By Alex Kurpeski
As a Patriots fan, it’s been tough to watch my team this NFL season. With our longtime quarterback retiring to Florida like most geriatric New Englanders, replaced by a fun yet combustible replacement, Patriots football simply hasn’t been the same in 2020. One player who has really harshed my vibe this season is wide receiver N’Keal Harry, our first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
You may have heard this already but I’ll remind you again. The Patriots selected Harry over the likes of A.J Brown, D.K Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin, three of the best young wideouts in the league today. Not a great look for a Patriots front office that has been unable to hit on a drafted receiver since taking converted QB Julian Edelman in the 2009 NFL Draft.
It’s easy to see where the problem lies with Harry. At 6’4, 225 lbs, he’s a massive boundary target who is seriously lacking in the long speed department. As he’s struggled to get open, the Patriots have struggled to get the ball to him. Simple as that.
There’s a lot to like about Harry as a player despite his struggles. The 22-year-old has been very solid in contested catch situations since his college days, with this play from his most recent outing against the Rams reminding us of his specialty skill. On this play Harry runs a nice hitch-and-go, utilizing a double move and boxing out Darius Williams, who’s been one of the better corners in the league this season.
N’Keal Harry snatched that 🤭
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) December 11, 2020
While he moves at a sluggish pace, there’s still a chance for the former Arizona State star to develop into a reliable NFL wide receiver — at least that’s what I want to believe. Though Harry’s caught only 41 passes for 382 yards in 18 career games, it is worth noting that he’s only played 18 career games. Hampered by injuries for much of his rookie campaign and a decent chunk of this season, it’s very possible that we’re writing off Harry too early. He’s still only 22 years old and while he may never be a burner, there is room for him to grow as a route-runner in order to overcome his long speed deficiencies. The Patriots have also done a poor job of setting him up for success, as he’s seeing an average target distance of 6.4 yards this season despite having caught nine of his 12 contested targets, which is tied for the best average in this department among players with at least 10 contested targets. Harry has improved dramatically since last season in my eyes, as he struggled mightily to get open even on plays he made — like this one below.
Wrapping up my #Patriots WR deep dive with 2019 1st round pick N’Keal Harry.
As was expected, the rookie had his struggles after missing most of the season with an ankle sprain. That being said, his tape showed plenty of reason for optimism and a lot of untapped potential pic.twitter.com/rwEbgGmaeI
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
I’m not going to pretend that Harry has done a good job of getting himself open this season. The second-year wideout has averaged just 1.52 yards of target separation while averaging only 1.14 yards-per-route run. That’s a problem. If you can’t get open and you can’t stretch the field what’s your utility as an NFL receiver? For now, I’m willing to chalk things up to Cam Newton’s poor quarterback play — as touched on in my article about Damiere Byrd from last week — and the Patriots’ coaching staff failing to put Harry in a position to succeed. With Harry, you simply have to trust him in tight windows.
N'Keal Harry makes the nice sideline grab then once again on designed runs he is able to pick up yards. He didn't get off to the best start with injuries/offensive struggles but with a full year in the system and health I think he can be a good contributor in year 2. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/ia7YoLvdLD
— Taber (@TaberNFL) May 10, 2020
As we can see on this clip below, Harry has a great chance of catching anything that’s in front of him — as long as he can get in front of the guy covering him. At a certain point, the Patriots need to trust Harry to win on contested targets. That is of course if they want to optimize him when he’s on the field.
— Fire The Muskets Patriots Podcast (@FireTheMuskets) December 11, 2020
Per PlayerProfiler, Harry’s speed score is actually in the 90th percentile, while his burst score is solid in the 78th percentile. Though he gets a lot of flack for being slow, this really is not the case. With a catch radius in the 81st percentile and a favorable breakout age of 18.7, it’s clear to see why he was so highly touted in that 2019 draft class.
People forget just how great Harry was for the Sun Devils. With back-to-back 1,000+ yardage campaigns in his final two seasons with the program, Harry was simply too big and too physical for many Pac-12 secondaries to handle. A look at his highlights below will remind you of the potential we all saw in a young N’Keal — potential that could still be realized.
all would be forgiven in 2020 if we get to see some vintage ASU N'Keal Harry tonight 🙏🏽pic.twitter.com/kZlQtJJ0Qa
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) December 10, 2020
2020 has not been Harry’s year. To be fair, it hasn’t been many people’s year. As we’ve seen time and time again, foot injuries — like the one suffered by Harry in his rookie season — stall the development of a young receiver for quite a while. With a pandemic shortened offseason, a quarterback change, and no preseason, the deck was stacked against a breakout from Harry from the get-go. Maybe 2021 will be the year. The Patriots have finally begun designing plays that favor Harry’s skillset more often, as evidenced by the clip from earlier and this one below.
— NFL (@NFL) December 6, 2020
Though this touchdown did come in garbage time of New England’s drubbing of the Chargers, throwing the ball to Harry in the endzone is the best way to utilize his size and skills. By letting him box out a smaller corner in a tight space, you’re giving him a chance to shine. Plays like that one and this one below (from Harry’s days at ASU) demonstrate the simple beauty of his game. Harry is capable of winning on any 50-50 ball and the Patriots need to realize that.
Since it’s the week the Sun Devils play those bums from Tucson, here’s the game-sealing N’Keal Harry TD I filmed for the Pac-12 Network that season. Go Devils 🔱😈
👀 for the blue vest pic.twitter.com/dNvuEO7BT6
— Shawn Moran (@ShawnMoranNews) December 8, 2020
I don’t want to focus on the good things exclusively. There have been some serious lapses on Harry’s part this season, which is likely the reason why he sits behind Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers on the depth chart. As we see in this clip below, Harry doesn’t even run a route or turn to look back at Cam Newton. Even if this is a designed block on the throw to Damien Harris, Harry should at least pretend to be open in order to confuse the defense.
At no point on this play was N’Keal Harry open. In fact, the jogging during the route isn’t stretching the zone enough to open the flats for the throw to Harris.
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) December 11, 2020
While he’s still learning, mistakes like that will only keep Harry off the field. That being said, he has shown some excellent recovery skills in recent games, especially on this catch against the Chargers. Though Jarrett Stidham’s throw was both low and wobbly, Harry shakes his man with a nifty corner route and uses his strong hands to corral the poor throw. It’s winning plays like this that will allow Harry to develop into a useful starter next season.
#Patriots film: this was legit on the "burst" corner from N'Keal Harry. Hesitation step while moving forward/ changes tempo in release while limiting surface area to get inside, re-stems to stack/step outside frame to sell crosser, break outside. Pressure causes bad throw. pic.twitter.com/OaMFInR0hm
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 8, 2020
While many Patriots fans and fantasy football enthusiasts have thrown in the towel on Harry, it may be a bit too early to call this one. I’m willing to give him one more year to prove the doubters wrong. Harry could be a great buy-low target for dynasty leagues this offseason, especially if the Patriots can replace Newton with a passer who can get the ball to Harry more frequently and accurately.