Updated: May 27, 2020
I've heard too many Patriots fans complain about N’Keal Harry’s lack of production in his rookie season. Please, we’re really calling N’Keal Harry a bust already? Don’t be ridiculous.
Sports radio pundits and Boston sports fans are all up in arms about the Patriots inability to draft wide receivers, and deservedly so. I can’t think of the last truly impactful wide receiver the Patriots have drafted since Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell was an impact player in his short career and made important plays in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. Mitchell logged a sneaky 6 catches for 70 yards in the contest en route to New England’s all-time great comeback. Who else have the Patriots drafted at the position in the recent past, just Julian Edelman in the seventh round? Yes, the Patriots have failed at drafting productive players at the wide receiver position as a whole, but let’s not throw Harry to the wayside after 8 total games played.
It's funny how sports fans change their opinions of players so quickly. Patriots fans were ecstatic about Harry before he suffered an ankle injury after making a nice back-shoulder catch against the Detroit Lions in preseason game number 3. I still believe Harry has the skills necessary to become a great player. The Patriots just need to do a better job playing to his strengths.
Harry has undeniable size and strength. His 6' 4'' 225 pound frame and 27 rep bench press strength makes Harry a difficult player to tackle. His ability to make contested catches is what made him the first Patriots wide receiver drafted in the first round under Bill Belichick.
“Back-shoulder boss who thrives with contested catch opportunities outside the numbers but lacks explosive traits. Harry's ability to body-up opponents and win with ball skills is undeniable, but his inability to find a threatening top gear or shake loose from tight man coverage must be accounted for within his new employer's scheme. His experience playing inside should help and teams will love his impact as a run-blocker. His competitiveness and ability to come down with the ball could make him a productive member of wide receiver trio in short order.”
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 24: N'Keal Harry #15 of the New England Patriots celebrates scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in the game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
So, some strengths and some weaknesses. Harry can’t get consistent separation off the line of scrimmage, which is a problem, but I’d rather focus on what Harry can do. Harry bullied defenders with the ball in his hands when given the opportunity during his rookie season. Harry had success on end-around plays and was able to make plays with the ball in his hands. Harry reminds me of the rookie sensation Deebo Samuel because of his knack for making big plays with the ball in his hands. Before you get all up in arms for my comparison to one of the most productive rookie wide receivers in last year’s draft, let’s compare Samuel’s draft profile to Harry’s.
“Tyshun "Deebo" Samuel lives up to his nickname (it comes from a tough guy in the movie "Friday") and plays each game like he's stepping into an alley fight. While Samuel is tough and competitive, he lacks suddenness and might need scheme help with motion and bunch formations to help free him against NFL man coverage. He is a gamer who thrives once the ball is in his hands, and he might be able to help a team from the slot if he can stay healthy.”
Both Samuel and Harry came out of college with issues getting off press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Yet both players displayed the ability to make big plays with the ball in their hands. One of Samuel’s strengths at the University of South Carolina was his “running back vision with the ball in his hands.” Similarly, Harry was productive with the ball in his hands and used his physical strength to run over defenders.
A problem for both wide receivers in college was their inability to separate off the line of scrimmage. How did the San Francisco 49ers get Samuel the ball? Motion. The 49ers used pre-snap motion more than any other team in the National Football League.
Pre-snap motion and quick screens allowed Samuel to avoid some of his problems at the line of scrimmage. Samuel quickly became one of the more productive players in the league last season as a result. I think the Patriots should use Harry in a similar fashion. Use pre-snap motion to get Harry the ball in his hands quickly. This will allow Harry to play to his strengths. Don’t forget, Harry scored a powerful 27 reps on the bench press at the combine and had almost identical vertical and broad jumps as Samuel.
Let’s not forget that some wide receivers take their full rookie contract to develop before they become impactful players. Two recent examples are Breshad Perriman and everyone’s new favorite player in DeVante Parker. Don’t forget that both Perriman and Parker were first-round picks as well. Perriman recorded lackluster numbers in his first 3 years in the league before finding his groove with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the tune of 645 yards and 6 touchdowns. Simply put, Parker sucked his first four years in the league. Parker failed to hit 750 yards in his first four seasons and never scored more than 4 times in a season. Yet Parker exploded for the Dolphins last season after the team picked up his fifth-year option in a move that many questioned. Parker hit the 1000 yard mark and scored 9 touchdowns for new head coach Brian Flores. Now Parker has a nice new contract and a fat wad of cash in his pocket. Perriman also received a nice one-year deal with the Jets.
I’m not giving up on N’Keal Harry, and you shouldn’t either. If the Patriots can play to Harry’s strengths they could have a special player on their hands. With a quarterback who will finally throw Harry and other young receivers the ball in Jarrett Stidham, Harry has the chance to prove all his doubters wrong. I believe he will.