N’Keal Harry came to New England as a first round draft pick who was hopeful to be a large part of the 2019 offense. Things did not fully shape up that way, but there were flashes of potential that gives reason for optimism going forward.
Harry began 2019 on Injured Reserve and missed the first half of the season and upon his return he never looked fully comfortable with the offense or on the same page as Tom Brady. Harry should have a better grasp of the offense after having a full offseason to study, though it is not totally ideal due to the lack of on-field reps this offseason. He will also have an opportunity to work with a new quarterback, as will the rest of the offense, and hopefully will have more time to work with Cam Newtown and Jarrett Stidham than he was Brady as long as he stays healthy.
Despite not catching fire in 2019, Harry showed several flashes that should encourage Patriots fans heading into the 2020 season. First, Harry fit right in the run game, both with the ball and without. When blocking, Harry used his 6’4”, 225-pound frame to move defensive backs, linebackers and occasionally a defensive end. Blocking is an essential part of playing wide receiver and that alone will get him on the field more in 2020. Harry only had five rushing attempts in 2019, but they went for 49 yards and he looked comfortable with the ball in his hands. The most notable was a reverse play in which he was incorrectly ruled out of bounds on a play that should have been a touchdown against Kansas City. Harry won’t have to be a constant run threat, but just having that as a tool will make him and the offense more dynamic. Most encouraging was how comfortable he looked with the ball in his hands.
Obviously, a receivers two most important jobs are to get open and catch the football. Harry was a terrific receiver in college and when he was clicking in the offense, he showed he continue that in the NFL. He was only targeted 24 times total and recorded 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns plus two catches for 21 yards in New England’s Wild Card loss to Tennessee. The problem is volume. Twelve catches in seven games is simply not enough for a premier playmaker, which is what the Patriots need him to be.
Much of the lack of production from Harry can be summed up in two ways: health and level of competition. For any player to miss most of training camp and the first nine games of the season is prohibitive to success and that is especially true for a rookie. Harry started his Patriots tenure behind a normal development track and was not able to catch up as the Patriots geared up for their playoff run. The level of play is something all rookies deal with and Harry is no exception. The Pac-12 is a good conference, but it is not the NFL. The defensive backs are much more difficult to defeat and schemes are exponentially more complex.
The more comfortable Harry is in Year 2, the easier the level of competition and scheme difficulties will be for him. Players often make large jumps from seasons one to two and a major reason for that is comfort level. A major uncertainty is who New England’s quarterback will be, but regardless of who it is, Harry should have more time to work with him than he did Brady during 2019. That, coupled with an increased comfort level, should allow Harry to begin the season a couple steps ahead of where he was last year. The only other variable for Harry is health. If Harry can stay healthy, which he is more likely to this year than last, it will give him the opportunity to continue to grow in the New England offense.
Bill Belichick used a first round pick on a wide receiver for the first time in his Patriots tenure to draft Harry in 2019. Look for that investment to begin to pay off in 2020, with Harry being a significant factor in the Patriots offense.