Belichick took an unconventional approach to this past offseason. At least an unconventional approach in regards to his history of being the Patriots general manager. For years the Pats would watch as their key players were overpaid for by the bottom dweller of the league and fans would have to wait until the fifth day of free agency to be let down by some special-teamer being signed as our first free agent acquisition. This past offseason was different. The Pats were mortal throughout the season, unable to cover up the deficits in talent the team had with good scheme. The Pats were routinely outclassed by the opposing talent. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Belichick would not allow history to repeat itself.
The first day of free agency was marked by the Pats handing out massive contracts to seemingly every player on the market. On day one the Pats signed TE Jonnu Smith to a 4-year, $50 million contract with $31.25 million guaranteed. They quickly followed that up with three signings on the defensive side of the ball; landing LB Matt Judon with a 4-year, $56 million deal with $32 million guaranteed, DT Davon Godchaux with a 2-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed and DB Jalen Smith with a 4-year, $24 million deal with $9 million guaranteed. That evening Belichick finally gave the fans what they clamber for every offseason; wide-receivers.
The Pats signed Nelson Agholor to a 2-year deal worth up to $26 million with $16 million guaranteed at signing. Roughly a half hour later the Pats came to terms with Kendrick Bourne on a 3-year deal worth $15 million and $5.225 million guaranteed. A day later the Pats would also sign TE Hunter Henry to a 3-year deal worth $37.5 million and $25 million guaranteed. In a span of roughly 36 hours Belichick completely overhauled the offensive skill group while adding key pieces to the defense. However, none of these additions will be more important than Agholor.
At the time of the signing, the terms were heavily scrutinized. As perhaps they should be. Agholor struggled for years in Philadelphia before signing for the veteran minimum to play for the Raiders last year. The money shows Belichick believes he is acquiring the Las Vegas version of Agholor and not the Philadelphia version of him; the version that had locals dragging him on local news.
It’s hard to argue that the Pats are not paying for that single season of production. Agholor didn’t just flash last year as a premier deep threat in the NFL; he sustained that production throughout the season, showing a knack for getting behind defenses. Agholor trailed only Tyreek Hill for touchdown receptions longer than 20 yards last season. Agholor alone accounted for as many touchdowns longer than 20 yards as the entire Patriots offense did last season. He is an explosive threat that defenses must respect in the passing game, something the Pats have been lacking for years.
The Pats offense is designed to dominate at the line of scrimmage and remain ahead of the chains with a competent short-to-intermediate passing game. Last season opposing defense were able to flood the short coverage areas with extra defenders. There wasn’t a player on the Pats roster who opposing defenses feared getting behind them consistently. For a schedule based attack such as the Pats, facing heavier boxes and having extra defenders in the short-middle of the field presented major complications. Single high safety sets were a norm against the Pats. This allows the defense to gain an extra defender within the box, complicating protection schemes and making it difficult to get the running game established. The Pats love schemed yards-after-the-catch plays, but having extra defenders clogging those shallow zones forced the offense to seem clunky and out of rhythm. Opposing defenses were so unconcerned with a deep threat on the Pats roster, they’d routinely play in the no-cover zone (0-5 yards past the offensive line of scrimmage) and force the Pats QB’s to try to hit something in the intermediate level of the field, something they proved time and again incapable of doing.
Enter Agholor. If nothing else he will take that extra defender out of the box. Teams will no longer be able to routinely play single high looks with Jonnu Smith and Agholor on the field. Pairing them on the field poses problems for defenses as both are capable field stretchers; Smith up the seam and Agholor along the boundary. A single high safety simply would not be able to cover both. And singling Agholor with a corner has become a bad idea. Agholor quickly eats up a cushion and understands how to stem his routes away from safety help. In the clip below Agholor breaks the corner’s cushion within the first four yards of his route and is behind the corner by eleven yards. Carr puts the ball on a shallow post throw whereas Agholor stemmed his route away from the single high safety and maintained a route on the numbers. A better throw here would have resulted in a touchdown but having a player that can consistently open the deep part of the field is going to open up everything else for this offense.
This isn’t to say Agholor is going to come in and put up 2007 Randy Moss level numbers. He is, if everything goes to plan, the third option in the passing game behind Henry and Smith. What he will force opposing defense to do is where his value truly lies. As mentioned earlier Smith is a seam stretching threat out of the TE position. He will be used consistently at the end of the line of scrimmage and in a detached set to stress opposing defenses. Smith adds a competent run after catch weapon that defenses will have to respect. Smith is going to be used in an H-back role, similar to what the Chiefs do with Travis Kelce and what the Raiders have in Darren Waller. He will occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight-end but his primary use will be as a big receiver. Don’t be surprised to see some looks with Smith in the backfield either. Henry is going to fill the Y-TE position in the Patriots offense, a role more consistent with what Gronkowski was doing while he was in New England. Henry will be expected to work the high-intermediate area of the field on crossers and short-seam shots. Having Agholor remove defenders from these passing lanes is going to open up the offense and keep it on schedule.
Agholor’s contributions will not be limited to the passing game. Damien Harris consistently faced seven- and eight-man boxes when he was on the field last year. Being able to march out 12 personnel consisting of Henry, Smith, Agholor, YAC monster Kendrick Bourne, and Harris is going to give the Pats the matchup advantage they grew accustomed to having during the Gronkowski years. Defenses will no longer be able to bring safeties into the box to play the run without being concerned Agholor or Smith will get behind them for a shot play. Just having a lighter box for Harris and Newton (if he is the starter) to play against will provide a fresh look to a running game that was bogged down last season. Despite the supposed difficulties on offense last year the Pats offensive line was close to the top of the league in providing yards before contact in the rushing game. Harris averaged 3.1 yards before contact, trailing only Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, and Raheem Mostert. Having Harris with a full head of steam and one less defender in the box will break him for longer runs more consistently. In the play below the Bills are playing a traditional 4-3 defense with a double high safety look. Harris is able to accelerate through the hole untouched before making the Bills safety miss in the open field. The Patriots can expect more double high safety looks from opposing defenses when Agholor is on the field in 2021.
Agholor’s deal is never going to be reflected in his final stat line. Per overthecap he is the 22nd highest paid wide receiver in the league, a high number to be third fiddle to the tight-end tandem the Patriots assembled this offseason. His true value is how he affects opposing defenses and allows McDaniels to be at his best as a playcaller; in control and forcing the defense’s hand. Agholor’s most important impact is going to be how he opens up the offense for everyone else.