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Film Room: Why Ja’Lynn Polk could become a versatile weapon for the Patriots

Despite being one of the most productive college receivers last season, Ja’Lynn Polk was a somewhat controversial pick at 37th overall.

Although some media pundits agreed with the selection, others questioned whether the Washington product was affordable for everyone. New England lost to splitter Ladd McConkey by trading away the 34th pick. Controversial but explosive prospects like Adonai Mitchell and Jermaine Burton were still around when Polk was drafted. Also available were undersized dynamos Malachi Corley and Roman Wilson and skinny speedster Troy Franklin.

However, it’s hard to argue that any of these options were more coherent, versatile, or well-rounded than Polk.

Executive vice president of player personnel Eliot Wolf explained what made Polk so valuable shortly after the receiver was drafted.

“Yeah, he’s a guy we’ve been watching for a while. He fits into our offense really well,” Wolf said. “He’s really tough, he’s strong, he can run all the routes, play from the inside to the outside. He’s a good blocker. He’s really competitive, both with the ball in the air and as a run-after-catch player. He’s really just an all-around guy, a do-it-all kind of guy. He ran a little faster than many people expected, but when you turn on the tape you see him running among the people. So I’m really excited to add it to the mix.

Polk began his college career at Texas Tech during a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Wanting a fresh start, he transferred to Washington in 2021 but missed nine games with a collarbone injury. Polk bounced back with a strong second season, then broke out his first year as Robin to Rome Odunze’s Batman.

Polk was also praised for his leadership and maturity, traits that New England seemed to be targeting with its top picks. According to Dane Brugler, Washington’s coaching staff “praises (Polk’s) work ethic and daily approach, both in practice and in games.” Former head coach Kalen DeBoer called Polk “one of the toughest, strongest kids we have on the football team.”

Collegiate success and recognition off the field are solid foundations, but how will they translate to the NFL? Here’s an in-depth look at how Polk wins and his potential in the Patriots’ new offense.

HOW HE WINS

Between his ball tracking, magnetic hands, and fearlessness at the catch point, Polk is a quarterback’s best friend. Her The 88th percentile long jump and the 75th percentile vertical jump are evident when ascending to high passes, and only Odunze and Luke McCaffrey had more contested catches last season.

Consistency as a receiver should allow him to produce quickly, but Polk’s unselfish blocking could lead to immediate playing time. His tone-setting physique, relentless effort and contagious enthusiasm have made him a focal point of the Huskies’ running game.

Ja’Lynn Polk blocks

Washington took full advantage of this unique skill, using Polk as a pseudo-H-back on some plays. Rather than just digging corners and safeties, he was asked to take on linebackers and even defensive linemen. Despite these difficult missions, he never flinched and always stood his ground. He also made it heard to the defenders when he imposed himself.

This type of effort can elevate a running game from good to great, making Polk a valuable asset on first downs and short-yardage situations.

Polk reaped the rewards of this work on play-action stepbacks. More than 20 percent of Polk’s targets on the field came on crossing routes, where he slipped behind second-level defenders frozen by fake runs. These rehearsals featured breathtaking fits and finishes, which sometimes made up for Michael Penix Jr.’s poor accuracy.

Ja’Lynn Polk on Crossing Roads

Double moves, particularly back-and-forths and post-corners, were also integral to Polk’s success. These routes showcase his commercial savvy, with Polk using both his head and body to sell his initial break. He’s also physical against blocking attempts in his shank, sliding or fighting through contact to defeat tight coverage.

Ja’Lynn Polk on double moves

Although deception played an important role in Polk’s output, he created many great plays himself. One of his primary man-beaters was the starting lane, where he typically lined up at or near the top of the numbers for easier access to the sideline.

Ja’Lynn Polk on Go Routes

Polk isn’t a burner, but he has enough juice to stack press corners when released for free. If a defender is on his hip, he will fight in close combat to (legally) push him away or keep him at bay. He is also an exceptional deep ball tracker, using late hands to avoid tipping the incoming pass.

On routes like curls and putbacks, Polk uses his pace to keep defenders on their toes before collapsing with smooth hips and knee bends. He also has a knack for exploiting space in zones and gets back to the quarterback when necessary.

As a ball carrier, Polk demonstrates tenacity and a quick change of direction. While he’s not a dynamic YAC threat, he will take advantage of wide lanes, poor angles, and half-hearted tackle attempts.

Ja’Lynn Polk after the catch

Now that we’ve broken down Polk’s skill set, let’s take a look at his potential fit in offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt’s offense.

ADAPTED TO THE DIET

When Van Pelt was with the Browns, the ground game and lineup versatility were offensive staples. Like Polk in Washington, Donovan Peoples-Jones handled most of the dirty work in Cleveland’s draft. Although he was primarily used as a Z receiver, he lined up in multiple spots and was consistently close to the action.

Donovan Peoples-Jones blocks

New England’s receiver room is full of high-effort blockers, but Polk may be the best of the bunch. Since he and Peoples-Jones have held similar assignments, the rookie seems like the perfect person to take on that role in the Patriots’ new offense.

The similarities don’t end there, as the receivers ran very similar route trees.

When Peoples-Jones played with Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett in Cleveland, both thrived on the road and on the road. These targets usually came in obvious passing situations with Peoples-Jones on the outside, often from the X spot. Brissett wasn’t afraid to test tight coverage, and the veteran receiver’s contested catching ability led to memorable connections, especially on the touchline.

Jacoby Brissett to Donovan Peoples-Jones

Unlike Peoples-Jones, Polk typically ran his go routes from the numbers, and he was only targeted on two routes last season. Polk could certainly benefit from free releases early in his career, which would help minimize the increased media coverage he will face as a professional. That said, he has the tools to adapt to and even build on Peoples-Jones’ old role over time.

While Brissett is expected to start 2024 as the Patriots’ starting quarterback, he’s simply keeping the seat warm for Drake Maye. The 3rd overall pick was one of the most aggressive passers in college football, but the lack of quality receiving talent led to several missed opportunities.

Polk’s strong hands, focus and indifference to contact should endear him to Maye, whose accuracy is still a work in progress. Based on footage from the Patriots social media team, New England’s top picks, along with Javon Baker, have already started establishing their connections.

OUTLOOK

Like any first-year player, Polk is far from a finished product, but he has the mentality to maximize his potential.

My mindset is just ‘be different,'” Polk said in a news conference shortly after being drafted. “A lot of guys have done a lot of work, so to separate yourself, you have to find a way to be different inside yourself So challenge myself, find my weaknesses, the things I need to work on to be able to excel in my game and stand out from the best. So continually have that state. The high-performance mentality of wanting to be better every day, pushing the guys around me and being a leader.

This leadership has been evident from the start. Polk led receiver drills during the Patriots’ rookie minicamp and was vocal throughout practice. During the team’s first OTA session, Maye and his rookie receivers were among the last players to leave the field.

Polk also showed impressive self-awareness for a young player, giving reporters a detailed explanation of how he wants to improve.

“I just have more energy on my drives, and I’m more efficient coming out of my breaks,” Polk said. “Being more explosive, being able to break up those tackles, make that extra guy miss, using my body and my strengths. Knowing I’m a physical receiver, I force a guy and make him miss. So I’m excited to be able to show the world again what I can do and help this team win games.

While the Patriots have plenty of capable pass catchers on their roster, none offer Polk’s combination of high-level blocking, positional flexibility and three-level skill. Pair that profile with exemplary mental makeup, and he could become a rare home run for New England at the wide receiver position.