Last season, the Patriots’ speed deficit stood out alarmingly down the stretch, whether it was manifested in wide receivers not being able to separate from defenders or their own defenders not could not keep up with enemy attacks.
Bill Belichick absolutely saw this, and he’s trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
First, the Patriots traded in the second round to grab Baylor receiver Tyquan Thornton — one of the fastest receivers in the entire draft — and an undersized but electric Houston cornerback, Marcus Jones, who can also fly.
A player will keep turns and safeties in place at night with their video game speed. The other will become an inside leader at returning kicks and could eventually have some success chasing after the fast receivers that are pouring into the AFC East.
Be quick or fall behind.
There seems to be a certain pattern in the draft so far for the Patriots: take a guy they believe in maybe more than everyone else.
Thursday was goalkeeper Cole Strange. Friday night was Thornton, who ESPN’s Mel Kiper admitted he didn’t believe would come out of the board until the fourth round.
PFF’s Doug Kyed cast doubt on it, reporting that multiple teams actually had Thornton edged out by Alec Pierce, George Pickens and Skyy Moore – options most people thought they would reach in the second round. This would be yet another example of media editorial boards simply lacking what teams really value.
In Thornton’s case, the draw is speed. Pure and simple. His 4.28 40 times at the NFL Combine nearly broke the internet, and his acceleration in terms of his 10 and 20 yard splits is also incredibly rare.
He’s not yet a polished receiver in terms of running, and his agility drills are poorer than the Patriots generally like. Thornton now becomes the third drafted Patriots receiver since 2009 to post a 3-cone time under seven seconds.
But there’s something to be said for just putting the fear of God into a defense by being able to run alongside them no matter how far they play you, and Thornton can do that better than almost any receiver of this class except Jameson Williams. He also has good ball tracking skills and body control to carry under-thrown or contested balls and competes hard as a blocker – something the Patriots will surely appreciate.
A good roster for Thornton might be Carolina wide receiver Robbie Anderson, who the Patriots had better trade or sign in the past: thin but explosive and dangerous with the right quarterback.
The Baylor wide receiver also told the media on a conference call that he hopes to emulate Davante Adams’ sense of the road as his career progresses.
“I like how it creates separation at the top of the road, as well as a line of scrimmage. I tried to emulate that with my outings and runs, while adding speed to it,” he said.
Right now, he’s purely a vertical threat, albeit amazing at that. He also doesn’t need to be more than that immediately with a full set of receivers ahead of him on the depth chart. By the time the wide receiver room theoretically begins to empty out in 2023, Thornton will have had plenty of time to work with coach Troy Brown on the finer points that will start to kick his game up a notch.
Speaking of Brown…
Jones may not excite anyone in terms of his physical stature — 5-foot-8, 174 pounds with below-average length for a cornerback — but two things are true: He’ll fight you for everything he has. worth, and it can do just about anything you ask of it on a football pitch.
Despite his size limitations, he racked up an impressive output while playing football with 13 pass breakups and five interceptions last season. He doesn’t back down from big receivers, even winning a 50-50 fly ball over 6-foot-3 Cincinnati wide receiver Alec Pierce in the end zone when their teams faced off.
Jones also flies like a missile on defense, jostling to chase fleeing ball carriers and throwing his body down passing lanes with abandon to separate receivers from the ball.
Although he’s almost exclusive to being a slot corner, he could possibly be an interesting coverage option against smaller shift receivers like Tyreek Hill, Elijah Moore and Isaiah McKenzie in the AFC East if the Patriots just want to counter speed with speed.
Add to that the fact that he’s an incredibly prolific return man, picking up nine combination kicks (six kick returns, three punts) for touchdowns in his career, and you’ve got the kind of versatile player. but dynamic that the Patriots love.
But that’s not all: Houston even brought him onto the field as a receiver at times last season, and he actually recorded 10 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. Will Belichick – the man who gave Brown a chance to play both ways and contribute as a returning man – do the same for Jones?
Before Thornton or Jones take the field, however, the Patriots’ mandate seems clear so far in the draft: Be faster and more athletic, or the AFC East will eat you alive.
As for the rest of the Patriots’ draft, that will have to wait until Saturday: The team traded the No. 94 pick out of the third round in exchange for the 137th overall pick and a third-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, allowing to the Carolina Panthers to go up and select quarterback Matt Corral.
New England will now have seven choices before Day 3, including three in the fourth round.
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