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Perry: Do veteran Pats pass-catchers really make big Year 2 jumps? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It's become a bit of a cliche in Foxboro. The idea of a "Year 2 Jump" has, over time, turned into the expectation for Patriots players.
While it would be intuitive for all NFL players to get better with experience -- whether it's a rookie headed into his second pro season or a veteran embarking on a second year with a given team -- are there facts to support the theory that a "Year 2 Jump" should be assumed for players in Foxboro?
The reason that question is pertinent is because Patriots wideout Nelson Agholor referenced the importance of Year 2 earlier this week.
"The best part about it (is) Year 2 in the Patriots' system is when guys really get going," Agholor said. "I feel comfortable, I'm excited to have my best season with the Patriots and show why I'm here."
Agholor caught 37 passes for 473 yards and three scores last year in his first season with the team. If he's going to become a much more significant part of the Patriots offense in 2022, he'll have to buck a trend that would suggest veteran role players in Year 1 rarely become Year 2 game-changers.
It's certainly happened with younger players before.
The best and most recent example is that of Agholor's teammate Jakobi Meyers, who caught 26 passes as a rookie and then went on to grab 59 in Year 2. He's the only pass-catcher during the Belichick era to go from catching fewer than 40 passes in his first year in the system to more than 50 in his second year. James White is another easy example of a massive leap in Year 2. He caught just five passes as a rookie in 2014 and then snagged 40 in 2015.
There are plenty of additional examples of big-time Year 2 improvement from Patriots pass-catchers under Belichick. Rob Gronkowski caught 42 passes in 2010, and then that number shot to 90 in 2011. In those same seasons, Aaron Hernandez snagged 45 and 79. Deion Branch went from 43 catches in 2002 to 57 in 2003.
The difference between Agholor and all of the names listed above is that he was a veteran in Year 1 in Foxboro and they were all rookies. Meanwhile, Gronkowski, Hernandez and Branch all had bigger Year 1 roles in New England and were starting from a higher plane than Agholor before launching into Year 2.
(There are other interesting Year 1-to-Year 2 jumps that don't really apply to this discussion. Kevin Faulk went from an Ernie Zampese offense in 1999 and caught just 12 passes. When Belichick and Charlie Weis took over in 2000, he caught 51. In Year 2 in Belichick and Weis' offense, Faulk's reception total dropped to 30. Troy Brown played in a Belichick-and-Weis style offense in his first two seasons -- 1993 and 1994 -- under offensive coordinator Ray Perkins. Brown caught two and zero passes in those seasons. He did explode in 2000 when Belichick arrived in Foxboro as head coach, though, catching 83 balls that season and then 101 in 2001.)
The examples of veteran players coming to New England, filling supporting roles and then surging to prominence in Year 2 are fewer and farther between.
The best example may be of Chris Hogan, who caught 38 passes in 2016, including four touchdowns. When he came back for Year 2 in 2017, he caught only 34 passes, but he did it in just nine games, and he improved his touchdown total with five. With Julian Edelman out for the year injured, Hogan's catches-per-game number went from 2.5 in 2016 to 3.8 in Year 2. Had Hogan kept that pace and played 15 games in 2017, as he did in 2016, he would've ended up with 57 grabs. That's a sizable jump.
Jabar Gaffney's catch total bumped from 11 to 36 between 2006 and 2007. Phillip Dorsett went from a 12-catch player in 2017 to a 32-catch player in 2018. If Agholor can improve his 2022 receptions total by 20 or more, as Gaffney and Dorsett did, the Patriots would of course welcome that. But neither Gaffney nor Dorsett came anywhere near Agholor's 2021 season with their Year 1 production, and neither morphed into centerpiece options for Belichick.
There are other examples of veteran pass-catchers going in the wrong direction in Year 2, oftentimes thanks in part to injury. Danny Amendola caught 54 passes in 2013 and 27 (in 14 games) in 2014. Brandon LaFell caught 74 passes in 2014 and just 37 (in 11 games) in 2015. Dwayne Allen caught 10 passes in 2017 and three (in 13 games) in 2018.
There are examples of vets who were key players from the moment they arrived but didn't stay (Brandin Cooks, Donte' Stallworth), those who showed up as significant contributors and remained as such through Year 2 (David Patten, Randy Moss, Wes Welker), and those who never made it to Year 2 because Year 1 was a wreck (Joey Galloway, Chad Johnson).
The New England tenures of Patriots veteran acquisitions, safe to say, run the gamut.
But what does all this mean for Agholor, especially after a 2021 season when he did not meet expectations? Is it harder to teach older dogs new tricks in New England? Should the expectation be that he really gets going in 2022?
Given the dearth of evidence of massive Year 1-to-Year 2 improvement experienced by veteran pass-catchers in the Patriots offense, it's hard to project Agholor will be a demonstrably different player this coming season. Consider as well that the Patriots have taken on two players this offseason at Agholor's position, with DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton expected to play meaningful roles, and it seems the prospects of Agholor making a "Year 2 Jump" are remote.
Given the amount he's making -- $9 million in base salary this coming season -- it's worth wondering if there will be any effort made on behalf of the team to alleviate a portion of his almost $15 million salary-cap charge for this year.