Tyquan Thornton’s college coaches explain how they saw the Baylor WR shoot up draft boards

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Baylor coach Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes had busy phones in the final weeks leading up to the draft. NFL teams seemed to be playing a game of chicken, staring each other down over how high receiver Tyquan Thornton would go.

At least five teams were interested in Thornton in Round 2, according to a league source. Two of them — the Green Bay Packers and the Houston Texans — went with different receivers at 34th and 44th. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, went with a safety at No. 48. At that point, Bill Belichick felt could wait no longer. He and the New England Patriots swerved in the game of chicken and traded up in the second round to nab the speedster. The move set off a run with four receivers selected in a five-pick span.

On one hand, Thornton was a physically talented, hardworking and productive receiver who not only logged the fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.28 seconds) but also tore up the Shrine Game, an All-Star game for top draft prospects.

Maybe former Baylor running back Abram Smith, now with the New Orleans Saints, was the engine of the Baylor offense but Thornton’s presence was what provided wings. With 62 catches for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns, he finished with 26% of the team’s receptions for 33% of the team’s receiving yards and 42% of the team’s receiving touchdowns.

“He was a riser,” Grimes told Patriots Wire. “There are guys that increase their stock within weeks of the draft and I think (Thornton) was one of those guys. And how much is he going to rise is the question. And so everyone’s just making an estimated guess. … I think the value of him was more than what some people realized.”

Thornton hadn’t initially sat atop big boards — in the media or among NFL teams — because he weighed just 183 pounds at 6-foot-2. His hands measured small. His wrists measured small. His 3-cone drill, a test of agility, massively lacked luster at 7.25 seconds. The questions were obvious: Will he ever get big enough to beat defenders in the NFL? Is he agile enough to make use of his tremendous speed?

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“Would you be concerned about him being slight of build? Yeah, I think that’s a legitimate concern for any player, particularly as you move up the food chain,” Grimes said. “I do think he’s got the frame to put on some weight and now that he’s a little bit older and a little bit more advanced in his career, maybe that will happen. But he has been a pretty durable player and hasn’t missed a lot of time due to injury.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Aranda before the draft to tackle those questions — and more.

“When I was talking to coach (Bill Belichick) about (Tyquan) when he called a couple weeks prior to the draft, it was just the continual growth for Ty and that’s been a factor in just my relationship with him. He just wants to get better. It’s that edge,” Aranda told Patriots Wire.

After that call, Aranda thought he might have an idea of what Belichick envisioned for Thornton in New England.

“I could see him being the home run threat there and someone that can open up the offense and stretch it out,” Aranda said. “I think there’s option routes underneath in the offense. There’s basic routes and compliments to running backs and timing routes. I think he can bring the ability to open it up and really stretch the sets and get those safeties further back and just open other things that are really at the core of what the offense was, particularly last year.”

If there was one place where Thornton accelerated his climb up draft boards from where the media perceived he would go (fourth round) to where he actually went, it was the Shrine Game.

“He was open all week,” Grimes said.

Thornton had just two catches for 15 yards in the actual East-West Shrine Game. But keep in mind that his quarterbacks were Jack Coan, Skylar Thompson and Brock Purdy. None of them are likely to make an NFL roster. And the game is only a small portion of the evaluation process for NFL teams. NFL teams value the practice periods significantly more. That’s where Thornton spun his competition in circles and showed substantial improvement, not just in the open field but also in the red zone.

“I got a lot of positive feedback (from the Shrine Game). I think that’s where it started,” Aranda said.

During the draft process, players often get shoved into categories, often unfairly. A player like Thornton, who was a track star in High School, seemed more of an athlete than a football player. And teams have suffered immensely for pursuing those speed-demon threats. See: John Ross, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Troy Williamson, Tedd Ginn Jr., Tyrone Calico, Jacoby Ford. The list goes on. The pre-draft process for Thornton was about breaking that stereotype.

“I think that probably was the outlook prior to the bowl week (Shrine Game) and the game,” Aranda said. “And then I think that 40-yard dash makes you want to consider going with Ty, even if that stereotype was true. And so then just the bowl experience, reviewing film, talking to him — and seeing that he’s more than that. He will bring your team on-the-field and off-the-field standards that you want your team to be about.”

The Patriots have just as much at stake as Thornton in making sure he isn’t a bust. New England is in dire need of a WR1 after drafting N’Keal Harry in the first round and seeing him flop in the NFL. Harry is the latest bust in a long list of unsuccessful draft selections at wideout for New England. The Patriots also signed wideout Nelson Agholor to a substantial deal (two years and up to $24 million) and he, too, was a bust in his first year. Receiver might historically be the toughest position for Belichick to identify talent. He hit on Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Deion Branch and a number of others. He has been much better at maximizing talent on the defensive side of the ball — with the massive exception, of course, of his development of quarterback Tom Brady.

So for Belichick to commit to a receiver, he must have liked Thornton — and substantially more than the receivers that went after the Patriots’ pick: George Pickens, Alec Pierce and Skyy Moore.

What might have really sold Belichick? The intangible qualities. The NFL combine (and the pre-draft process as a whole) is about physically measuring athletes — and often doing so beyond relevance to actually playing football. The interview process, whether at the combine or in top-30 visits, is what the media cannot see.

At Baylor, Thornton was a leader, pumping up his Baylor teammates with an astonishingly impressive rap performance at a karaoke bar during a team bonding event on the night before the Sugar Bowl. Thornton was a steady leader in the locker room and a strong communicator with the coaching staff. Though Baylor’s offense was, frankly, an abomination in 2020, Thornton elected not to transfer. He remained loyal to the team — perhaps more so than he needed to be — and returned to help Baylor’s offense return to competency in 2021, even if that meant catching two of the team’s seven completions in the Sugar Bowl. Thornton was committed to the program in a way that few college athletes are.

And perhaps that’s why Thornton and Belichick clicked.

“I love him already, man,” Thornton said of his new coach. “He’s a big process guy. That’s all we spoke about at Baylor, staying true to the process and I’m very excited to get to work with him and come in every day and learn my job. I’m ready to learn. I’m ready to compete and learn with the coaches.”

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