2021 NFL Free Agency: Reviewing signings of Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor

    The New England Patriots signed a number of players in the 2021 NFL free agency period. Did those moves pay off?

    During the 2021 NFL free agency period, the New England Patriots brought in a great deal of talent to help bolster their passing game, signing the likes of Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Kendrick Bourne. Let’s look back at these four players’ statistics from this past season to evaluate whether these moves paid off.

    The traditional statistics earned by the Patriots’ additions were mixed

    Let’s start with the obvious way to evaluate the success of these four players — box score statistics. Bourne was the most productive of the four, with 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. Since the Patriots didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver last season, Bourne wasn’t far from being New England’s leader in that category, only being outgained by Jakobi Meyers.

    Henry came next, totaling 603 receiving yards and an impressive 9 touchdowns. Agholor had 473 yards and 3 touchdowns. Finally, there’s Smith. On the surface, he was the least successful of the four, with a relatively meager 294 yards and a single touchdown.

    Based on these numbers, the free agent signing with the highest return seems obvious. However, the advanced metrics don’t quite agree.

    The advanced metrics for the 2021 NFL free agency additions are similarly split, but in a different way

    If we really want to see how much impact these four players had on the New England offense, we’ll need to investigate beyond their traditional statistics. To that end, let’s turn to the Offensive Value Metric (OVM). The OVM is a grading system created by the (Bx) Movement to measure how much of a player’s statistical production they were actually responsible for.

    We’ll look at the players in question in order from the most to the least productive. As you’ll see, the grades don’t always match up.

    OVM scores

    As with his box score numbers, Bourne was phenomenal in this metric, earning a grade of 37.27. That ranked third out of 98 qualifying wide receivers.

    Henry, on the other hand, was awful. He received a grade of 30.92. Tight ends generally perform better on the OVM than wide receivers, so relatively speaking, Henry’s grade is even worse than it appears, coming in at eighth-worst at the position. Despite being one of the more statistically successful of the four players, he was one of the least effective.

    Agholor’s OVM grade (30.48) was lower than Henry’s. But by the standards of a wide receiver, it was relatively mediocre at 46th. Last up is Smith, who, despite his low production, earned an exceptionally high grade. At 37.45, it was seventh among tight ends.

    Interestingly, the two wide receivers earned OVM grades that aligned with their box score numbers, while the tight ends flipped.

    Examining the factors behind the Patriots’ 2021 NFL free agency WR/TE grades

    To understand why some of these four players earned grades that matched their production and others didn’t, we need to look at the advanced metrics involved in calculating those grades. In the chart below, you can see how the New England players performed on the following statistics:

    • The average amount of cushion they were given at the snap
    • The average amount of separation between them and the nearest defender when the ball reached them
    • Their catch percentages
    • Their average yards after the catch per reception
    • The yards after the catch they were expected to average, according to the NFL’s advanced statistics
    Cushion Separation Catch % YAC YAC +/-
    Agholor 4.8 2.6 57.81% 2.8 -0.3
    Bourne 6.4 3.3 78.47% 7.1 2.7
    Henry 5.7 2.7 66.67% 3.4 -0.3
    Smith 5.4 4 62.22% 8.7 2

     

    Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see why Bourne earned the highest grade. He had the highest catch percentage by far, created the second-most separation, and also had solid YAC numbers.

    Smith, meanwhile, had a relatively low catch percentage but created the most separation and the highest yards after the catch, although his differential was worse than Bourne.

    Henry and Agholor, on the other hand, struggled in every area. And if you can’t create separation, catch the ball, or create yards after the catch, it’s tough to be effective.

    Comparing the consistency of the 2021 NFL free agency additions

    There is another method of evaluating these players — their consistency. You can see their weekly grades in the charts below, marked by the black dots. For comparison, the yellow line represents the average OVM grades for their respective positions so far this season.

    Unsurprisingly, Bourne was the most consistent. Three of his six grades were above 40 points, and his worst was still above 25. Smith had the same split, although he had both a higher peak and a lower valley. You could argue that he should have been used more later in the season.

    On the other hand, Henry didn’t earn any grades that reached the 40-point threshold. And he earned a truly abysmal grade of 6.76 in Week 16. Agholor, meanwhile, was exceptionally inconsistent, with grades ranging from 16.49 in Week 3 to a spectacular grade of 53.17 in Week 11.

    The New England additions were a mixed bag in many different ways

    Broadly speaking, these numbers show the discrepancy between production and player effectiveness. The fact that a player filled a stat sheet doesn’t necessarily mean they created them effectively. And the reverse is true as well.

    From a more Patriots-focused perspective, the team clearly went big in the 2021 NFL free agency period. Some of the signings paid off, while others saw more mixed results. How those moves continue to develop in the future and the success of New England’s passing game in 2022 will depend on continued improvement from Mac Jones, who had a solid — if not overly inspiring — rookie year. We’ll see how it comes together next season.

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