TE Hunter Henry and WR Nelson Agholor give Patriots indefensible potential

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Doug Farrar
·4 min read
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When looking at the Patriots’ impending free agents, you can spin it one of two ways: Either Bill Belichick is “overspending” to cover up mistakes he’s made in the draft, or he’s reacting to what was essentially a waste year in 2020 by loading up at positions of need. I tend to err on the latter, especially when it comes to two of those players.

When the new league year turns over at 4:00 p.m. ET, former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry and former Eagles and Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor will officially become members of the Patriots’ offense, and that’s part of an overhaul of Cam Newton’s targets (or the targets of whoever is Belichick’s starting quarterback in 2021) that also includes ex-Titans tight end Jonnu Smith, and ex-49ers wideout Kendrick Bourne.

It’s an interesting assemblage for a team that had precocious little in the way of target talent, and the combination of Henry and Smith will allow Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to run their preferred two-tight end sets. Last season, with Devin Asiasi and Ryan Izzo as their primary tight ends, New England ran formations with two tight ends on just eight dropbacks all season. To put that in perspective, the Bills were second-lowest with 33 such dropbacks, and 18 different teams had more than 100 dropbacks with two tight ends in 2021.

Clearly, Belichick wants his team to be one of them in 2021 and beyond.

But for the purposes of this piece, let’s take a look at Henry and Agholor, and how they can combine forces to present one of the toughest formations and concepts to defend: The 3-by-1 set in which the tight end is the isolated receiver to the back side, and the speed receiver is the inside slot man to the front side. The Chiefs have been killing defenses with this, and while it helps when your tight end is Travis Kelce and your speed slot man is Tyreek Hill, there are specific reasons this idea can work for any team with the right personnel.

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Why is this thing so illegal? Well, in the case of the Chiefs, especially when Hill runs the deep over route to the front side, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get a linebacker on Hill, which is an epic mismatch at the best of times. And if the target is Kelce — the “Y iso,” if you don’t bracket him, or if you don’t have a dominant cover linebacker like Lavonte David of the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, you’ve got issues in that your cornerbacks aren’t going to “out-physical” Kelce, your linebackers aren’t quick enough, and your safeties probably won’t get to him in time. Kelce’s pivot route above against Browns cornerback Denzel Ward — one of the best players at his position — is just nasty.

How does this apply to the Patriots? Well, they used to run various “Y-iso” packages when they had Rob Gronkowski to put on the back side, and quick slot guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman on the inside to trips. Henry isn’t Gronk, but when he’s healthy, he’s proven able to fill that role quite well.

On this 10-yard touchdown pass from Justin Herbert in Week 13 against the Raiders, Henry is lined up backside, detached from the formation, with trips to the front side, and Oakland’s defense can’t answer it. Henry just boxes cornerback Keisean Nixon off the screen, and it’s touchdown time. He’ll do that all day.

And on this 21-yard touchdown against the Colts in Week 14 for those very same Raiders, Agholor has the inside slot, and just burns through the middle of Indianapolis’ defense. Agholor led the Raiders in slot touchdowns last season with three, and he was also the team’s most productive deep receiver. Per Pro Football Focus, Agholor had 11 catches on 23 targets of 20 or more air yards for 444 yards and six touchdowns. Not quite on Hill’s level, but a lot closer than you may think. Last season, Hill had 13 deep catches on 33 targets for 475 yards and eight touchdowns.

So, the Patriots have the parts that fit, they have the history with it, and one suspects that when the 2021 season begins, they’ll not only match that eight dropbacks with two tight ends last season in the first quarter alone, but also that they’ll frequently try to vex defenses with the most indefensible formation in the NFL today.