Patriots

Who will be the Patriots' most important skill player in 2022?

Patriots
DeVante Parker Kendrick Bourne

We're officially in the quiet portion of the NFL offseason. So why not liven it up with some healthy debate?

Over the next few weeks, our Patriots Insiders Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry will go back and forth on several hot-button questions in New England entering the 2022 season.

First up: Who is the most important player on the Patriots' offense outside quarterback Mac Jones?

Tom E. Curran: Kendrick Bourne, WR

Kendrick Bourne will be the most important player on the Patriots offense in 2022. (Non-McCorkle division).

Why? Because he’s got the one thing the Patriots have missed since Julian Edelman carried the offense on his back in 2019. Versatility.

In 2021, Bourne caught 55 balls for 800 yards. His YAC was outstanding (an average of 7 yards after the catch). Only 15 of the balls thrown his way were incomplete and he had just two drops. Mac Jones’ QB rating throwing to Bourne was 132. Beyond that, Bourne carried 12 times for 125 yards and picked up first downs on seven of the carries.

Bourne’s not faster than Nelson Agholor but he’s a more productive runner/receiver. He didn’t have as many catches as Jakobi Meyers (who had 86 on 133 targets) but he still generated 925 yards from scrimmage compared to Meyers’ 875. Jonnu Smith should be an offensive centerpiece given his skill set and salary but he didn’t spark a lot of optimism with his 2021 performance.

 

Near as I can tell, Bourne is their most dynamic offensive player. And now that the Patriots have spent a season witnessing that, they can get in the lab. Which is what Bourne suggested they are doing.

Earlier this month, Bourne indicated that the Patriots offense is morphing a bit and he’s “doing a lot of different things” in the scheme.

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"It’s just about applying my new abilities to the new system …," Bourne told NESN’s Zack Cox and Mike Reiss of ESPN at a charity golf tournament in Plymouth, Mass. "I’m getting paid to use my ability, and they put me in position to use my ability.

"So once I’m in position and know what I’m doing, now it’s time to use my ability, and that’s the biggest thing. So (I’m) learning the new terms and just building that relationship with the new coaches."

Idle speculation? If the Patriots are going to shift toward the Shanahan Offense -- which Bourne played in while with the Niners -- then the obvious shift would be to sprinkle in some Deebo Samuel-type responsibilities. Samuel had an eye-popping 2021 with 1,770 yards from scrimmage on 136 touches (77 catches) and 14 total touchdowns. Bourne generated 925 yards on 67 touches with five total touchdowns.

Whether the Patriots are merely tweaking the offense or going through an overhaul, Bourne is one player who’s done well finishing everything on his plate and looks hungry for more.

Phil Perry: DeVante Parker, WR

Kendrick Bourne is due for a sizable statistical jump and a truly impactful season in 2022. He has a great rapport with Mac Jones. His versatility should allow him to be deployed creatively by Bill Belichick and his top offensive assistants. He may even end up as their most productive receiver. 

But he's not their most important receiver in 2022. That title -- and the title of most important offensive player not named Jones -- goes to newcomer DeVante Parker. 

Let me explain.

We can all agree that an elite offense is required to compete with the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the top dogs in the AFC. An elite offense in today's NFL requires an explosive passing attack. And while the Patriots were efficient in 2021 -- they ranked sixth in the NFL in points, ahead of the Bengals, Rams, Packers and Niners -- they simply were not considered an explosive offense and were defended accordingly.

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Coaches who dealt with the Patriots last season told NBC Sports Boston in plain terms that they simply weren't concerned about the deep portion of the field against New England. 

Rookie second-round speedster Tyquan Thornton likely needs some time to develop. So it's Parker, not Bourne, who is the player most likely to change the geometry of opposing defenses. 

 

Back in 2019, Parker was one of the best down-the-field threats in football. He ranked third in the NFL in targets 20 yards or more down the field, and he generated a whopping 134.0 quarterback rating on those passes. Since then he's dealt with injury and inconsistent down-the-field quarterbacks, but he certainly has the ability to soften defenses. 

Hit Parker on a few jump balls and back-shoulder throws -- as Jones did this spring in practices -- and force a safety to respect him down the field, and suddenly the Patriots will have achieved what they've long been looking for on the offensive side of the ball: Force 'em to defend every blade of grass. That should open things up for their running game as well as their plethora of short-to-intermediate options like Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

With Bourne on the field and playing well, the Patriots have the opportunity to be about what they were last season. Good. Very good, at times. But they'd still be limited, facing loaded boxes and crowded passing lanes between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards down the field.

But Parker, if healthy, can be a real game-changer and potentially elevate the Patriots offensively into a stratosphere currently occupied only by the conference's true contenders.