FOXBORO — One of the more intriguing questions heading into the Patriots’ 2023 season was who would emerge as the Patriots’ No. 1 wide receiver?
Coming out of training camp, the favorites, based on pecking order in practice reps were wide receivers DeVante Parker and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and tight end Hunter Henry. Seven weeks into the season, a fourth candidate has not only emerged, he’s nearly doubling the Patriots’ next top pass catchers in receiving yards.
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Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne leads the Patriots with 34 catches, 370 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots’ next-top target, Henry, has 20 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Parker has just 14 catches for 144 yards, and Smith-Schuster hasn’t even cracked the century mark in receiving yards with 14 catches for 86 yards.
Henry has been consistent as one of the Patriots’ top offensive players, but Parker saw practice squad elevation Jalen Reagor eat into his snaps in Week 7. Smith-Schuster might have lost his starting slot job to Demario Douglas last week, as well. Meanwhile, Bourne is fifth on team in offensive snaps. He was off of the field for just four snaps in each of the last two games, in which he has 16 catches for 152 yards with a touchdown.
He’s also been the NFL’s 11th-best wide receiver, per ESPN analytics, which uses “player-tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats to evaluate every route a pass catcher runs and scores his performance in three phases of the game, from 0 to 99.”
He ranks fourth in yards after catch, 36th in getting open and 40th in catching, based on those metrics.
So, what’s been going so right?
“Just practicing well, executing well with the team,” Bourne said. “Just focusing each and every day to make the plays work. Just practice as an overall group has been going good.”
This is the player Patriots fans were expecting to see in 2022 as Bourne came off of a career year in his first season in New England, catching 55 passes for 800 yards with five touchdowns in 2021 with Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator. But Bourne saw his snap count decrease in 2022 under Matt Patricia, and he disappointed with just 35 catches for 434 yards with one touchdown.
“I just was kind of not bought in last year, just going through a lot of personal things and mental battles,” Bourne said. “And last year helped me a lot for this year, though. So when I look back at it, I’m thankful for it. It was some things I regret, but ultimately, it was God’s journey for me to become who I am right now. And so ultimately, it was worth it. But I definitely don’t want to go through it again.”
When asked if last year’s coaching staff had to do with Bourne not buying in, he said he was just not “personally, mentally” bought in.
He was focusing more on himself than football as he “turned his life around for God.” But in the long run, it made him a better player this season.
“I just lived with discipline, not partying, not doing things I used to do,” Bourne said about last season. “And just taking care of my body and not putting alcohol in my body so much, just other things, (not) hanging out women and doing all the — staying up all night. The whole nine lifestyle I kind of changed around.
“And it was it was hard for me personally, and just was focusing on myself and football was hard to focus on. So two things at once in doing that ultimately made me a better football player.”
But learning to focus on himself meant not doing the little things in the facility throughout the week last season. And he regretted how he was “approaching every day.”
“Not taking care of my body, going home too early and things like that,” Bourne said. “Not getting treatment and getting in the tubs and the sauna. Just the little things after practice. You know, I would go to practice, I had good days but my body was aching. And now you know, (my) body still aches. Just doing it the right way. Now, my body feels a lot better. It can endure more.”
Bourne has found balance and adjusted to his new lifestyle, and with that has emerged a better football player.
He was able to bulk up to 205 pounds over the offseason, and despite the rigors of practice and game snaps, he’s been able to keep that weight on. He’s been working with Patriots dietician Ted Harper.
“I’m on a consistent nutrition routine,” Bourne said. “Ted has me — I don’t eat strictly but I eat better than I used to. Last year that was my struggle too was my nutrition, eating unhealthy and so this year has been much better.”
Bourne is on pace for career highs this season as quarterback Mac Jones’ top target.