FOXBOROUGH — Jakobi Meyers was expecting the throw to come over the top. As he tracked it through the air, though, it began to die in the wind. Tom Brady’s 23-yard pass ultimately arrived at his back shoulder, sending Meyers swiveling suddenly to catch it, shaking his defender in the process and diving to the ground at the Giants’ 2-yard line.
He squeezed the ball to his chest, every muscle in his body willing it to stay put and for this to be a good play.
“I drop this one,” he thought, “I might not get another one.”
He didn’t drop it. He got another and another after that and wound up catching all four of his targets Thursday for 54 yards in his best game as a Patriot. Soon, we’ll find out if that game was an outlier or if it was the start of something, an answer that likely depends on Brady’s trust in Meyers, the thing the rookie was so desperately trying to earn as he hugged the football tight on that second-quarter play.
Ask Brady and the coaches, they’ll tell you that’s a long process. Ask Meyers and many of those who know his game and they’ll tell you it’s one he’s suited for. And with the offense struggling and desperate for healthy receivers and two weeks left before the trading deadline, it might be a good time to see if that process can be sped up just a bit.
“Hopefully, we just proved to them that we can contribute more than just scout team or whatever the limited role is,” Meyers said, referring to himself and fellow rookie receiver Gunner Olszewski.
But let’s back up a bit. Meyers is the undrafted rookie out of North Carolina State who wowed during the preseason, mostly with quarterbacks not named Brady. His ball skills and route-running savvy won him a roster spot and surprised those who knew he was a lifelong quarterback who only converted to receiver three years ago.
Meyers’s role thus far has mostly been as a scout team receiver. The Patriots have three veterans ahead of him and no wideouts on the practice squad, so he and Olszewski double up most days, fulfilling their scout team duties, then finding ways to at least simulate reps with the regular offense. They’ve become close friends and they have different strengths.
“I’m always harping on him to keep that chin down because when he gets tired he tends to lift the chin a little bit,” Olszewski said. “He’s always harping on me about learning the stuff because mentally, I mean, he’s so far ahead of any rookie. I know I’m a rookie but it’s just crazy how smart he is.
“I get on him for jogging a little and he gets on me for running the wrong route.”
Meyers has played in five of the six games, but he hadn’t been targeted much until Thursday. Counting the Giants game, he’s been targeted 10 times and has eight catches for 120 yards.
That’s all fairly promising, but what hasn’t been are Brady’s comments about working with young players.
“Those guys are trying,” Brady said last week of his rookie targets. “They’re young. I was young; I was trying once, too.”
Quarterback for “bless your heart,” basically.
It was never going to be easy to climb the trust tree, though, and Meyers knew that. One of the first things Brady told him and Olszewski when they first met was that it would be their job to get used to him, not the other way around.
“He’s definitely a big trust guy,” Meyers said. “You could have all the talent in the world. Like, Chad Johnson played here, you know? But, I mean, what did he do here? Because you’ve got to be able to have that trust.
“They’ve got a lot of big names that have been through here. AB [Antonio Brown] came through here. But if he don’t trust you, you’re not getting the ball from him.”
Brady’s reasoning is that he doesn’t want to spend “mental energy on things that aren’t really my job,” such as coaching up young receivers.
Thing is, Meyers’s best traits are the ones Brady likes and the Patriots need.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren first asked Meyers to take a stab at receiver during a practice as a way to keep Meyers on the field when it was clear that Ryan Finley was going to be the team’s starting quarterback. He asked just before the receivers and defensive backs started one-on-ones that day. Meyers reluctantly agreed and already knew the routes from playing quarterback, so Doeren threw him in the drill on the spot.
There were times later on that were far more challenging, as Meyers had to learn to block, to recover mentally after the occasional drop, and to run route after route without getting fatigued. To make the switch, Meyers improved his conditioning while bulking up from 160 to 200 pounds.
But in those one-on-ones, where good ball tracking and crisp routes shine, Doeren knew immediately the switch would take.
“He can come off the ball really slow and then accelerate and get guys’ hips turned,” Doeren said in a telephone interview. “He’s really good at that. There’s just some basketball players who know how to shake a guy, and that’s how he is as a receiver, he’s very sudden.”
If Meyers can do that consistently at the NFL level, he’s valuable. They need receivers who can separate against one-on-one coverage and, though Meyers isn’t physically dominating (his 4.63 40-yard dash time from the Combine is probably what stood between him and getting drafted), it’s the precise route runners who are always in the right spot that Brady tends to prefer anyway.
Usually, that preference takes time to reveal itself. The last time Brady had a strong connection with a rookie receiver was in 2016, when fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell caught 32 of 48 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games. The time before that was in 2013, when Brady was forced by necessity to focus on rookies Aaron Dobson (519 yards, 4 touchdowns), Kenbrell Thompkins (466 yards, 4 touchdowns), and Josh Boyce (121 yards).
Mitchell, of course, was part of a Super Bowl team in 2016, while the 2013 offense isn’t exactly the most coveted of the past decade though it included more rookies in significant roles.
Like Brady, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said it just takes time.
“There’s no shortcut for repetitions, experience, practice time,” McDaniels said. “That’s how you create trust and confidence in one another. You can’t just go into a meeting and tell people to be confident. You have to do it on the practice field.”
And yet, the Patriots were so banged up on Thursday that they played the entire second half in the same personnel grouping, one that included both Meyers and Olszewski, who don’t get many reps on the practice field with the starting offense they were suddenly part of.
If Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett’s injuries linger, those reps will come more often. If that happens, Brady will either find it frustrating or he’ll learn something about his young receivers. There’s reason enough to think it’s worth a shot.