Who Will Lead the Patriots in Receptions in 2021?

Josh McDaniels’ offense has undergone quite the makeover. The drama surrounding the Julio Jones’ trade request accompanied by the Patriots becoming the betting favorites to land the eventual Hall of Fame receiver has overshadowed New England’s spectacular offseason. On top of bringing back Trent Brown and drafting a (potential) new starting quarterback, the Patriots have reshaped their passing attack. If New England had traded for Jones, perhaps there would be less debate about which player would take the reins as the top target. With two star tight ends and a couple of solid additions at receiver, who should be expected to receive the brunt of the pass-catching load?

Career-highs in receptions for notable Patriots pass catchers:

James White: 87 – (2018)
Nelson Agholor: 64 – (2018)
Hunter Henry: 60 – (2020)
Jakobi Meyers: 59 – (2020)
Kendrick Bourne: 48 – (2020)
Jonnu Smith: 41 – (2020)
N’Keal Harry: 33- (2020)

New England’s wide receiving core is left in a somewhat questionable situation. While Bill Belichick did go into free agency and spend significant money on two notable additions to the group in Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, neither fits the mold of a true #1 wide receiver.

Agholor’s career-high of 64 receptions in 2018 and was only good for 3rd on the Eagles behind Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffrey. Even last season with the Raiders in a perceived career season, Agholor finished with fewer receptions than Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow. Bourne finished 2nd on the 49ers last season with his career-high of 49 receptions, but only finished one reception ahead of George Kittle despite playing 7 more games. For all intents and purposes, neither of those two have ever been anything more than 3rd options in their team’s respective passing games.

Perhaps the passing attacks that Agholor and Bourne previously resided in can give us some insight into how the Patriots will shape their offense. After all, the Patriots brought in the two best tight ends in free agency. Any issues brought on by a meek wide receiving group should be resolved by the best tight end tandem in the league in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. One can only imagine exactly what Bill Belichick is cooking up to utilize both on a regular basis. It isn’t as if the Patriots brought the two elite pass catchers in to spell each other from down to down. Smith could likely see some time at various positions besides tight end. Mainly wide receiver and perhaps some running back. Unfortunately, Smith wasn’t present at OTAs after the birth of his child, and he was sidelined early during mandatory minicamp with an apparent hamstring injury. As a result, we haven’t gotten a sneak peek at exactly how Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels plan to use him.

“He’s just a really good tight end.” Belichick said of Smith ahead of the Patriots playoff matchup with the Titans in 2020, “Blocks well. Runs well. Good receiver. They’ve played him at tailback. Looked pretty good back there. Very athletic player.”

James White would be an intriguing pick to lead the group in receptions considering he’s one of the few returning players. He also boasts the most receptions in a single season of the entire group. His numbers from last year would suggest White may need more assistance than he did in 2018. The veteran back only finished with 49 receptions in 14 games.

After evaluating each option, the top choice is likely Hunter Henry. Considering his history and what New England paid to bring him in, it’s logical to assume that their team will be built around the tight end position. Henry won’t have a star receiver like Keenan Allen to overshadow him anymore. He hasn’t played a single game without Allen since his rookie season in 2016. Every time Henry has been healthy and playing so has Allen. Now that he finds himself in an offense where he can be classified as the biggest receiving threat, he’ll have a chance to show the league just how good he can be. The only problem is Henry’s health. He’s missed 24 of the last 50 games that he’s been eligible to play in. Despite that, his ability to stay on the field in 2020 showed signs of improvement and a reason for optimism heading into 2021. Assuming he can stay healthy, Henry should be a force in the Patriots’ offense.

Photo: (Adrian Kraus – AP Photo / Gary Landers – AP Photo)

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