FOXBORO — Along with trying to figure out why the Patriots can’t score in the red zone, or convert on third down, here’s another question that pops up when dissecting the offense:
What happened to Tyquan Thornton?
The rookie receiver, who caught four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown during the Week 6 win over the Cleveland Browns, has been on a milk carton ever since.
He’s had just four catches in the five games following the Browns game. Against the Vikings on Thanksgiving, he played 20 offensive snaps, and wasn’t targeted.
The promising 22-year-old, who was taken in the second round out of Baylor, boasts speed and explosiveness. In training camp, he showed good route running skills, as well. None of that has been on display in recent weeks.
Could he have hit a rookie wall after playing in seven games following his early season stint on IR due to the collarbone injury he suffered in the preseason?
Speaking with Troy Brown and Ross Douglas, who handle the receivers, both coaches had nothing but positive things to say about the rookie during their video availability Sunday. There didn’t seem to be any issues hindering the young wideout.
They both sounded pleased with his progress. It’s just not translating on the scoresheet.
“Tyquan’s doing everything we ask of him,” said Brown. “He comes out, he practices hard, he goes in the game and he plays well.
“We haven’t been trying to keep him on any pace or anything like that, measuring him against another rookie or anything,” he added, “but he’s doing what we ask him to do for our football team.”
Douglas echoed those sentiments. Based on what he’s seen in practice and on film from the games, Douglas sounded confident Thornton would be more visible soon given the separation he’s been getting in games.
“I think Tyquan, I see him as a young player that’s ascending and he’s getting better every single day,” Douglas said. “The ball hasn’t really found him here in the past couple weeks. But when we look on film, he’s doing a lot of good things. He’s creating some separation. He’s blocking hard in the run game.
“He’s a player that will continue to improve. And, by him just continuing to do what he’s doing, he’ll be able to contribute more.”
As the saying goes, no time like the present. Perhaps he’ll have his number called a little more against the Bills and make some pivotal plays.
The Patriots could sure use a secret weapon to help the offense keep pace with Josh Allen and the NFL’s second-best scoring offense (28.1 ppg). He’s one receiver the Bills defense has yet to deal with in a game. Thornton could provide a spark against one of the best defenses in the league.
He could be an X-factor with his blazing 4.2 speed.
The trouble is, at the moment, he’s pretty much been a zero factor in the offense during the past month and beyond.
He’s fallen down the depth chart behind Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor.
After Meyers and Parker, though, the play from the other receivers has been inconsistent at best.
Thornton has dropped a few passes in recent weeks, and has displayed a bit of alligator arms in traffic, which could be one reason Mac Jones hasn’t looked in his direction more frequently. Or, it’s simply a matter of him being a rookie, and both Bill Belichick and play-caller Matt Patricia tending to lean on the veterans more in crucial games.
The Patriots have also been using him a little more in the slot, as opposed to outside, in the recent games he’s played. It just hasn’t translated into production. He’s only been targeted 13 times during the past six games.
For his part, Thornton says he’s completely healthy following the shoulder surgery needed to fix his preseason injury. The rookie wideout, however, says the time lost and practices missed initially had an impact.
“I feel like the time I missed definitely played a role. That time was critical with all the practices … of course that time affected things,” he said during a phone interview Monday. “But I feel like after I came back, I didn’t miss a beat.”
Thornton believes his chemistry with Jones, as well as the other quarterbacks, is good. They’re on the same page.
And while he’d love to make a splash against Buffalo, he’s just going to do what the coaches ask him to do.
“I’m just coming in and doing my job,” he said. “If it’s one catch a game, as long as I did my job, then I’m cool with it.”
Like Thornton, the 2022 rookie class as a whole started out well, but many of the others have faded like like the receiver. Returner Marcus Jones has been a bright spot of late, but most of the others have been struggling.
First-round pick Cole Strange has been benched, and continues to allow pressures and sacks when he’s in at left guard. Cornerback Jack Jones has cooled off both in terms of limiting plays against him, and producing turnovers. Running back Pierre Strong, meanwhile, committed a game-changing penalty trying to block a Vikings punt Thursday night.
Running back Kevin Harris and defensive lineman Sam Roberts haven’t done much, while quarterback Bailey Zappe had a nice little run with Jones and Brian Hoyer hurt, but has returned to backup status.
It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Thornton in particular and if he’ll have any impact. Naturally, he’s going to be compared with several receivers who went immediately after him in the draft, namely Pittsburgh’s George Pickens, Indianapolis’ Alec Pierce, and Kansas City’s Skye Moore, who have all gotten off to better starts.
Still, Thornton maintains he’s getting better every week, even if it doesn’t translate statistically.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot here, just learning and growing within our system and connecting with the players on the team,” he said. “I feel like I’m handling everything pretty well … right now, it’s just about being consistent, coming in every day, and putting your best foot forward.”
The expectation was for him to put a little more sizzle into the offense, and take the top off of defenses. Fortunately for Thornton, there’s still time.