What’s wrong with Patriots’ passing game and how to fix it

By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

The New England Patriots opened the season with a drive that looked — at least at first — staggeringly efficient. 

It might not be an exaggeration to say that Mac Jones and Matt Patricia dazzled on that opening drive. The first seven plays went for positive yardage, and while they didn’t have a play that went for more than 12 yards, the Patriots earned chunk after chunk of field. They soon found themselves on Miami‘s 22-yard line.

That’s when it went south. Jones threw up a 50-50 pass to receiver DeVante Parker and the ball ended up in the hands of Dolphins safety Jevon Holland for an interception. That play served as a bad omen for New England’s passing attack.

“I just kind of misjudged it, so the next time I know, just go up for it,” Parker said after the game.

Fast-forward to the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jones threw the ball downfield to Parker. Yet again: an interception. This time, Jones was pretty clearly to blame, seeming to not see safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who fielded the pass much easier than Parker could have. The receiver finished the game with zero catches. 

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So far this season, the Patriots have put Parker on the field for 109 snaps, and he still has just one nine-yard catch. Parker, who joined the team in a trade this offseason, has been the team’s WR1 in terms of snaps, but is barely on the stat sheet. 

New England’s top-producing receiver, Jakobi Meyers, is second in snaps. There is no question that he is their most reliable option, mostly lining up in the slot. His usage and production appear to be just right, with Meyers serving as Jones’ go-to option, particularly on third down.

But on the outside, New England has struggled to get production out of their top outside receiver. It has been going on for years. Go back to 2020 and New England put Damiere Byrd on the field for the most snaps. He finished second on the team in receiving with 604 yards. In 2021, Nelson Agholor was second among receivers in snaps (64%) despite missing two games. He finished fourth on the team in receiving yards (473).

Of course, now that Agholor’s snap share is down to 54%, he enjoyed his best game as a Patriot, with six catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. Agholor won a 50-50 ball downfield — stealing away an interception from the Steelers — for a 44-yard touchdown.

“He got a lot of snaps and he’s been, really, one of our most consistent players this year,” Belichick said of Agholor.

But we know, after looking at the numbers, that Agholor hasn’t gotten a lot of snaps. He’s WR3, and he saw a smaller share of snaps in Week 2 (50%) than he saw in Week 1 (58%). Meanwhile, Agholor has generated 3.8 separation yards per route, 18th-best in the NFL and best among Patriots.

That’s a head-scratcher, right?

If Agholor has been one of the most consistent players, then why isn’t he seeing the field more?  Maybe the Patriots think less is more. Maybe their logic is that he couldn’t handle the role of WR1 in 2021, so they don’t feel like putting him through that again. They’d rather give Parker a try. 

But if the Patriots are working with what they learned in 2021, then they should remember that Kendrick Bourne was the team’s most explosive receiver. He is barely playing. Bourne has 26 total snaps (21%) over the first two weeks after a rough training camp.

Bourne got onto the field twice in the first game, and promptly put up a 41-yard reception in crunch time in the fourth quarter. But that was all we saw of him. He had 24 snaps in Week 2 and managed two catches for 16 yards. 

Meanwhile, Lil’Jordan Humphrey received 26 snaps over the first two weeks. While Humphrey is a receiver on the depth chart, he was on the field almost solely as a run blocker, with the Patriots rushing the ball on 23 of 26 (88%) of his snaps. So Humphrey is essentially a blocking tight end — and he’s good at it, with a 90.9 run blocking grade on PFF, best on the Patriots in Week 2.

But the Patriots seemed interested in getting less predictable as an offense — not more predictable. They removed the fullback from their offense to try to avoid signaling the run to opposing defenses. And yet Humphrey is doing just that. Furthermore, if he’s the third tight end, he’s taking away work from TE1 Jonnu Smith (39 snaps in Week 2) and TE2 Hunter Henry (34 snaps). That’s another oddity. Those two are making $12.5 million per year.

It’s early in the season. New England is clearly figuring out who will and can do what for their offense. The Patriots often spend the first four weeks of the season fiddling with their personnel and scheme to figure out what they do best. The idea is that, if they experiment and lose a game or two in the process, they are better equipped to win the remaining 13 to 16 games. It’s not necessarily time to panic. But New England is starting to get a few clear indicators.

Meyers is the team’s best and most reliable option. He should remain on the field.

Parker is struggling in the offense and should soon see his snaps reduced in favor of Agholor and Bourne. 

New England’s tight ends are struggling and the team might be wise to run more 3WR formations to get their top three playmakers on the field: Meyers, Bourne and Agholor.

Humphrey is an effective blocker but will instantly tip defenses to run plays.

So now what? The Patriots will have to figure out how to make sense of their pass-catcher puzzle, because of course, they can only have so many players on the field at the same time. 

By my estimation, New England isn’t getting enough production out of Parker, Henry, Smith or Bourne. In turn, Jones has struggled. He has completed 64.6% of his passes for 465 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions over two games. But he also doesn’t seem to be processing in that highly efficient way that he did at the end of 2022. It’s all related. 

The Patriots need an uptick in scoring because they are 0-5 when allowing 25 or more points in the Jones era. There are 10 teams in the NFL averaging 25 points or more per game. New England’s defense is quite good, allowing 17 points per game, eighth-best in the NFL.

If the Patriots want to elevate Jones to the next level in his NFL career, they need their tinkering with personnel to produce results over the next few weeks. Or they might find themselves in a deep hole in the AFC East, where the Dolphins and Buffalo Bills appear to be early playoff favorites.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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