FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are in the fourth week of their voluntary offseason program, and veteran wide receiver Nelson Agholor already notices a difference for himself.
“Everybody runs certain routes, but the route tree [here] is a little different than what I’ve ran before,” he said. “Now I know it, so I get to put my own spin on how we do things and play fast.
“Whereas a year ago, I was learning, so you do things at a certain learning tempo. You never get to go full speed, because you want to make sure you’re doing it right, so you kind of move with caution. Now I know what it looks like and I get to just put my flavor on it.”
That flavor — for Agholor and a handful of other Patriots entering their second season in New England — figures to be a critical ingredient if coach Bill Belichick’s squad is to improve on last season’s 10-7 record and embarrassing 47-17 playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills.
The reason is obvious: Unlike last offseason, when the Patriots spent a then-record $163 million in guaranteed money in free agency, Belichick was more conservative this year and is banking on internal improvement from 2021 free agents and draft picks.
Agholor is a signature example of this thinking. He signed for two years, $22 million in March of 2021, and his production (37 receptions, 473 yards, 3 TDs) didn’t match the price tag for a variety of reasons. But he remains optimistic better days are ahead.
“The best part about it, Year 2 in the Patriots’ system is when guys really get going. I feel comfortable, I’m excited to have my best season with the Patriots and show why I’m here,” he said.
Agholor joins fellow returnees Jakobi Meyers (team-high 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 speedy second-round pick Tyquan Thornton completing the top five.
Second-year jumps aren’t guaranteed, and plenty of players serve as reminders that it can go in the opposite direction — receiver N’Keal Harry, cornerback Joejuan Williams, tight end Devin Asiasi, and linebackers Josh Uche, Chase Winovich and Anfernee Jennings are a few who come to mind.
With Agholor as a springboard, here are other players acquired in 2021 who the Patriots need to make a significant second-year jump:
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 in the program last year, in part due to expecting the birth of his daughter, and COVID-19 considerations.
QB Mac Jones: The 15th overall pick finished second in Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, so his “jump” slots into a different category — leadership. Jones already seems to be embracing it, and is more comfortable in doing things like opening his home to teammates on the first night of the draft and having a Hibachi chef on hand. Said owner Robert Kraft in late March: “I actually believe [Jones] has a little more edge than we’ve seen. But he’s been respectful.”
Linebacker Cameron McGrone: When the Patriots selected the Michigan standout in the fifth round, they knew he probably wouldn’t play as a rookie as he recovered from a torn left ACL suffered in his final college season. McGrone did return to practice by the end of last season (he wasn’t activated to the roster), and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo might have had him on his mind when he was asked on the “Pats from the Past” podcast about fewer three-down linebackers coming out of college. Said Mayo: “We have some guys who can rush and cover, some guys that Pats Nation hasn’t even heard of.”
Linebacker Ronnie Perkins: The third-round pick from Oklahoma (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 Ohio State alum was selected in the fifth round by the Ravens, and the Patriots traded for him at the end of the preseason, giving up a 2022 seventh-round pick and a 2023 fifth-rounder. But the 6-foot-1, 191-pound Wade played in just three games, in part due to injury, but also because of a learning curve after arriving so late. Cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino made the point last season that Wade was essentially learning a new language. The Patriots have a notable void at cornerback after JC Jackson’s free-agent departure, and Wade will compete for it.
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan: The veteran was coming on strong in training camp last year before tearing his left ACL and missing the season. Given his injury history, banking on him over the course of a 17-game season comes with notable risk. Last year before the injury, Belichick had said: “I’ve been very impressed with his intelligence, his work ethic. He’s locked in every day.”
Safety Joshua Bledsoe: A sixth-round pick from Missouri, he arrived in town with an injured wrist and spent most of the year rehabbing before returning to practice late in the season. He never appeared in a game. If healthy, he has a legitimate chance to be part of the team’s future based on some promising behind-the-scenes development.