The Patriots approach to the wide receiver position is often highly scrutinized as New England has yet to participate in a league-wide arms race at the top of the market.
As other teams hand out $20-plus million contracts to star receivers and use first-rounders to add playmakers, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is sticking to a more conservative approach. In the last three offseasons, Belichick's big wideout additions have been mid-level veterans and a day-two draft pick in second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton.
Whether you agree with the strategy or not, the overall impact that New England gets from the wide receiver position this season is predicated on four factors. First, swapping fan and locker room favorite Jakobi Meyers for former Pro Bowl wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency.
The decision to move on from Meyers, who developed from an undrafted rookie free agent to a consistent contributor in the Pats slot receiver role, received mixed reviews. The Pats then quickly pivoted to Smith-Schuster to add a different skill set to a key role over the years.
Although he isn't a known fit like Meyers, Smith-Schuster offers a more dynamic catch-and-run threat to an offense that'll likely highlight that trait. Bill O'Brien has always relied on a yards after catch-based slot receiver who can operate at a high volume between the numbers. Meyers is a better separator but only averaged 3.6 yards after the catch per reception, while Smith-Schuster's YAC average was 5.9 yards last season.
For the wide receiver room to surpass where it's been recently, the Patriots brass needs to be correct about signing Smith-Schuster over Meyers in free agency this offseason.
The second deciding factor is unlocking second-year wide receiver Tyquan Thornton as a legitimate field stretcher. Thornton's rookie campaign, which hit an early hurdle due to a collarbone injury that caused him to miss the first month of the season, had a few isolated flashes of game-breaking potential but lacked consistency and route-running polish.
As we wrote in our breakout candidates piece, O'Brien's history suggests that he can present Thornton with winnable foot races to take the top off the defense and use his speed horizontally. Still, Thornton's route-running needs detailed refinement, and he has to prove he can stay healthy and finish through contact despite a slender frame (6-2, 181 pounds).
If he realizes his potential under O'Brien, Thornton has the most physical upside to upgrade New England's passing attack significantly, which suggests he'll be given every opportunity to break out in year two.
Next, the Patriots must tap into the 2021 version of Kendrick Bourne. Bourne has been one of the NFL's most efficient wide receivers over the last two seasons. Since 2021, Bourne leads all wide receivers in yards per target (10.5) with a 76.3 percent catch rate.
However, Bourne fell out of favor with the Pats former top offensive coaches, mainly due to disagreements about the offensive system. Bourne was on the field for only 44.1 percent of the offensive snaps and saw his targets drop from 70 to 48 in his second season with the Patriots.
The veteran admitted that the Patriots didn't get his best in the 2022 season, and a bulked-up Bourne looks refocused with O'Brien at the helm. Although you cannot be certain that Bourne would maintain the same efficiency level with a significant uptick in usage, the Patriots should look for more opportunities to get the explosive wideout involved.
Lastly, New England could get a boost from day-three fliers Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas, while undrafted rookie free-agent Malik Cunningham is switching positions to wide receiver. Unfortunately, Boutte wasn't on the field much during the spring, so his chances of making an impact are unclear. Conversely, Douglas could develop into a quick-twitch slot receiver with gadget play potential, but we'll need to see how the smaller wideout holds up in pads. As for Cunningham, he has some natural tools but is a project at this point.
Ultimately, the success of this reworked group is predicated on the more experienced options reaching their potential, including jump-ball specialist DeVante Parker, who should have a significant role as the primary outside receiver.
Although it's fair to have concerns about the offense's ceiling without an elite pass-catcher, the Patriots have enough skill talent to at least return to their 2021 form offensively this season.