Wide receiver Nelson Agholor became a deep threat when he moved from Philadelphia to Las Vegas. The Patriots hope he continues his growth as a weapon. Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Perhaps it’s fitting Nelson Agholor’s contract represented the greatest gamble the Patriots took in free agency last March.

Because last year, Agholor broke out by betting on himself, a downfield dice roll in the gambling capital of the world.
In his only season in Las Vegas, the 28-year-old enjoyed a career year as one of the NFL’s newest and most dangerous deep threats. He scored eight touchdowns on vertical routes, second-most in the league, and finished second in yards per reception (18.7).
Agholor’s long speed had always been evident in Philadelphia, where he toiled the previous five seasons as an often disappointing first-rounder.
The key to unlocking Agholor’s potential, it seems, was simply cutting him loose.
The Raiders routinely dropped Agholor outside the numbers pre-snap and let him take off. His snaps from the slot were cut by more than half compared with his time in Philly, where he would bounce around formations. Agholor’s average downfield depth on targets also grew 4 yards from the previous year, according to Player Profiler – a significant, intentional jump.
The stunning part was how little else changed about Agholor’s statistical profile from the deep throws and outside alignment. He created no more separation. His catch rate lived in the same neighborhood. He was afforded less cushion from defenders, and his drop rate actually increased.
And yet from this change of scenery, a new player was born.
“He’s an explosive player. He definitely has speed, good hands,” Pats cornerback Jonathan Jones said of his new teammate in May. “An explosive player that you have to watch out as a vertical threat.”
Generally speaking, it’s foolish to expect a free agent to continue ascending after a career year and pay day. A player is no more his peak than his valleys, and those were plenty low in Philadelphia. The Raiders bought the dip on Agholor, and now the Patriots have made a two-year, $22 million bet with $16 million guaranteed that his stock will keep soaring.
They’re betting Agholor at least remains the same perimeter deep threat he became in Las Vegas, and that player can fit in their system. There’s precedent for an outside-only receiver in New England – where wideouts are usually required to play all three positions (X, Y and slot) – finding a home. Just last season, Damiere Byrd spent less than 7% of his offensive snaps in the slot, another speedster with a limited route tree.
The problem was Byrd’s game consists almost entirely of long speed. He didn’t separate well in short areas. He didn’t break tackles. He was minimally effective on screens. No surprise, he’s now a Chicago Bear.
Byrd’s weaknesses overlap strongly with Agholor’s, which start with drops and include being the least productive wide receiver on go routes in 2019, among wideouts who saw at least six targets. So was that Agholor’s outlier season as a deep threat, or was it 2020?
(For what it’s worth, his quarterback play largely held steady across those years, with Carson Wentz grading as the ninth-best deep passer in football in 2019 at Pro Football Focus, and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr ranking second last season.)
Of course, Agholor is a far superior receiver to Byrd, starting with route-running. And the fact he thrived against elite competition last season – logging his six best games all against above-average pass defenses – is encouraging. But if Agholor isn’t the revitalized deep threat the Raiders fielded and the Pats paid for, how well can he mesh with the new offense?
Probably not well enough to justify his contract, a widely panned overpay. But there is hope.
For starters, according to PFF, Cam Newton passed most efficiently when targeting the middle of the field on intermediate and deep throws last season, by far his worst. Agholor can live there in 2021, running posts, digs and over routes. If Newton cedes to first-round rookie Mac Jones, the kid might also deliver, having fired an accurate ball on 67% of his deep throws in college last season, per Sports Info. Solutions.
Not to mention, the Pats are likely to attract predominantly single-high coverages, with defenses looking to load the box against their power run game and/or crowd the middle of the field to defend tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. On those snaps, Agholor will face 1-on-1 coverage outside and possibly a deep safety, who might be his last hurdle to the end zone.
But that’s only if the Patriots keep him outside.
“He’s got a lot of position flexibility and good skill and talent,” said Patriots Coach Bill Belichick in June. “He’s like everybody else, learning from scratch, learning a little bit of a new offense and some things; the way we call things and do things and all that, but nothing that he or any other new players can’t handle. It’s just part of the process.”
The bad news is that process – learning the Patriots offense – is notoriously difficult for receivers, even veterans. It can and has taken years for some to master. Agholor may be the most sudden and explosive and exciting receiver the Pats have fielded in years. But his physical talents will be limited until his mind is free.
The Patriots have done more than believe Agholor can learn another new offense, fit and thrive. They’ve bet on it. Big time.
And yet the greatest factor in whether he ultimately succeeds might be how willing they are to adapt to him.

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