FOXBOROUGH — The criticism was harsh this summer when the Patriots lost out on free agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Titans. New England’s wide receiver room was viewed as one of the weakest in the NFL, with Pro Football Focus ranking them 29th out of 32 teams.
“It’s just not a group that strikes much fear in the eyes of defensive coordinators,” wrote the analytics website.
But a funny thing has happened through training camp — the Patriots suddenly have a glut of receivers.
They enter Friday night’s preseason finale at Tennessee with a bit of a logjam at the position, as a trio of rookies has outperformed expectations: sixth-round picks Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte, and undrafted Swiss Army knife Malik Cunningham.
The Patriots may not have the high-end talent to match the Bills, Bengals, and Dolphins, but their depth might be better than expected.
“They look good out there,” quarterback Mac Jones said. “I think the progress has been there, and the older guys are really helping the younger guys.”
NFL teams typically keep five receivers on the 53-man roster, but the Patriots currently have seven who can make a good case.
Veterans DeVante Parker and JuJu Smith-Schuster are locks. Kendrick Bourne has had a terrific camp and has nailed down the third spot. Douglas and Boutte have thrived in camp and seem to have won roster spots. Cunningham, a college quarterback, has a long way to go as a receiver, but has likely shown enough versatility as a quarterback and special teamer to make the team.
The one question mark is Tyquan Thornton, last year’s second-round pick, who seems to have fallen behind the others. If the Patriots are lucky, the situation will work itself out organically.
Instead of having to cut someone and try to sneak him onto the practice squad, the Patriots potentially could slow-play Thornton’s return from the injury he suffered last week in Green Bay and start him on injured reserve for the first month.
But the Patriots couldn’t have asked for much more from their receivers in training camp. The youngsters have proven capable, and the veterans are producing.
Parker has made several highlight-reel catches on jump balls. Smith-Schuster has provided more speed and physicality than the player he replaced, Jakobi Meyers.
“I think we’re doing really well,” Bourne said. “We’re really poised, knowing what we’re doing together, knowing each other, communicating well. I think our communication is a lot better than it’s been.”
Bourne, entering his third season with the Patriots and seventh in the NFL, has been one of the biggest surprises. Far from a roster certainty as he plays on the final year of his contract, Bourne has consistently flashed big energy and big plays in practice, serving as a catalyst for the offense in the short- and medium-passing game.
“The guy I’m most excited about — Kendrick Bourne has a heck of a year this year, I think,” Devin McCourty said recently on NBC Sports Boston’s “Patriots Talk Podcast.” “I think he’s the most multiple receiver they have — inside, outside, a little bit of vertical, crushes intermediate, short-route guy. I think they’re going to be able to use him in a lot of different ways and he’s going to have a big year this year.”
It has been a welcome change from last year, when Bourne clashed with the coaches, was in a sour mood, didn’t take his injury rehab seriously, and found himself in the doghouse.
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt — best shape of my life,” Bourne said last week. “My body feels good, so I feel good. The confidence is up. I’m not dragging because I’m not dealing with a nick or bang.”
Even Bill Belichick acknowledged that Bourne is having a good camp, which is notable considering how little Belichick has said about anything over the past month.
“He’s done very well in all phases of the game,” Belichick said. “He’s played multiple spots, caught the ball well, blocked well. He’s had a good camp.”
The two late-round rookies have been impressive. Douglas has been shaking defenders all summer and has been used in a multitude of positions, including in the slot and out of the backfield. Boutte opened eyes in last week’s preseason game against the Packers when he took a quick slant and outran the defense 42 yards to the end zone.
The Patriots need the injection of speed into their offense. Last year, Jones’s longest pass was 48 yards, and it was a bubble screen to Marcus Jones. Mac Jones was one of just three quarterbacks (along with Matt Ryan and Kyler Murray) to start at least 11 games and not complete a 50-yard pass.
Now the Patriots have two rookies with impressive speed, plus Bourne, who had a 75-yard catch-and-run in 2021, plus Thornton, who had the fastest 40-yard dash time in the 2022 draft (4.28).
“It’s just been great to see from both of them,” veteran safety Adrian Phillips said of the rookies. “You can never have too many weapons, and with those guys able to take slants 30-40 yards the distance, that just helps us out.”
Obviously, just because the receivers are doing well in training camp doesn’t mean it will translate to the regular season, particularly for the two rookies.
But with the preseason all but concluded, the receiver room is looking a lot deeper than many outsiders expected.
“I trust all those guys,” Jones said. “I feel like the older guys — DP, JuJu, KB — everybody has done a great job of setting the standard in there.
“We’re all going to continue to work, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.