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Even With DeVante Parker, the Patriots Still Have a Ways to Go

Teams around the AFC have spent this offseason making massive moves and bringing in stars. And while the Pats’ trade for the former Dolphins wideout helps a lacking receiver corps, there’s still work to be done to get them back to the top of the conference.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to hell, Patriots fans. OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic for a team that’s made the playoffs two of the past three years. But when reaching the AFC title game was the floor for nearly two decades, going a handful of years without a postseason win feels like a drought. Fan expectations—especially in Boston—are always a bit skewed, but this time even the guy funding the operation appears to be growing a bit restless.

“I’m a Patriot fan, big time, first,” Pats owner Robert Kraft said this week, via ESPN. “More than anything, it bothers me that we haven’t been able to win a playoff game in the last three years. … After my family, there’s nothing more important to me than the New England Patriots and winning football games. That’s my passion, so whatever I can do—hopefully in a small way to make that happen—I’m there.”

What Kraft can do starts with putting more firepower around Mac Jones. That appeared to be the main objective for the franchise heading into the offseason—especially considering that he, and a very solid defense, had just brought the team back to the playoffs in his rookie year. But the first wave of free agency passed and the only significant addition was bringing in Ty Montgomery as a discount Cordarrelle Patterson. And on top of the lack of acquisitions, the Patriots traded starting right guard Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay for a fifth-round pick, and let starting left guard Ted Karras head off to Cincinnati on a modest three-year, $18 million deal. The only other transaction of note on the offensive side of the ball was the re-signing of right tackle Trent Brown on a two-year contract worth $13 million. So, to recap: Jones had lost his two starting guards, and the only addition to his group of skill players was a 29-year-old back with 2,284 career yards to his name. Things already sound bad, and I haven’t even mentioned the cursed phrase “Joe Judge, offensive play-caller” yet.

Then came Saturday’s trade for Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker, which, at the very least, is a step in the right direction. Parker is a talented player three years removed from a 1,202-yard, nine-touchdown season. With his size (6-foot-3) and speed (he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine), the new Patriots receiver profiles as a legit no. 1 target. But he was available for a third-round pick for a reason: The 29-year-old has missed nine games in his past two seasons and has played more than 14 games in a season only twice during his seven years in the league. Plus, when the 2015 first-round pick was on the field, he wasn’t consistently productive. He averages 50.8 receiving yards per game during his career—meanwhile his new teammate Jakobi Meyers, who’s hardly a household name, has averaged 51.5 yards per game since becoming a regular starter in 2020. So while the Parker trade is certainly a net positive, it’s not an addition that’s guaranteed to move the needle; nor is it one that should preclude New England from continuing to add talent around its young quarterback.

While the rest of the AFC’s second tier has spent the past month loading up on big-name players, the Pats have remained patient. In the past, we would have lauded Bill Belichick for his restraint while more desperate teams overspent in free agency. That approach worked when he was just trying to keep some distance between him and the rest of the pack. But the Patriots are no longer setting the standard in the conference. Now they’re in catch-up mode, trying to make up ground while simultaneously developing a young quarterback. If Jones is going to help get this team back to competing for Super Bowls annually, the Parker trade won’t be enough. Belichick and Co. have to give him some help. And if they’re going to satisfy Kraft, who has big expectations for Jones’s second season, they’ll have to do it sooner rather than later. So where do they go from here?

New England’s future looked a lot more promising four months ago. After its wind-aided 14-10 win over the Bills in early December, the team’s odds of winning the AFC sat at +350, behind only the Chiefs. By the end of the regular season, though, those odds had dropped to +1000, and the slide has continued this offseason:

(via RotoWire)

The gap between the Pats and the upper crust of the conference is widening, and whatever optimism or promise the first three months of the 2021 season provided has evaporated. New England’s odds of representing the AFC in the Super Bowl are currently even with the Raiders’, and better than only those of the Steelers, Jaguars, Jets, and Texans.

Those are three of the least competent franchises in recent NFL history, plus a team that may be quarterbacked by Mitchell Trubisky this season. I was only half joking when I welcomed Pats fans to hell at the top of this piece.

But we haven’t hit the time to panic just yet. We’re still five months and change from the start of the 2022 season, meaning the Pats still have opportunities to make improvements to the roster and give Jones a shot to hang with the AFC’s horde of star quarterbacks. And where those improvements need to come were evident in New England’s final few games of last season.

After the offense hit its stride in Week 5—New England averaged over 33 points a game between then and Week 12—it cratered over the last month. Outside of a 50-point outing in Jacksonville, the only game the Pats won from Week 14 on, they averaged just 19.8 points per game in the last five games of the season. Former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left this offseason for the Raiders’ head job, caught some heat for employing a conservative scheme that helped contribute to the late-season collapse. But the nature of the offense and the play-calling never really changed throughout the season. The way defenses started to play the Pats, however, did.

After averaging just over 10 attempts per game against man coverage over the first 12 weeks of the season, Jones averaged over 14 per game in the last four, according to Sports Info Solutions. The rookie was also blitzed on 38 percent of his dropbacks during that span, which ranked third in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Before the first Bills game in Week 13, which was severely affected by strong winds, 38 percent of New England’s runs came against stacked boxes, per Sports Info Solutions. After that game, it jumped to 48 percent! Defenses started packing more defenders into the run box, knowing the Pats had no way to deter those looks. This, for instance, is a first-down play from their Week 16 loss to Buffalo, even though it looks like a fourth-and-short scenario:

It’s like it took three months for defenses to realize that the Pats lacked the capacity to punish them for leaning on risky tactics like playing tight man coverage without two safeties back deep: You mean we don’t have to keep a safety over the top of Nelson Agholor?!?!

Good offenses put natural, talent-based constraints on a defense. Think about the Chiefs teams of the past few years. Defenses had to worry about Tyreek Hill running deep, so safety help had to be deployed. They also had to worry about Travis Kelce shaking a linebacker or box safety out of his shoes, so it was hard to live in man coverage without doubling the star tight end. And then there’s Patrick Mahomes, who is perhaps even more dangerous outside of the pocket than he is inside, so defenses had to design mechanisms to keep him stationary.

All of those constraints limit a defense’s options. But against the Patriots, there were no such constraints in 2021. There was no deep threat to keep secondaries from inching toward the line of scrimmage, no mismatch receiver who commanded a double-team against man coverage. And Jones (wisely) would rather throw a checkdown than take advantage of open swaths of grass with his legs:

That checkdown resulted in a first down, and it serves as a good example of Jones’s understanding of his own limitations. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Bills were willing and able to concede that much space and weren’t punished for it. In fact, they went back to the same tactic later in the game:

The 2021 New England offense was constructed like a chessboard, only instead of the typical assortment of knights, bishops, and rooks, the Pats just had a bunch of pawns surrounding the king—or in this case, Jones. Even a grandmaster (I’ve now exhausted my chess vocabulary) would have trouble winning such a game, as the opponent could just move their pieces as they pleased without fear of being exposed by a bunch of pawns. McDaniels, to his credit, emptied his bag of tricks to make up for talent deficiencies of the offense. The Pats led the NFL with seven trick-play passes and finished fourth in the league in run attempts by receivers and tight ends, per Sports Info Solutions. The misdirection plays were really the only way McDaniels could keep defenses honest—but it’s hard to build an offense out of changeups.

The Patriots needed a receiver who could win in the deep and intermediate parts of the field to force defenses to stay honest. The hope is that Parker will fill that role—and if New England can coax out the 2019 version of him, he just might be able to do it. But that “breakout” season looks more like an outlier as Parker’s career progresses.

DeVante Parker’s 2019

2019 Year(s) Rest of career
2019 Year(s) Rest of career
16 Games 77
72 Receptions 270
1,202 Yards 3,580
16.7 Yards/reception 13.3
9 Touchdowns 15
14.7 aDOT 12.4
22/39 (56.4%) Contested Catch/Target 53/107 (49.5%)
21 20+ Yard Plays 47
(Data via Pro Football Focus and NFL FastR) 

If this were any other position, I might be a bit more optimistic about the move. But whatever dark magic Belichick uses to turn other teams’ castoffs into valuable players doesn’t seem to work on receivers—recall the disastrous trade for Mohamed Sanu in 2019 or their various attempts to recreate the Randy Moss deal by bringing in aging stars like Chad Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. Parker’s true talent level probably sits somewhere between what we saw him do in 2019 and what he’s done in the other six seasons he’s played. And that … well, that doesn’t really solve the problems that plagued this offense a year ago.

Outside of Parker, there is still other talent in this receiving room. Hunter Henry is a good, reliable tight end and has already developed into Jones’s go-to guy in the red zone. Kendrick Bourne is an above-average possession receiver with some run-after-catch ability. And Jakobi Meyers is a good slot guy who knows how to get open. That’s a solid group of role players! If this were an NBA team, I could see it competing for a playoff spot in the West, and maybe even winning a series now that Parker is in town. But in order to truly compete, the team needs a star at the top of the depth chart. Parker (a contested catch guy who can’t stay healthy), N’Keal Harry (a contested catch guy who can’t catch) and Nelson Agholor (a speed guy who can’t catch) aren’t going to cut it.

The good news is that there are plenty of options out there who are capable of filling that void. Ohio State prospect Chris Olave could be available when the Patriots pick at no. 21 in the upcoming draft. He’s a speedster with obvious route-running chops who hauled in a bunch of deep balls during his time in Columbus.

If Belichick really wanted to shoot for the stars, he could take a chance on Arkansas’s Treylon Burks, who might be unpolished but is big, strong, fast, and—Bill will like this part the most—versatile. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly described him as “Deebo Samuel with a power up mushroom,” so, yeah, he’d provide some physical talent to a roster that is desperate for it.

And if the Patriots prefer an established vet over a rookie, there are plenty of intriguing options—but, like Parker, each of them is flawed. Julio Jones is a free agent, but he’s coming off a down season that was cut short by injuries. Odell Beckham Jr. remains unsigned after resurrecting his career in Los Angeles, but it’s unclear whether he’ll even be able to play in 2022 after tearing his ACL during the Super Bowl. And then there’s Brandin Cooks, who remains a viable deep threat but has suffered a concerning number of head injuries throughout his career. He’d also cost a draft pick or two, as he’s still under contract with the Texans. (Cooks, of course, spent the 2017 season in New England and said it was one of the more enjoyable stops of his career, so he would probably be open to a return if the Patriots want to make such a deal.)

But Belichick maintained the old Patriots dynasty with a series of low-risk, low-cost moves. Because he had Tom Brady serving as his foundation, the team architect never really had to do anything drastic to get the roster to where it needed to be. Jones could end up being that guy eventually, but if the Pats are going to maximize his rookie contract—which is paying him about $3.9 million a season through 2024—Belichick will have to adapt. And soon.

Kraft is still preaching patience (for now), and he reminded fans Tuesday that there is plenty of time to make moves before September. “I don’t think free agency is over,” Kraft said, via ESPN. “I do think we have an opportunity to pick people up, right along the way, right down to the final cuts. That’s, to me, when free agency is over.”

That’s true, and all well and good. But the Pats have some serious work ahead of them. The Parker trade is not nearly enough given the arms race that’s heating up in the AFC. If nothing else changes between now and Week 1, it will be hard to ask Jones and the rest of this offense to make good on Kraft’s “passion”—winning meaningful football games.