And over the past four games, Thornton has nine catches for 117 yards and one touchdown.
The actual production has been disappointing, but we don't really know how much that means. The Patriots have a) a regressive offense authored by a career defensive coordinator and b) a regressive offense authored by a career defensive coordinator that doesn't really look to target Thornton much. Though he wound up with seven targets against the Dolphins -- his first career seven target game -- most of the looks were either so pre-determined that Thornton didn't really have to do anything special or so late in the play that they pretty much tested his ability to win in garbage situations. It's also easy to say that Thornton doesn't really fit the ethos of this offense. He's a speedy deep threat receiver. McCorkle Jones isn't quite a pure checkdown artist, but this offense's deep balls are oft-utilized and look poor when they do happen. Including in this game to Thornton.
We've got one ball where Thornton -- to his credit -- works open late in the down. It feels more like a coverage bust than Thornton destroying the defense. Then we have another deep pass on the very next play where Jones just isn't in sync with the rookie wideout and leaves it long.
I think this game was a confluence of circumstances that appear unlikely to repeat in Week 18 for Thornton. For one, Parker has been out for a bit. For another, with Xavien Howard down, the Patriots were emboldened to throw to their wideouts because the Dolphins were down Xavien Howard and started career special teamer Keion Crossen, heavily used bust Noah Igbinoghene, and even broke into names like "Elijah Campbell." Even if Parker doesn't recover from a concussion that has kept him out a bit to play in a must-win Week 18 game for New England, the Bills have a secondary full of players who have delivered much better than the Howard-less Dolphins. Assuming they play the Bills any time soon, which seems like a lot to process at the moment.
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Lets look at the big plays
Here's his real and actual touchdown catch from Week 17:
Thornton's touchdown catch was a schemed rub route. I'm not saying that it's a bad play. I'm not saying that Thornton is a future bust because this is his touchdown. I'm simply saying that it does not take much skill relative to being an NFL player to catch this ball.
His only other touchdowns came with Cleveland in town and Bailey Zappe under center. Here's what they looked like:
Do these look like the plays of a guy who you want to believe will take a huge leap in 2023, or do they look like natural outcomes of dull plays in a fairly weak offense? To me, it looks like a blown run assignment by a bad defense in a blowout, then a two-yard in-route that wasn't passed off correctly at the goal line. It is good that Thornton is showing the ability to take advantage, but these are not plays that make me emboldened to pound the table and say he's a 2023 breakout waiting to happen.
Thornton is set up to be a divisive 2023 pick
Who Thornton reminds me a little bit of, albeit in a small sample size, is Nico Collins in 2021. A little higher draft grade, a little less time actually on the field, but Collins didn't earn many targets and his catches didn't really ask for him to beat tight coverage or dust someone in the open-field. Collins was a popular late-round sleeper based on opportunity and the idea that Davis Mills (lol) wasn't a bad quarterback. I would say that there were -- as usual -- some things the skeptics were right about with Collins, and some things the optimists were right about. Collins eventually pushed Brandin Cooks into a background role for targets, but the targets still didn't go anywhere and Collins finished the season on IR. And Mills was, well, I don't know any way to describe how he's played in 2022 that works better than "forced to share snaps with Jeff Driskel."
But you can see that exact kind of situation coming into fruition with the 2023 Patriots. Jakobi Meyers is an unrestricted free agent. Nelson Agholor is a free agent. Kendrick Bourne has a $6.9 million cap hit and the Patriots spent the entire season upset with him and not playing him as much as they should have. Parker is carrying a $6.3 million cap hit in 2023 and was borderline irrelevant at times for the Patriots this season before this long-term concussion. I'm sure they'll want to re-sign Meyers, and it is definitely possible (I hope it is possible) that they move on from Matt Patricia at offensive coordinator and try to salvage some relationships with Bourne and Parker.
It doesn't take a lot of decisions for the Patriots to wind up with Thornton starting in 2023, nor does it take much to imagine him being in the competition for major targets. The question is the context of those targets, the offense he winds up in, and how much you believe in Mac Jones. The quarterback situation and offensive mind vacuum in particular jog my memory to Collins.
Where I stand today is that I don't particularly believe that Thornton is a good bet to do much with the opportunity. If the Patriots land a better OC and a plan that makes sense, I reserve the right to change my mind on that. But the way they used him this season doesn't give us a lot to hang our hats on as far as belief that a second-year breakout is coming. I don't see many difference-making plays when I watch him, I see some routes that are still a little lax, and I think there's an uphill battle to fight for all of it coming to fruition in 2023 without more going in his favor this offseason.
Compels me, though.
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