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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
2 Dec 2023
Doug Kyed


NextImg:Patriots new starting QB must depend on cast of disappointing receivers

FOXBORO — Patriots fans trying to find reasons to care about the 2023 season received some bad news Friday when rookie wide receivers Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte were both ruled out.

Douglas, who’s missed practice all week while in concussion protocol for the second time this season, has been one of the lone bright spots for a Patriots offense in shambles. The 2023 sixth-round pick leads the Patriots with 410 receiving yards on 36 catches despite starting just four games.

And Boutte, who missed practice Thursday and Friday with a listed shoulder injury and illness, has caught just two passes on seven targets for 19 yards this season but has captivated fans since he was also selected in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft because of his five-star pedigree as a high school recruit. There was a time during Boutte’s college career when he was considered a potential first-round prospect.

Now, in what will likely be Bailey Zappe’s first start of the 2023 season, the Patriots will turn to a group of wide receivers they were expected to count on back before the season began in veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker, and 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton. Smith-Schuster will likely take over for Douglas as the team’s slot receiver with Parker in the “X” role and Thornton playing at the “Z” position. Jalen Reagor is another option to play at the “X” position. Rookies Malik Cunningham and T.J. Luther are on the practice squad.

To say Parker, Smith-Schuster and Thornton have disappointed – even after Kendrick Bourne was lost for the year eight games into the 2023 season with a torn ACL – would be an understatement.

Parker, who was signed to a two-year contract extension in July, has caught just eight passes for 200 yards without a touchdown this season. Smith-Schuster, the Patriots’ prized free-agent signing in March, is averaging just 6.6 yards per catch with 24 receptions for 159 yards with one touchdown. All three have missed time with injuries but none more than Thornton, who has yet to break the century mark on the season with five catches on 12 targets for 34 yards.

Parker told the Herald he wasn’t sure why his production has fallen off this season. His goal is to just “finish strong.” Thornton also was at a loss for why his production fell off in Year 2.

“I mean, I don’t know,” Thornton said. “It’s a lot right now. We’ll try to figure it out, put the pieces together to the puzzle and keep coming to work.”

Among 144 wide receivers this season with at least 10 targets, Parker, Smith-Schuster and Thornton rank 112th, 113th and 122nd in yards per route run, via PFF. Thornton doesn’t qualify, but Parker and Smith-Schuster rank 105th and 115th out of 120 players in ESPN’s receiver analytics metric.

They haven’t been helped by the play of quarterback Mac Jones, who has struggled behind a leaky and banged-up offensive line. But Jones also hasn’t benefitted from strong play by his pass catchers. It goes both ways.

“Honestly, I think it’s just been with the situation right now,” Smith-Schuster said about his own lack of production. “It’s kind of tough. But at the end of the day, when my number’s called, I go to my plays.”

There’s no excuse for Parker, Smith-Schuster and Thornton not to perform this Sunday against the Chargers. Douglas and Boutte aren’t standing in their way, and the Chargers rank among the NFL’s worst pass defenses even after trading disappointing free-agent signing cornerback J.C. Jackson back to the Patriots.

The Chargers are playing pure man coverage on just 26.6 percent of passing plays, and they’ve allowed the fourth-highest yards per coverage snap, 14th-highest passer rating, sixth-highest yards per attempt and fifth-highest completion percentage on those snaps.

They aren’t any better when they’re playing zone, where they rank second-highest in yards per coverage snap, fifth-highest in passer rating against, second-highest in yards per attempt and 14th-highest in completion percentage.

Overall, they’ve allowed the most yards per coverage snap, the third-highest passer rating against, second-highest yards per attempt and the ninth-highest completion percentage. They’re 26th this season in expected points added (EPA) per coverage snap.

It’s a perfect game for Zappe to show he deserves at least another opportunity to start. And it’s an opportunity for Parker, Smith-Schuster and Thornton to prove they deserve spots on the Patriots’ 2024 roster.

Based on their play this season, that should be up in the air. Parker and Smith-Schuster’s contracts tell a different story, however.

Cutting Smith-Schuster would actually decrease the Patriots’ salary cap by $1.6 million next offseason. Making him a post-June 1 cut would save just $1 million. Trading him would save cap space, but it would be difficult to find a partner willing to take on his $7 million guaranteed salary.

The Patriots are in a similar situation with Parker. Cutting him would save just $243,332 while making him a post-June 1 cut would save $1.8 million. Trading him would trim his $3.19 million guaranteed salary. And once again, moving Parker might be difficult after the season he’s had.

Cutting Thornton after June 1 would save the Patriots over $1.3 million in salary cap space. It’s worth seeing if the Patriots can utilize his 4.2-second 40-yard-dash speed better with another offseason under his belt.

“Yeah, (there’s) definitely a way to utilize my speed,” Thornton said Friday. “And I feel like that’s what we’re doing now. Just putting the pieces together.”