5 veteran Patriots most hopeful of a ‘Year 2 Jump’ in 2022

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During separate Zoom sessions with local reporters last week Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor and defensive back Jalen Mills optimistically discussed their hopes heading toward their second seasons in New England.

Both free agent additions from a year ago were complementary contributors to New England’s 10-win season in 2021 that earned the team a return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.

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Now, Agholor and Mills are just two of the veterans who played their first season in Foxborough last fall who are counting on that experience to allow them to have even more successful, impactful seasons in 2022.

Traditionally the idea of the “Year 2 Jump” is in relation to second-year players looking to build off the year of experience they gained as a rookie. Bill Belichick often acknowledges that indeed the biggest jump a young player often makes in development is between his first and second NFL season.

While Agholor, Mills and other veterans over the years before them have pointed to a similar potential growth for veterans after a year of life in learning the Patriot way of doing things in New England, there actually aren’t a ton of examples to prove the optimistic point.

Still, the offseason is indeed a time of optimism and if the players believe then maybe the rest of us should pay credence to the hopes of guys like Agholor, Mills and others working to take their game to another level this year.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five veteran Patriots who could – or in their minds should – be poised for much bigger contributions in New England in 2022.

1 – Kendrick Bourne: Bourne set career highs in receptions (50) and yards (800) while leading the Patriots (among those with more than 12 catches) with a 14.5-yard average in his first season in a Patriots uniform. But the all-smiles playmaker was targeted four or fewer times in 12 of the 17 games he played, catching an impressive 78.6 percent of the passes thrown his way. He also clearly built a strong relationship with quarterback Mac Jones – the pair has spent a lot of time together this offseason, including sitting next to each other at Sunday’s Celtics Game 7 playoff win at TD Garden. Bourne certainly seems like a guy whose attitude, work ethic and production should earn him more chances to make more plays in 2022.

2 – Jonnu Smith: While Bourne’s hopes of a Year 2 Jump should be based on how he maximized his somewhat limited chances a year ago, Smith is at the other end of the spectrum. No one was a bigger disappointment in 2022 than the former Titans tight end who landed in New England as one of the highest paid players in the NFL at his position. Smith just never looked comfortable a year ago and never had the breakout game that he and his teammates kept projecting. Smith never put up huge numbers in Tennessee, either, but he has to bring more to the table than the 294 yards and one touchdown he produced in 16 games (11 starts) in 2021. Maybe Smith will never live up to his contract or athletic ability. Maybe he’ll become simply a blocking tight end. Or maybe the Patriots new-look offensive coaching staff will find a way to get more out of Smith.

3 – Nelson Agholor: Like Smith, Agholor got a big contract in free agency last March and failed to live up to his paycheck. He currently has the third-highest cap number on the Patriots and the fifth-highest among NFL wide receivers. That’s a lot for a guy who caught just 37 passes for 473 yards with three touchdowns. Beyond his own comfort in the system, the arrival DeVante Parker could allow Agholor to be used differently in 2022. He may spend more time in the slot which could give him a chance to get back to being the guy who averaged more than 18 yards a catch for the Raiders in 2020. He may also benefit from Jones’ own development and the potential for the Patriots offense to be a bit more aerially aggressive this fall.

4 – Henry Anderson: Anderson is the type of versatile, experienced, professional defensive lineman who should have been able to fit in nicely in New England. Unfortunately he missed the entirety of last season on injured reserve and now feels like a kind of forgotten man in Foxborough. Before the injury, Belichick was quite emphatic that Anderson would very much help the Patriots last year. Now he’ll return to a front that has key building blocks like Matt Judon and Christian Barmore, able to fit into the complementary mix with the likes of Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise and Davon Godchaux. Don’t be surprised if Anderson becomes a sneaky-important contributor.

5 – Raekwon McMillan: The linebacker position is in a transition period. Kyle Van Noy was cut, while Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins remain unsigned free agents. Many are pointing to second-year player Cameron McGrone or trade addition Mack Wilson as potential key contributors at linebacker who bring more speed to the position. McMillan, though, is another option who was having a solid summer a year ago before missing the season to a torn ACL. The still-young veteran and former second-round pick has starting experience (32 NFL starts over three seasons of action) with both the Dolphins and the Raiders. McMillan could be at least a rotational contributor at linebacker in 2022, and maybe more than that.

Others receiving votes: Davon Godchaux, Jalen Mills, Matt Judon, Hunter Henry.

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