-year deal expires at the end of the 2022 season. Due to his contractual status, some have speculated that Agholor could be the odd man out in the Pats wide receiver room.
Trading Agholor feels like a premature move that could create more depth issues than it's worth for a team that isn't in a position to be jettisoning NFL talent at the wide receiver position, an area where the Patriots have been searching for years now to find productive players.
Although the early returns on second-round pick Tyquan Thornton and trade acquisition DeVante Parker are overwhelmingly optimistic, Agholor is clearly an NFL receiver capable of contributing to an offense. With Thornton still in his first season and Parker's injury history, Agholor could find himself in a featured role. Plus, he's having a strong training camp.
In the second joint practice with the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday, Agholor was New England's best receiver on the field, and his catch in the back of the end zone was the play of the day. Aligning in the slot, Agholor ran a fade route and jumped over Panthers corners Jaycee Horn and Myles Hartsfield to catch the ball in traffic. Earlier, Agholor ran the same slot fade route and gained separation this time from Hartsfield for another touchdown from Mac Jones.
"Mac gave me an opportunity and put the ball in the air, and I had to go get it," Agholor said of the highlight-reel catch in Wednesday's practice. "That's what we talk about in the receiver room and as an offense. If the quarterback gives you an opportunity, you have to go get it. It's you or nobody."
Along with making two strong catches in Wednesday's session, Agholor also drew a hold on a vertical route and stacked his defender several times in the two days of joint practices. We have also seen the Pats wideout work productively and often out of the slot in camp.
It would be easy to assume that Agholor might feel a certain way about the Patriots bringing in competition for his role in the offense, but the veteran views it differently.
"It's actually what you need. Growth happens when there's competition with the group and competition across the ball. I know those guys are going to make a play with every opportunity they get, so it reminds me any opportunity I get to make a play," Agholor told Patriots.com.
Speaking to reporters following Wednesday's practice, quarterback Mac Jones spoke highly of Agholor's football smarts.
"I don't know if I've seen a receiver who understands football as well as he does in terms of just general knowledge. He's almost like a quarterback out there," Jones said. "We worked really hard this offseason, and he was at all the throwing sessions. That's what we are trying to grow from."
Patriots fans who followed Jones's offseason workouts probably noted Agholor's presence, which the receiver said has allowed him to form a great friendship with Jones on and off the field.
"We've been having conversations since last year continuously. How do things look? What's going on? We also have a really good friendship that allows us to talk about things like what went right or what could've been better. I love that we have an open line of dialect back and forth," Agholor said of his second-year quarterback.
In the business of football, anything is possible when it comes to roster decisions. But Agholor's consistency in training camp practices and his relationship with Jones bodes well.
As for the Pats veteran tight end, Jonnu Smith has also caught the eye on several occasions by making plays and the nature in which the coaching staff is manufacturing touches for Smith.
Smith started the first team period by beating Panthers standout safety Jeremy Chinn on a crossing pattern in the high red zone. The Pats are getting the ball in Smith's hands in several ways, as he has touched the football as much as any Patriot skill player this summer.
"It's just being competitive. Being a guy they can count on anywhere on the field," Smit said. "They can line me up wherever, and I'm going to be able to execute and be an aid to this offense."
Smith also made plays in his first training camp with the Patriots but then suffered a minor injury that slowed his development. Even though it needs to translate in games, there's a clear emphasis on getting the tight end involved, and he has participated fully in workouts since the spring.
Without true tackling to the ground in practice, Smith says the coaching staff emphasizes different strategies for ball carriers depending on the situation.
Although his overall production was down a year ago, Smith still ranked eighth in yards after catch over expected among receivers with at least 45 targets last season.
"We have times where we take off, and then we have periods where we are attacking defenders and trying to create separation. There are a lot of different things you can get into without actually tackling to the ground. That is something we all take pride in," Smith said.
The Patriots are hoping that tweaks to their system and new arrivals will elevate their offense this season, but getting more from Agholor and Smith would be a significant development.
Based on what we've seen this summer, the second-year Patriots are off to a good start.