FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are into week four of their voluntary offseason program, and veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor is already noticing a difference for himself.
“Everyone runs certain routes, but the route tree [here] is a bit different from what I’ve raced before,” he said. “Now I know that, so I can give my own view of how we do things and play fast.
“Whereas a year ago I was learning, so you do things at a certain learning pace. You never get to go full speed, because you want to make sure you’re doing it right, so you tread carefully. Now I know what it’s like and I can just put my spin on it.”
That flavor — for Agholor and a handful of other Patriots entering their second season in New England — seems like an essential ingredient if coach Bill Belichick’s team is to improve on last season’s 10-7 record and the embarrassing 47-17 loss in the playoffs. the Buffalo Bills.
The reason is obvious: Unlike last offseason, when the Patriots spent a record $163 million in guaranteed free-agency money, Belichick was more conservative this year and focused on improving free agents and picks internally. 2021 draft.
Agholor is a typical example of this thought. He signed for two years, $22 million in March 2021, and his production (37 receptions, 473 yards, 3 touchdowns) didn’t match the price for a variety of reasons. But he remains optimistic that better days are ahead.
“The best part about it, Year 2 in the Patriots system is when the guys really start. I feel comfortable, I’m excited to have my best season with the Patriots and show why am I here,” he said.
Agholor joins fellow returnees Jakobi Meyers (83 catches for 866 yards, 2 TDs) and Kendrick Bourne (55 for 800, 5 TDs) atop the receiver depth chart, with veteran trade acquisition DeVante Parker and quick pick of round two Tyquan Thornton rounding out the top five.
Sophomore jumps aren’t guaranteed, and many players recall it can go in the opposite direction — wide receiver N’Keal Harry, cornerback Joejuan Williams, tight end Devin Asiasi and linebackers Josh Uche, Chase Winovich and Anfernee Jennings are a few that come to mind.
With Agholor as a stepping stone, here are other players acquired in 2021 the Patriots need to make a significant leap into the second year:
Tight end Jonnu Smith: He signed for four years, $50 million and finished with just 28 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown last season. He made a significant change in hopes of a rebound, becoming a full-time participant in the voluntary offseason program. He wasn’t on the program last year, in part because he was expecting the birth of his daughter and COVID-19 considerations.
QB MacJones: The 15th overall pick finished second in the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, so his “jump” falls into a different category — leadership. Jones already seems to be embracing it and is more comfortable doing things like opening his house to his teammates on the first night of the draft and having a Hibachi chef on hand. At the end of March, owner Robert Kraft said: “I really believe [Jones] has a bit more upside than what we’ve seen. But he was respectful.”
Linebacker Cameron McGrone: When the Patriots selected the star from Michigan in the fifth round, they knew he was unlikely to play as a rookie as he recovered from a torn left ACL suffered in his final college season. McGrone returned to practice late last season (he wasn’t activated on the roster), and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo might have had him in mind when asked about the “pats of the pastpodcast about fewer three-man linebackers coming out of college. Mayo said, “We’ve got guys who can rush and cover, guys that Pat Nation ain’t even heard of.”
Linebacker Ronnie Perkins: Oklahoma’s third-round pick (96th overall) didn’t appear in a single game, in part because Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy were entrenched atop the outside linebacker depth chart. He was often spotted before games working on pass-rush technique with director of skill development Joe Kim, and now has a clearer path to a role after the team released Van Noy (Chargers ) … if he proves he deserves it.
Cornerback Shaun Wade: The former Ohio State was a fifth-round pick by the Ravens, and the Patriots traded him at the end of the preseason, giving up a seventh-round pick in 2022 and a fifth-round pick in 2023. But The 6-foot-1, 191-pound Wade only played three games, partly due to injury but also due to a learning curve after arriving so late. Cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino argued last season that Wade was essentially learning a new language. The Patriots have a noticeable void at cornerback following the departure of free agent JC Jackson, and Wade will compete for that.
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan: The veteran was strong in training camp last year before tearing his left ACL and missing the season. Given his injury history, betting on him in a 17-game season comes with a notable risk. The last year before the injury, Belichick said: “I was very impressed with his intelligence, his work ethic. He’s locked in every day.”
Safety Joshuah Bledsoe: A sixth-round pick from Missouri, he came to town with a wrist injury and spent most of the year rehabbing before returning to practice late in the season. He’s never appeared in a game. If he’s healthy, he has a legitimate chance of being part of the team’s future thanks to some promising behind-the-scenes development.