Before I start, I’d like to thank everyone at Pro Football Central for the opportunity to write for their site. There are so many talented writers in this space, and I’m excited to be a part of a brand known for intelligent discourse on all things football.
It was tough to figure out how to kick off my career at PFC. The June/July swoon is a (relative) dead zone for football news until training camp, and the offseason media circus around my Patriots had centered on off-the-field transgressions about which I have nothing to contribute (and no, I wasn’t interested in writing about Tim Tebow).
As usual, I found a way out of my writer’s block by drawing on the work of others. More specifically, this great analysis of Pats rookie Aaron Dobson from Dave’s Breakdown inspired me to do something similar with fellow 2013 draftee Josh Boyce.
The Pats enter the season with more uncertainty at the skill positions than they’ve had in any year since 2006, when Reche Caldwell led the team in receptions. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez are gone. Rob Gronkowski is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but what he really should be wrapped in is an industrial-sized heating pad and a full roll of gauze. The talent of the Patriot halfbacks—coupled with the arrival of ex-Ram slot man Danny Amendola—makes this offense more talented than the 2006 version, but the rest of the receiving corps leaves plenty to be desired.
The silver lining? At the very least, high-upside guys like Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld and Josh Boyce will get a chance to contribute for the Pats this season. The first three of those names have been getting plenty of coverage in training camp, but Boyce has been somewhat forgotten of late. Let’s take a closer look at the Patriots’ fourth-round pick.
Boyce was a three-year starter at Texas Christian University, where his production was impressive. Boyce lead the team in receiving yards every year, and finished tops on the squad in receptions in each of his last two seasons. His 66 catches this season set a TCU single-season record, and his 2,535 career receiving yards were the second-most ever by a Horned Frog (Mike Renfro).
But as Dave Archibald mentioned in the above post about Dobson, it’s not all about aggregate numbers. Just like in basketball, efficiency is the key to offensive success. So is Boyce a future star in the making, or is his production the result of a high usage rate?
No mainstream site on the internet tracks target data in college football, so like Dave, I dug through the play-by-play breakdowns to calculate Boyce’s reception rate.
According to my count of all his games from 2012, Boyce racked up his 66 catches in 95 targets, good for a 69.5% completion rating on balls thrown his way. Given the abysmal 59% overall completion rate of TCU’s quarterbacks in 2012, Boyce was a highly efficient receiver in 2012. Even if you only consider the stats of QB Casey Pachall, TCU’s QB1 prior to his withdrawal from the school to enter an inpatient rehab facility, Boyce is still a top target: Pachall has never had a completion percentage that touched 67%.
Boyce also wasn’t just a dink-and-dunk receiver at TCU: he averaged 9.4 yards/attempt in 2012. If a college QB were to have sustained that yards/attempt number over the entire 2012 season, he’d have ranked second in the nation in that stat behind only Georgia’s Aaron Murray (10.1).
Efficiency is an important metric, but it (obviously) only tells you how a player fared against the level of competition he faced. The Boston Celtics can draft Kelly Olynyk and tout his offensive efficiency at Gonzaga, but given his lack of athleticism, it’s tough to see him scoring as effectively in the pros.
So, naturally, it’s important to look beyond a prospect’s statistics and determine if his athleticism will allow him to succeed in the pros by the same methods he did in college. Will Boyce be able to establish separation as effectively in the NFL as he did against the DBs he faced in school? Is he strong enough to shake off press coverage? Can he hold his own as a blocker?
His NFL Combine measurables say yes—especially when you consider that he achieved those measurables while struggling through a broken foot.
Even without that caveat, he was impressive as any of his positional competitors in Indianapolis.
Boyce was among the top WR performers in the 40-yard dash (4.38 seconds), the three-cone drill (6.68 seconds), the 60-yard shuttle (11.26 seconds), the underrated broad jump (131 inches, a testament to his explosiveness off the line), and the bench press (22 reps). At least on paper, Boyce is fast, explosive, agile, shifty and strong.
At 5’11″, 206 pounds, Boyce is just a tad short for an outside receiver, especially if his pedestrian 34-inch vertical at the Combine is reflective of his jumping ability. As a result, he’ll likely be confined to slot duties for the forseeable future, with the skillset to play outside in a pinch at most.
Boyce also has a bulky frame, and while it clearly doesn’t affect his potential as a true burner, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to add muscle to his body going forward. If you asked a weight trainer about the chances of Boyce adding muscle, he’d likely say that there’s just “not a lot of places to put it.” That’s not a deal-breaker, given Boyce’s innate strength, but it does limit his upside in that department.
Tale of the Tape
Of course, the most important way to scout a prospect is to watch him play. Plenty of players don’t live up to impressive measurables or can’t figure out how to contribute at the NFL level. Projecting college WRs is one of the toughest tasks of any NFL scout (which explains the high bust rate at the position), but we can at least take a look at the tape available to us and see if it’s possible to snuff out any of Boyce’s tendencies.
Let’s look at Boyce’s performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan State.
First thing you’ll notice in this video is that the Horned Frogs like to move Boyce all around the field. In the first four plays alone, you’ll see Boyce line up right slot, wide left, left slot, wide right. Without even examining his skillset, it seems like Boyce’s versatility makes him a good fit for the Z-receiver, Emmanuel Sanders-type role in the offense. If Boyce can learn the Patriots’ Erhardt-Perkins offense and get a firm grasp of the concepts New England runs, he could line up anywhere on the field and exploit mismatches against slower defenders in coverage.
Out of the slot, Boyce is explosive. He gets off the line incredibly quickly with full strides and is adept at finding the soft spots in the defense. He’s clearly smart and understands where to settle on his routes (first play of the clip, 1:30, and 2:47) and how to get yards after the catch (a crucial skill for a slot receiver—you’ll see some nice moves on the big gainer that starts at 1:30). Though he doesn’t have any highlight-reel broken tackles in this video, fire-hydrant build appears to make him tough to bring down except by wrap/ankle tackles.
When lined up against press, something funny happens with Boyce–he dances more, trying to shake defenders off the line rather than using his burst and strength to get by them. You’ll see similar stutter steps at 0:11, 1:08, 1:46—whenever he’s lined up on the outside and the CB is showing press. It’s almost as if Boyce is tentative around press coverage, which is something he’ll have to correct at the NFL level, where CBs are fast enough to bump him and still keep up with his speed. Still, what you see in this comically-small one-(big) game sample is a player with separation skills, the willingness to go over the middle and run every route on the tree, and the footwork to leave CBs in the dust off his breaks (watch him eat his man alive at 1:45).
As a blocker, Boyce is willing but limited by his size and his tendency not to finish his blocks (though he makes a nice one on the end-zone run at 1:00 in the video, you’ll see plays like 3:09 where he gets bullied off his spot and his assignment makes the tackle). Boyce also plays special teams both as a returner and a blocker, and it’s that kind of versatility that makes him a valuable player in the eyes of Pats coach Bill Belichick.
Training Camp Performance
The early returns on Boyce have been very positive in his first camp. As I mentioned earlier, Boyce has been somewhat forgotten behind the hot camp stories of twin UDFAs Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins, but our resident Horned Frog has played well enough in his own right.
Unfortunately, as a New Yorker, I’m not able to attend Pats training camp in person, so here are a few reviews of Boyce’s performance from people who actually got to watch him play.
First, here’s NESN.com‘s Doug Kyed on Boyce’s play from July 28:
“The rookie wideout showed off his precise footwork and route-running skills and even took some first-team reps. Boyce also shined in one-on-one drills against the cornerbacks. He was going against undrafted rookie Stephon Morris, but he was still beating his man at the line. Boyce also beat Logan Ryan twice down the field. One of the catches he made was a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch down the sidelines.”
Finally, here is a review from Coach Belichick himself, acknowledging Boyce’s long recovery from his foot injury while praising him for a good week of camp:
“He really didn’t do anything in the spring. He was still rehabbing his foot. He trained hard in the offseason, came in, and was ready to go at the beginning of training camp with the rookies. So he’s had a really good full week going back to last Sunday, which was the first day [rookies] were in. He’s had a good week, made a lot of progress. He has a long way to go, but I’m excited to work with him, too. He definitely can run.”
With sky-high potential out of the slot and positive training camp reviews, Boyce is a candidate to break out this very season. Pats fans hope he can do just that.