The Fantasy Football Implications of Ja'Lynn Polk as a New England Patriot

May 14, 2024
The Fantasy Implications of Ja'Lynn Polk as a New England Patriot

With the 37th overall selection of the 2024 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots grabbed Washington wideout Ja'Lynn Polk as the 10th wide receiver off the board. Six of the 10 picks leading up to and including Polk were wide receivers, making him the bookend to a wild run on talent in an ever-pass-happier league. Interestingly enough, this pick was also made after a trade with the Chargers — who moved up to 34th overall to get their own receiver (Ladd McConkey) — which also granted the Pats a late-round swap that they used to grab another receiver, Javon Baker, 110th overall.

And of course, amid all this receiver talk, the pick came approximately 24 hours after New England selected quarterback Drake Maye third overall in a (second) attempt to reboot their dynasty. So what role will Polk play in this rebuild? Let's find out.

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Ja'Lynn Polk's Prospect Profile

Polk posted an intriguing start to his college career when he compiled 28 catches for 264 yards and two scores as a true freshman at Texas Tech. The following year, he transferred to Washington and played just three games in a COVID-shortened season (suffering a chest injury on the first play), but had a strong return in 2022 with 41 catches for 694 yards and six TDs. Then, as a redshirt junior in 2023, he and Rome Odunze scorched the Pac-12 and beyond en route to a CFB National Championship appearance. Odunze was the clear alpha for Michael Penix Jr., with 140 targets to Polk's 108, but despite the presence of the ninth overall pick atop the depth chart, Polk still snagged 69 catches for 1,159 yards and nine scores.

Washington Huskies WR Trio Output, 2023
Player Targets Receptions Yards TDs 2024 Draft
Rome Odunze 140 92 1,640 13 9th overall (CHI)
Ja'Lynn Polk 108 69 1,159 9 37th overall (NE)
Jalen McMillan 63 45 559 5 92nd overall (TB)

Polk was one of just three WR2s in college football last season to record 1,100+ yards — LSU's Brian Thomas Jr. went 23rd overall to the Jaguars and Oregon's Devontez Walker went in the fourth round to the Ravens. He also brought down 13 contested catches and had 356 yards after catch according to PFF — a rare and impressive combination of skills that show on his tape as well. The only other Power Five prospects in the 2024 class to hit both those marks were teammate Rome Odunze and All-World prospect Marvin Harrison Jr., who both went top-10 overall.

As for what Polk put on film ... it's pretty polarizing. At the catch point, he might be the most impressive player in the draft — or even in a few drafts. His ball-tracking, jumping ability, body control, high-point instincts, absurd hands, and toughness through contact are all legitimately elite. Despite measuring smaller than a Mike Evans or a Tee Higgins — Polk is 6-foot-1, 203 pounds — he's my favorite to come down with the ball on any throw within his extensive catch radius. I'd compare that aspect of Polk's game to Chris Godwin or Terry McLaurin ... but might even take him over both in a downfield, contested catch contest.

Polk is a solid route-runner, who wins with fluidity, smart angles, speed variation, a strong sense for leverage, and good nuance to put defensive backs off their marks. He also displays exceptional competitive toughness, which is particularly evident in his willingness and aggressiveness as a blocker, and in his effectiveness after the catch.

All these strengths become necessary in compensating for a glaring lack of quickness or breakaway speed. You've heard of "cutting on a dime" ... Polk might be able to cut on a manhole cover. Might. He showed little to no suddenness anywhere in his routes, his release is typically sluggish, and the 4.52 he ran at the combine seems generous when watching DBs run him down on long plays. He's simply not a separator. But ... he needs less separation to make impact plays than the average receiver.

Based on his profile, the range of outcomes is wide for Polk. One of his more common NFL comps — though they are notably varied — is former Patriot Jakobi Meyers, whose best fantasy season came after leaving New England, when he finished as the WR24 last year in Las Vegas. If a Meyers replacement is all the new regime in Foxborough gets out of the 37th overall pick, it's going to be quite the disappointment. On the flip side, many analysts have tabbed Polk as the closest thing to the 2024 model of Puka Nacua — a comp fantasy managers will likely be chasing from now until eternity. I project him somewhere in the middle, and while there are flashes of Puka in his game, I actually saw more Cooper Kupp. I don't expect Polk to win the receiving triple crown, but he's the kind of player who could thrive in the right system with a quarterback who trusts him.

How Ja'Lynn Polk Fits With the Patriots

Of course, the big difficulty is that both the system and the quarterback are brand new in New England. With the end of the Bill Belichick era — and with it, whatever vestiges remained of the Tom Brady offenses of the 2010s — the Pats are starting over under head coach Jerod Mayo, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, and quarterback Drake Maye.

As a former linebacker and defensive coach, we can probably ignore Mayo and focus on Van Pelt when setting expectations for this offense. Van Pelt was the OC in Cleveland for each of the past four seasons — where, in an era with nine different quarterbacks, the Browns ranked bottom 10 in pass attempts (and second in rush attempts) but top 10 in average depth of target (aDOT). I doubt New England will be quite that tilted towards the run with Maye, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Antonio Gibson, but it would be wise to expect bottom-half passing volume in 2024, especially with the rookie QB.

Speaking of that rookie QB, the franchise likely selected Maye with a particular eye on his downfield ability and his willingness to sling the rock. The redshirt sophomore completed 40 of 84 deep passing attempts in 2023, both second-most in the Power Five behind Michael Penix Jr. Maye also earned a 97.9 passing grade from PFF on those deep throws, second-highest in the class behind Jayden Daniels, and his aDOT of 11.0 yards was near the top of college football as well. Additionally, one of Maye's most defining prospect traits is his fearlessness to whip the ball into tight windows (sometimes to his own detriment).

Outside of the low passing volume, most of this bodes well for Polk, who can win at all three levels but figures to thrive downfield and on contested catches. Given his play strength, catch radius, and sure hands, he's the kind of receiver that can quickly become a young quarterback's best friend. If he and Maye build an early rapport, where the rookie passer trusts him to win the 50-50s more often than not, Polk has the inside track to becoming this team's WR1.

(P.S. It doesn't hurt that the duo is sitting rinkside together at Bruins playoff games.)

Projecting the Patriots Offense in Fantasy Football

Perhaps the more critical question — at least for 2024 — is whether being the number one in this offense holds any significant weight for fantasy in the near term. New England hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Tom Brady left, and outside of Julian Edelman (2016 & 2019), they've only had one wideout hit that mark in the last 10 seasons (Brandin Cooks in 2017).

Obviously, as we touched on above, this is a new regime, new offense, and new quarterback for the Pats. But that also means things could start particularly slow as everyone learns the system. Notably, the very top of the draft just past the number one overall pick is a historical dead zone for rookie QBs. The combination of bad team (to earn a top pick) and less-than-perfect prospect (that guy goes first overall) isn't typically a recipe for early success. Over the last 20 years, only one of fifteen QBs drafted second through fifth overall has thrown more than 20 passing touchdowns as a rookie: C.J. Stroud last year. Outside of Stroud, you're optimistically looking at around 450 attempts, 3,000 yards, and 17-20 passing touchdowns.

Even if Maye adds solid value with his legs (which he is capable of doing), he won't be anything more than a mid-range QB2 for fantasy. As for his pass-catchers, their value will likely come down to touchdown distribution. If we slot Polk in as the top dog and assign him around a 20% target share, that's roughly 80-90 targets, which should translate to 50-60 catches and 600-800 yards. If he scores four touchdowns, that's an essentially undraftable season, but if he scores eight, that's encroaching on WR3 territory.

After Polk, the most intriguing options in the passing game would be Javon Baker (fellow rookie selected in the fourth round), Demario Douglas (led the team in targets from Week 7 on as a rookie last year), and possibly Hunter Henry (17 TDs in three seasons with the team). But those are extremely deep sleepers with little to no value in typical redraft leagues.

The most likely Patriots player to make your every-week lineup is Rhamondre Stevenson, who should theoretically play the Nick Chubb role in Van Pelt's offense. If he can stay healthy, Stevenson could set career highs as a rusher (currently 210 carries and 1,040 yards) and be a strong RB2 for fantasy as the focal point of the offense.

Bottom Line

  • Selected at the top of the second round, Ja'Lynn Polk was the Patriots' first and most expensive building block for a young offense captained by third-overall pick, Drake Maye.
  • While he doesn't have the elite profile of the top rookie wideouts in this class, Polk had an impressive final season at Washington and has arguably the strongest hands and best catch-point skills of the entire crop. He'll never be an elite one-on-one separator, but he has the tools to be a team's WR1 and a fantasy WR2 down the line.
  • With a whole new regime and very young talent at the top, the Patriots are likely still a year or two away from being a legitimately dangerous offense, making Polk more attractive as a long-term dynasty investment than a 2024 redraft pick.
  • According to current Underdog best ball drafts, Polk is coming off the board as the WR71 (largely undrafted). That makes him nothing more than a waiver wire name to monitor in standard redraft leagues ... but as the favorite to lead the Pats in targets, he could be a fun last-pick-of-the-draft in best ball. He's much more intriguing in dynasty, where he's worth a look in the late second or early third round of rookie drafts.
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