With Kendrick Bourne on injured reserve, DeVante Parker out with a concussion and JuJu Smith-Schuster recently demoted, second-year pro Tyquan Thornton had a golden opportunity to ascend up the Patriots’ wide receiver depth chart and carve out a starting role in the offense Sunday.
Instead, Thornton, who came into the game questionable with a toe injury, was benched early in the second quarter after catching one pass on four targets for 7 yards through the first 19 minutes of the 20-17 loss. Head coach Bill Belichick said Monday morning that Thornton was available in the final two and a half quarters.
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It would have been difficult to imagine Thornton, a 2022 second-round pick, being less productive in Year 2 than he was as a rookie, but he’s caught just three passes on seven targets for 15 yards in three games since being activated off of injured reserve. He was inactive as a healthy scratch in the Patriots’ Week 8 loss to the Dolphins. He caught 22 passes on 47 targets for 247 yards with two touchdowns in 13 games last season.
The slim speedster ranked 101st out of 102 qualified wide receivers last season with 0.76 yards per route run. That figure has dropped down to 0.48 yards per route run in 2023.
Based on the first year and a half of Thornton’s career, and his overall decline this season, it would not be unfair to say he looks like another early-round wide receiver draft bust for Belichick. The Patriots have selected eight wide receivers in the first three rounds of the draft since Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, only Deion Branch would qualify as a hit while Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Aaron Dobson, N’Keal Harry and Thornton — so far — would not.
So, what does Thornton have to do to receive more playing time and become a more productive player over the final eight games of the season?
“Look, the fourth-and-three, he was open, he ran a good route at the beginning of the game,” O’Brien said Tuesday of an incompletion from quarterback Mac Jones. “There was a third down later in the game, where he didn’t win on the route. Look, he hasn’t played a lot of football because of injury, so when you don’t play a lot of football, it’s hard. He’s got to continue to work, and he will.
“He’s a great guy, works very, very hard. And he just hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. I’m not making excuses for him, I’m just telling you he hasn’t been out on the field a lot. Shoulder, whatever it is, he’s had a couple of injuries over the course of his young career and he doesn’t have a ton of experience. That comes on the field then obviously the games. Tyquan works very hard and I think he’ll be able to do that.”
Thornton has missed the beginning of each of his two seasons in the NFL after suffering injuries in over the summer.
The Baylor product isn’t exactly competing with the Bengals wide receiver corps for snaps. Bourne is out for the season, and Parker saw his playing time decrease for practice squad promotion Jalen Reagor even before suffering his concussion in Week 8. Smith-Schuster was benched for rookie Demario Douglas last week before taking over for Thornton on Sunday. Rookie Kayshon Boutte has been a healthy scratch each week since the Patriots’ season opener when he filled in for Parker.
So, it’s a truly bad sign that Thornton, given his high pedigree and 4.28-second 40-yard dash speed, can’t get on and stay on the field.