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Perry: Will Pats' lack of skill position speed anchor Mac Jones?

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This website has been your one-stop shop for all your Mac Jones needs over the course of the last week. How he performs, in a vacuum, will help determine whether or not the Patriots are able to achieve Dynasty 3.0 status. 

No pressure, kid. 

But Jones' success, whenever he hits the field as Patriots starter, will be based in large part on what's around him. You don't have to go back all that far -- look at how the Patriots offense performed in 2019 and how the Bucs offense performed in 2020 -- to understand how a quarterback's success is in many ways a function of the situation in which that quarterback finds himself. 

Let's assess the situation, then, assuming there is a chance Jones ends up starting fairly early in his Patriots tenure. Recent league trends would suggest that's not out of the realm of possibility, and I'm of the opinion that, within the Patriots quarterback room as currently constructed, the rookie has the best combination of skills for the type of offense Bill Belichick wants to run

Moving at a different pace

First things first: The Patriots are slow. As in, they have arguably the slowest collection of projected starting skill players in the league. 

Last year around this time, NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, pulled 40 times for every team in the league and then projected their lineups in 11 personnel (three receivers, one back, one tight end). The Patriots ranked second-slowest with an average 40 time of 4.60 seconds. 

 

The good news? The Patriots are a little faster this year. The bad news? So is the rest of the league.

Thanks to projected depth charts from Ourlads NFL Scouting Services, we tried to accomplish the same feat this week.

Look at all 32 teams. Project a top 11-personnel grouping for each. Dig up 40 times. Find some averages. Find out who's fast and who isn't.

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The Patriots came in with an average 40 time for their top 11-personnel group of 4.584 seconds. That ranked 32nd. It included Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Jonnu Smith and Damien Harris as their top 11-personnel grouping.

Had we subbed in N'Keal Harry for Bourne (who had the slowest 40 time, 4.68 seconds, of any Patriots wideout), that would've bumped the Patriots down to 28th in the NFL (4.554 seconds), just a tick faster than the Eagles (4.558) and a tick slower than the Chargers (4.550). There would've been no change if we subbed in James White for Harris since they had the same 40 time (4.57). Smith got the nod over Henry since he got more guaranteed money in free agency this year. 

So the Patriots aren't a fast offensive team. Does it matter? 

Bill Belichick always says that receivers have two jobs: Get open, catch the ball. A relative lack of speed would seem to negatively impact No. 1. But does it? 

Separation anxiety

Lucky for us, thanks to Next Gen Stats, we have more data on just how open these receivers are when a target finds them. The Patriots don't look like a gang of next-level separators, per NGS.

Meyers was the best of the bunch last year, ranking 28th among wideouts and tight ends with 3.4 yards of separation per target. Smith, while with the Titans, racked up 3.3 yards of separation per target, placing him 37th. Not bad.

After that came Harry (2.9, 83rd), Bourne (2.8, 85th), Henry (2.5, 114th) and Agholor (2.4, 117th). 

If those numbers seem a little screwy to you, they should to a certain extent. Agholor is the fastest player on the Patriots offense at the moment. He was one of the best deep-ball receivers in the NFL, averaging over 18.5 yards per catch. But he's their worst separator? 

As it turns out, these NGS figures require a heaping helping of context. 

In general, short-area receivers see their separation numbers inflated, it was pointed out by FiveThirtyEight.com's Josh Hermsmeyer. In a study he conducted last year using NGS data, he found that defenses tend to sag off shorter routes more often because their primary concern is getting beat deep. So separation is harder to find the further down the field a receiver travels.

 

That would help explain Agholor's low ranking. Ditto for someone like Seattle's DK Metcalf (2.6, 102nd) who is a physical specimen but plays in an offense that leans on the deep ball targets him frequently down the field (average depth of target of 13.6 yards).

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Scheme also plays a huge role in the level of separation receivers are able to cook up. Four of the top-10 separators, per NGS, play in offenses that stem from the Shanahan tree: San Fran's Deebo Samuel (4.6, 1st), Green Bay's Robert Tonyan (4.2, 2nd), San Fran's George Kittle (3.9, 7th) and Green Bay's Allen Lazard (3.7, 9th). Rams tight end Gerald Everett (3.6, 13th), coached by Shanahan disciple Sean McVay, is a fifth player from that kind of scheme to land in the top 15.

With scheme playing a significant factor in the NGS separation numbers, and with target depth apparently weighing heavily on the results, it can be hard to come to a definitive conclusion on whether or not a player is actually a great route-runner whose physical and technical skill gets him open -- therefore making life easy on his quarterback. Those separation numbers also don't necessarily account for great offensive players who require a great deal of defensive attention and therefore create openings for their teammates to exploit. 

Still, the NGS numbers are useful.

Look at the two AFC representatives in the 2020 AFC title game. Buffalo and Kansas City each had five players land in the top 80 on the NGS separators list. Both teams feature great schemes and great quarterbacks. But both also have bona fide talents at wideout and tight end that helped them achieve those separation rankings. The result? Two of the most explosive offenses in football.

Need for speed

What's interesting about how the Patriots have been built is that they know they're slow, and they probably don't care. Yes, it seems as though the team would've liked to add a little more speed in last weekend's draft, but they had opportunities to do exactly that ... and passed. 

Instead of trading up and drafting defensive tackle Christian Barmore, the team could've taken one of the burners who ended up going in the second round like LSU's Terrace Marshall, Purdue's Rondale Moore or Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge. They could've gone for a receiver late, and they didn't until Ernie Adams pulled UCF wideout Tre Nixon's card off the board in the seventh round. 

We'll see how a lack of speed impacts the Patriots. Our Patriots insider Tom E. Curran foreshadowed difficulty for the New England offense last offseason when Jeremiah's 40-time numbers came to light (the Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL with an average 40 time of 4.60 seconds).

 

But 2021 should be a different story. 

Even if the Patriots aren't much faster, their talent level has unquestionably improved. Smith and Henry are gargantuan upgrades over Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Bourne had a season last year for the Niners (49 catches, 667 yards) that was better than anything Harry has done in two years with the Patriots. Agholor is a do-it-all player who could present a big boost over what the team had in Damiere Byrd last year as a down the field threat. Agholor will also give Belichick and Josh McDaniels an inside-out threat who could help replace Julian Edelman.

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While this group may not win an NFL relay race, they'll be stronger at the catch point in contested situations than last year's crew. And they'll be better after the catch. 

Next Gen Stats has a metric called yards after the catch over expected, which gathers NGS on-the-field data to determine an expected number of yards after the catch based on where a receiver catches the ball and where defenders are positioned around him at the time of the catch. According to NGS, Smith (16th), Agholor (34th) and Bourne (35th) all ranked inside the top 40 in the NFL in yards after the catch over expected in 2020. 

Final word

The Patriots want to play bully ball, as they did to close their Super Bowl run in 2018. And they're built to do it.

They have a massive offensive line that includes a 350-pound guard (Mike Onwenu) and a tackle who once weighed in close to 400 pounds (Trent Brown). They signed two big-money tight ends this offseason to help them pound small defensive fronts into submission and take advantage of lumbering fronts through the air. They drafted a 230-pound back in the fourth round, hammering it home to anyone who hasn't been paying attention: The Patriots want to maul teams offensively.

That's not most of the NFL in 2021. The need for speed in other locales has been replaced in Foxboro by a thirst for hurt. And that could work. The question is, bringing it back to Jones, whether or not that kind of offense is best for a young quarterback. 

One could argue that it is. Take pressure off the kid by running the football and running it effectively. That style of play will lend itself to shot opportunities via play-action passes, which tend to help eligible receivers find more openings than they otherwise would. In theory, that could make life easy for a rookie passer.

The flipside to that argument is that even with a good running game, offenses are going to occasionally run into third-and-eight situations with the game on the line. In those situations, separators -- guys who can just plain win on the outside -- are required. Without them, particularly for a young quarterback accustomed to throwing to otherworldly talents in college, life could be tough behind center. 

 

Let's look at the 40-time numbers one more time.

Fast teams, you can see, aren't necessarily good teams. The Giants were on the outside looking in come the postseason. Same goes for the Falcons and Dolphins. 

And slow teams aren't necessarily bad teams. The Saints, Titans and Browns all made the playoffs last year and two of them (New Orleans and Tennessee) ranked among the top-five scoring offenses in football. 

Is there hope to be found there for Jones and the Patriots? Perhaps. 

Jones won't be Drew Brees any time soon. Nor will he be Ryan Tannehill, who has seen a remarkable career resurgence since changing teams in 2019.

But, in relatively short order, could Jones give the Patriots what Baker Mayfield gave the Browns a season ago? A completion percentage in the low-60s (62.8), a low interception figure (8) and a middling yards-per-attempt number (7.3)? That's far from asking him to be what Tom Brady was to the Patriots for the last decade.

Caretaker. Game-manager.

Whatever you want to call it, there is a recent model for success for the Patriots out in Cleveland. You don't need to be a quarterbacking legend to help a slow-ish group of weapons to the postseason. Lean on the running game. Don't screw it up.

If the Patriots do insert Jones to play as a rookie, that will very likely be the crux of what they ask him to do. With their current mix of playmakers, they're just not wired to be explosive. They're built to bludgeon.