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Perry: The path to finding Mac Jones a true 'X' receiver

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There was plenty of Patriots buzz out in Indianapolis during the NFL's annual scouting combine. One topic that came up consistently? Mac Jones. There are those who love him. There are those who are waiting to see more. But almost unanimously they agreed that it should be a priority for the Patriots to surround him with talent this offseason. 

Which spots on their roster, exactly, should they address? Specifically, how can they maximize what they get from their second-year quarterback? That's where there was some debate.

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In our "Maximizing Mac" series, we'll touch on several positions where the Patriots have questions and present some possible solutions. We start by wondering if Bill Belichick will be able to find Jones a true No. 1 "X" receiver on the outside.

The Problem: X receiver

Teams simply weren't concerned with the Patriots beating them deep or to the outside in 2021. Said AFC defensive coach earlier this offseason: "He needs guys who can get open. They don't have guys that can get down the field and have him throw it up for an explosive pass ... You need somebody better. Do you need [Ja'Marr] Chase? No. But the best receivers they had this year were Hunter Henry and [Jakobi Meyers] inside. [Nelson] Agholor is just not a consistent guy. He's not going to beat you."


Mac Jones was 21st in the NFL on yards per deep attempt (12.1 yards per pass that traveled 20 yards or more down the field). Including playoffs, he was 28th in NFL rating on deep passes (72.4), which was well below league average on those types of throws (92.7) and well below his own rating to any other level of the field (96.7 from 10-19 yards, 95.2 from 0-9 yards, 104.6 behind the line).

The Solution: Treylon Burks, Arkansas, pick No. 21 overall

Burks has the size and speed to force defenses to acknowledge his presence on the outside. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, with enough speed to run away from the entire Alabama secondary and almost 10-inch hands? He's a unicorn. He didn't play much on the boundary in college, but he projects to be a versatile weapon in the NFL.

As the week of the combine kicked off, the expectation among evaluators was that Burks would not be available at pick No. 21. But after a puzzling combine performance -- where he ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash and a three-cone time that exceeded 7.0 seconds -- he could slide. If he did, it'd be the Patriots' gain. If you saw him play in the SEC, his play speed shouldn't be much of a concern.

Teams can align Burks in the slot, in the backfield or outside, and when he has the ball in his hands -- because his traits and play style make him a tackle-breaking machine -- he's a home-run threat. He'll have an opportunity to show off some route-running chops during the pre-draft process, which he wasn't asked to do all that much for the Razorbacks. But he's the kind of rare physical talent that could help Jones take an immediate leap in his down-the-field efficiency. Whether he's created separation with his burst or he's going up for 50-50 balls, Burks could be a go-to option for when Jones wants to air it out. And even when Jones targets him short, Burks could still generate explosive plays. He racked up 16.9 yards per catch despite an average depth of target of 9.9 yards for Arkansas.

Fans may not love this idea -- Ohio State's Chris Olave, Western Michigan's Skyy Moore or North Dakota State's Christian Watson would be excellent options, too -- because Burks' physical profile is reminiscent of N'Keal Harry's. But they're different players. And if Burks is available at No. 21 overall, he'd be worthy of adding to Jones' complement of weapons.

The Impact: Changing defensive geometry

Burks or any other boundary wideout with some juice would give Mac Jones a failsafe option if a play breaks down or if he needs to throw "hot" in the face of a blitz. The Patriots rookie was blitzed at the second-highest rate in the NFL last season (34.5 percent), in part because of the lack of an explosive-play threat to make defenses pay for bringing extra defenders as pass-rushers. That kind of "No. 1" option could give Jones the confidence he needs to throw in his direction when under pressure no matter how tight the coverage.

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But perhaps even more impactful would be the trickle-down effect that "X" receiver could have on the Patriots running game. The Patriots had two backs who saw eight or more defenders in the box on over 30 percent of their carries this year (Rhamondre Stevenson, 41.4; Damien Harris 31.7). Stevenson and Harris were second and eighth in the NFL in terms of percentage of runs against stacked boxes. The only other team in the NFL with two backs inside the top eight was Tennessee (D'Onta Foreman, 46.6; Derrick Henry, 36.5).

With a legitimate outside-the-numbers threat, defenses would have to soften. Ideally, from a Patriots perspective, those defenses would drop a safety out of the box in order to devote another defender to their coverage looks. If a high-end draft choice at receiver requires the defense to play two-high safety coverages, that would give Patriots backs more room to run. If defenses stuck with single-high safety alignments, then Jones would know his new big-bodied big-play threat on the outside was on an island one-on-one with a (usually) much smaller corner.

The entire NFL may be revisiting the tape on Burks after the numbers he posted at the combine. But it's hard to ignore the fact that he was a physical mismatch and a game-changing athlete in the SEC where size matters and elite athletes abound.

If Burks is there at No. 21 and his presence in New England leads to fewer blitzes ... fewer stacked boxes ... defenses feeling forced to cover every blade of grass ... he could improve every facet of the Patriots' offense. And, most importantly, help their second-year quarterback take his game to another level.