Patriots “Making the Leap” Candidate: Malcolm Mitchell

When the Patriots selected Malcolm Mitchell in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft many considered the selection a steal.

Mitchell showed glimpses of obvious talent during his time at the University of Georgia, and if it wasn’t for a slew of injuries holding him back, he would have gone much earlier in the draft.

As I will outline below, the Patriots eased Mitchell into the offense in his rookie season. They simplified his route tree and didn’t ask the young receiver to run anything too complex.

Mitchell was basically a slant/curl/comeback receiver in 2016, with a few go routes and screens thrown in. That doesn’t come as a huge surprise given his experience and the role he was filling in the Patriots offense.

In most cases, Mitchell played the “X” receiver role in the Patriots offense, meaning he lined up on the weak side of the formation opposite the tight end. In other NFL offenses, this position is typically occupied by high profile receivers such as Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Dez Bryant. In the Patriots offense, however, the X hasn’t been a focal point (other than in the Moss years) as the team has curtailed the play calling to its strengths at tight end and slot receiver.

Mitchell broke out with a few big games down the stretch filling in for injured Patriot receivers, but it was in the Super Bowl where the football world saw what he could do. Mitchell had more receiving yards (63) than any other player on either team in the fourth quarter and overtime, and Tom Brady went 5-5 targeting him.

In year two, Mitchell may struggle to see enough targets to show real signs of development, but based on his 2016 season he will make it difficult on the Patriots coaching staff to keep him on the sideline.

Below, I will go over the strengths of Mitchell’s game based on last season’s tape, and outline how he can make the leap in 2017.

Slant/Curl/Comeback Routes

A very common combination of route concepts for the Patriots weak side receiver is the slant/curl/comeback trio. We saw players such as Brandon LaFell and Brandon Lloyd carve out roles for themselves with these exact routes in recent years.

Mitchell, was good at all three as a rookie, but was excellent running curls and comebacks. As you see in the plays above, he does a tremendous job selling the go route initially, and is very crisp at the top of routes in his movements. This makes those trying to stick with Mitchell have fits, as he creates almost instant separation with his moves at the top of routes.

Another area that is extremely impressive is Mitchell’s willingness to attack the ball in the air, and snatch it with his hands. He hardly ever waits for the ball to come to him, which makes it even more difficult for corners to make a play on the pass.

On one of these examples, Mitchell catches a short 6-yard curl that doesn’t look like much, but he attacks the ball in the air and snatches it away from Jets corner (and former Patriot) Darryl Roberts. That’s textbook right there.

On the comeback route example from the Super Bowl, Mitchell causes Falcons corner XX to slip with a great cut at the top of the route, and even goes to the ground to haul in the pass.

YAC Monster

One area of Mitchell’s game that made him an obvious fit for the Patriots is his ability to pick up yards after the catch, a must for any receiver in New England.

Mitchell isn’t just good at running with the football. he’s great, and he’s able to go straight into “YAC mode” without slowing down, a rare skill. As soon as he catches the ball you can see him immediately look up field and begin to gain extra yards. He’s also difficult to bring down as the Houston Texans found out the hard way.

For a rookie, Mitchell showed great awareness on the football field. He didn’t just run with the football to run with it, but rather would set up defenders in the open field, and was aware at all times of who was around him and where he was on the field.  In both the example against Baltimore, and one I’ll show later, Mitchell also does a great job of staying alive for Tom Brady when Brady was under pressure. He continues to work back to the quarterback and move to get open when the pocket breaks down, which is a unique trait for a rookie.

Red Zone Threat

Mitchell caught four touchdowns in his rookie season, and three of those came within ten yards of the end zone. The Patriots list Mitchell at 6-1, but down by the goal line he tends to play bigger, using his body to shield defenders and catching passes above his head.

Mitchell also shows a good understanding of how to get open in tight spaces, and has a few tricks up his sleeve that you wouldn’t expect from a rookie.

Deep Threat

Here’s where Mitchell will need to improve the most in his second season if he wants to demand playing time. In the regular and postseason combined, Mitchell saw just seven targets of 20+ air yards, 12.3% of his target share, and only caught two of those passes thrown his way per PFF*. Those obviously aren’t impressive numbers, and as outlined here by Next Gen Stats, Mitchell didn’t run very many routes beyond 20 yards either: https://nextgenstats.nfl.com/charts/player/malcolm-mitchell/MIT502824.

The deep connection between Brady and Mitchell just never seemed to get on the same page. As illustrated in the GIFs, Mitchell had some chances against the Jets in Week 12 to haul in a few deep passes, and just couldn’t hang on.

I don’t think it’s a matter of ability when it comes to Mitchell taking the top off the defense, but you would like to see more consistency from him at the catch point on deep passes. In the clip where Mitchell is lined up at the top of the screen vs the Jets, the ball goes right through his hands on a pass that should have been completed. You have to catch those as an NFL receiver.

Based on what he has shown, Mitchell has enough speed to beat defenders deep, and he does such a good job of selling go routes on curls and comebacks. It would seem that an obvious addition to Mitchell’s game in 2017 would be adding some double moves to his repertoire. With how often, and how well, Mitchell runs routes that bring him back to the quarterback, you’d expect defenders to start jumping those routes, which would set up the double move.

Mitchell’s 56-yard touchdown catch and run against the Niners was the third-longest pass TD for the Pats in 2016. That play is more about Mitchell’s awareness to stay alive while Brady eludes pressure. The yards after catch are nice, but the play had broken down, and it wasn’t a true deep ball. That was one of the two grabs Mitchell had of 20+ air yards last year, and the only touchdown. The other reception of 20+ air yards was the first play shown in the slant/curl/comeback section, a comeback route, that barely traveled over 20 yards in the air.

Conclusion

It will most likely be difficult for Mitchell to demand targets and snaps in 2017. The Patriots are absolutely loaded at the skill position spots, and have four veteran wide receivers currently on the roster (Cooks, Edelman, Hogan, Amendola).

Having said that, Mitchell is the future, along with Brandin Cooks, at the wide receiver position for the Pats.

Julian Edelman is in his age 31 season, while Danny Amendola will be 32 by the end of 2017. Chris Hogan is only 28, but Mitchell has much higher upside, and overall, just has more talent.

The Patriots should find opportunities to get Mitchell on the field so he can continue to develop as a receiver. He has all the skill to be at least a solid #2 in the Patriots offense.

 

 

*https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge