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

Through Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

That New England Patriots opened the season with a ride that – at least at first glance – looked surprisingly efficient.

It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that Mac Jones and Matt dazzled Patricia on that opening drive. The first seven plays went for positive yards, and although they didn’t have a play that went more than 12 yards, the Patriots earned pile after pile. They soon found themselves on the Miami 22-yard line.

Then it went south. Jones threw a 50-50 pass to receiver DeVante Parker and the ball landed in the hands of Dolphin safety Jevon Holland to intercept it. This game served as a bad omen for New England’s temporary attack.

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

Fast forward to next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jones threw the ball down at Parker. Once again: an interception. Jones was pretty clearly at fault this time and didn’t seem to see the safety of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who set up the pass much easier than Parker could have done. The receiver finished the game with zero catches.

Do the Patriots trust Mac Jones to take them into the postseason?

Do the Patriots trust Mac Jones to take them into the postseason?

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

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New England’s top-performing receiver, Jakobi Meyers, is second in seconds. There’s no question that he’s their most reliable option and mostly queues up in the slot. Its usage and production seem spot on, with Meyers serving as Jones’ preferred option, especially in third place.

But on the outside, New England is struggling to squeeze production out of their top outdoor receiver. It’s been like this for years. Go back to 2020 and New England fielded Damiere Byrd 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 percentage is down to 54%, he was enjoying his best game as a Patriot, with six catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. Agholor won a 50-50 ball downfield – and stole an interception from the Steelers – for a 44-yard touchdown.

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

But we know after looking at the numbers that Agholor didn’t get many snaps. He is WR3 and saw a lower percentage of snaps in week 2 (50%) than in week 1 (58%). Meanwhile, Agholor has generated 3.8 separation yards per route, 18th in the NFL and best among the Patriots.

That’s a head scratcher, isn’t it?

If Agholor has been one of the most consistent players, why doesn’t he see the field anymore? 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 going through that again. You better give Parker a chance.

But working with what they learned in 2021, the Patriots should remember that Kendrick Bourne was the team’s most explosive receiver. He hardly plays. Bourne has a total of 26 snaps (21%) in the first two weeks after a tough training camp.

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

Meanwhile, Lil’Jordan Humphrey received 26 snaps in the first two weeks. While Humphrey is a receiver on the depth chart, he’s been on the field almost exclusively as a run blocker, with the Patriots dropping 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, the best on the Patriots in Week 2.

But the Patriots seemed interested in becoming less predictable as an offense — not more predictable. They removed the full-back from their offense to avoid signaling the run to opposing defense. And yet, Humphrey does just that. When he’s the third tight end, he also takes the workload off TE1 Jonnu Smith (39 snaps in week 2) and TE2 Hunter Henry (34 snaps). That’s another oddity. These two make $12.5 million a 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 staff and plan to figure out what they do best. The idea is that if they experiment and lose a game or two in the process, they’ll be better equipped to win the remaining 13-16 games. It’s not necessarily time to panic. But New England is starting to get some clear indicators.

Meyers is the team’s best and most reliable option. He should stay in place.

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Parker is struggling on 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 field more 3WR formations to field their top three playmakers: Meyers, Bourne and Agholor.

Humphrey is an effective blocker but will prompt defenses to make plays immediately.

What now? The Patriots must figure out how to make sense of their pass catcher puzzle because, of course, they can only have a limited number of players on the field at one time.

In my estimation, New England doesn’t get enough production from Parker, Henry, Smith or Bourne. In return, Jones fought. He completed 64.6% of his passes for 465 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in two games. But it also doesn’t seem to be processing as highly efficiently as it was at the end of 2022. It’s all connected.

The Patriots need a rise in scoring because they’re 0-5 if they concede 25 or more points in the Jones era. There are 10 teams in the NFL that average 25 points or more per game. New England’s defense is pretty good, allowing 17 points per game, the eighth-best in the NFL.

If the Patriots are to take Jones to the next level in his NFL career, they’ll need to tinker with staff over the next few weeks to see results. Or they could find themselves in a deep hole in the AFC East, where the Dolphins and Buffalo Bills appear to be early playoff favorites.

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

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