NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
There are 12 wide receivers heading into training camp with the New England Patriots. At the very skeleton, the position is broken down into outside receivers, slot receivers and special teamers.
Then there is Josh Boyce.
A fourth-round pick in April’s draft, Boyce is not defined by one particular mold. At 5’11”, 205 pounds, he may seem destined to play inside. Then again, he also has extensive experience playing the “Z” role outside in the spread, even logging select reps as a tailback and returner.
The 22-year-old Texas Christian product can do a little bit of everything. And while he may have his peaks and valleys, Boyce carries the traits of immediacy.
Head coach Bill Belichick noted in his post-draft press conference — as transcribed on Patriots.com — that the learning curve from college to the pros is a steep one:
“It evolves a bit every year, maybe gets modified a little bit, but it’s grown. It’s certainly — it has a lot more breadth to it than it did in 2000, 2001, 2002. That means a new guy coming in has to learn — to a degree — 12, 13 years of stuff instead of a guy that’s coming in and learning the system from scratch with a new coach and that type of thing. It probably is a lot. I think that’s challenging.”
Acclimating to the Patriots offense is undoubtedly a challenge. As time has shown, there’s no certainty when it comes to young receivers in Foxborough. Still, there is cautious optimism with No. 82.
It begins with the head on his shoulders.
Boyce has already checked off the Patriots’ intelligence prerequisite, graduating last December with a year of college eligibility remaining. For what it’s worth, he also graded out with a Wonderlic score of 23, which was tied for second-highest among wide receiving prospects in this year’s crop.
Per SI.com’s Greg A. Bedard, formerly of The Boston Globe, Boyce’s Wonderlic is the highest known Patriots score since longtime target Deion Branch earned a 26 in 2002.
Adapting to New England’s option routes and no-huddle approach is far from a turn-key process. We’ve seen some accomplished veterans have a hard time absorbing the playbook. So even with Boyce rendered to stationary bike duty during OTAs and minicamp because of injury, his wits should help him close the gap moving forward.
Route-running is more so about the first ten yards than it is about the final ten. Those few steps off the line of scrimmage are critical cogs in separating from defensive backs and manipulating the field.
For Boyce — who clocked a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 6.68-second three-cone time with a fifth metatarsal fracture in his right foot at the NFL Scouting Combine — creating separation is a strong suit.
Case in point: Nov. 12, 2011 against Boise State, where Boyce lined up as the lone split end versus single-man coverage.
Following the snap, Boyce ran the beginning stages of an out and up. While he was disrupted by the cornerback’s jam, it was not enough to hamper the destination of his route.
When Boyce ran the out and turned his head back to the quarterback, the coverage anticipated a throw to the sideline.
Boyce anticipated otherwise, shifting his frame perpendicular to the field. In turn, the defender lost his footing and conceded enough room for Boyce to make the catch.
With his body redirected and the ball in his grasp, Boyce’s deceptive route-running netted him a 74-yard score.
Polished routes can make or break a passing play. If Boyce can continue to run patterns with precision, then defenders will continue to guess.
With 31.25-inch arms, there is some concern that Boyce lacks the extension to make all the grabs he’ll need to in the pros. Yet judging by his days in purple, his 9.25-inch hands seem to glove the ball just fine.
Boyce caught 31 passes as a redshirt freshman, 61 one passes as a redshirt sophomore and 66 passes as a redshirt junior. In all, his reception total was third all-time in TCU history.
He was steady.
Facing West Virginia on Nov. 3, 2012, Boyce was more than steady; he was spectacular, notching six receptions for 180 yards and two TDs.
He made plays all over the field. One play stood out most, however: a sideline catch.
Boyce loomed downfield from a trio of receivers, prepped to run a curl route against a man look.
Boyce got out of the gate running full speed as quarterback Trevone Boykin lingered in the pocket, reading his progressions.
Shortly thereafter, Boyce planted his left foot and lunged to the sideline. He found himself on the receiving end of an arrow from Boykin. The ball whipped in, and Boyce was able to drag at least one of his toes into the turf.
The ball reached the fingertips of the stretched-out Boyce, who was readying himself for gravity.
Timing, touch and self awareness, all on one play. Boyce’s receptions aren’t always circus catches. Quite often, they’re just practical catches which help move the chains efficiently.
According to John Pollard of Stats.com, Boyce was thrown at 101 times in 2012 and recorded a drop rate of just 5.7 percent. As he strives to build trust with quarterback Tom Brady, holding onto the football is paramount.
Physicality is essential to the game of football. It doesn’t matter if you’re a defensive tackle or a wide receiver; in-traffic collisions and block-evading are part of the deal.
Boyce has the makeup to work through those elements. The Texas native has a strong, compact build and the muscle to go along with it. At the combine, he benched 22 reps of 225 pounds.
With that strength comes toughness. Boyce isn’t afraid to go over the middle. He exemplified that versus Texas Tech on Oct. 20, 2012.
Set up outside, Boyce was assigned to cut underneath for a quick-screen against the Red Raiders’ shallow interior.
With the ball snapped, Boyce cut towards the middle and received the Boykin pass. Although as he did, Texas Tech’s right defensive end changed field with his sights set on a tackle.
Steering his way up the hash marks, Boyce encountered the momentum of the down lineman.
It ended in a hard collision. A hard collision that does not translate to diagrams as convincingly as it does to video and audio.
Boyce’s screens and crossing routes often end in brute force. It’s a part of his playing style and how he is utilized. He doesn’t fear contact.
That said, there is one sticking point to his physicality. When Boyce isn’t the ball-carrier, it can be argued that he’s not the blocker he’ll need to be at the NFL level. He will occasionally disengage from defenders too soon, allowing them to make preventable tackles. That is an aspect of his game that will need to be coached up.
All things considered, Boyce is still a rock. Well, aside from his foot.
After the Catch
The most dangerous trick in Boyce’s arsenal is productivity after the catch. He averaged 15.7 yards per reception over his last three campaigns at TCU, including longs of 74, 93 and 94 yards each year.
A low center of gravity, as well as athleticism and vision help Boyce through the defensive secondary. He showed all of those elements against Grambling State on Sept. 8, 2012.
Lined up in the slot in “10” personnel versus the Tigers’ 4-3 front, Boyce was on the right side of a mismatch.
He swung around on a bubble screen, allowing quarterback Casey Pachall to fake a handoff before checking down for a high-percentage pass.
Hauling in the ball, Boyce fled to the sideline, where a linebacker closed in on his left shoulder and the left cornerback was stuck behind a block.
Boyce found himself out of real estate as the safety coasted into the play. In an effort to escape, he shifted back up the middle, leaving a cluster of defenders outside the numbers.
Then, it was a footrace to the end zone as center field opened up.
The result was a 66-yard score on a reception that began two yards into the backfield. It was the 19th touchdown of Boyce’s college career. And by the time his days at TCU were over, he had carved a new school record with 22.
Boyce may have a maxed-out build. He may have questionable blocking ability. He may never be a prototypical outside receiver. Yet as it stands now, his assets project him well to the NFL game.
Between his IQ, his route-running, his coordination, his over-the-middle toughness and his after-the-catch prowess, there’s reason to believe Boyce will find a niche in New England’s offense.
But in order to parlay his last three years of success as a Horned Frog into a rookie year of success as a Patriot, he’ll have to put those traits to use.
Training camp is his next chance to do so.