The New England Patriots have one of the best rosters in the league and should once again be in contention for a championship. However, there are a lot of questions at the wide receiver position. With Josh Gordon suspended and Demaryius Thomas unlikely to start the season, the Patriots need somebody to start opposite Julian Edelman. That somebody could be rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry.
New England Patriots X-Factors: N’Keal Harry
It’s not hyperbole to say that N’Keal Harry is the most talented rookie wide receiver to ever play for Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Prior to the 2019 NFL Draft, New England was the only team since 2000 to not draft a receiver in the first round. That all changed when New England selected Harry, and this alone should speak to his talent.
At 6’2” and 228 pounds, Harry is larger than the typical Patriots wide receiver. The Arizona State product uses his size to beat coverage and outmuscle cornerbacks for the football. According to Pro Football Focus, Harry recorded 17 contested catches during 2018, second-most in his class. Additionally, Harry is a great downfield weapon, as he recorded 32 plays of 20 or more yards during his Junior season.
Bill Belichick is notorious for staying one step ahead of the competition, and Harry represents a change in organizational philosophy. NFL defenses around the league are getting smaller and quicker in order to combat the NFL’s pass-happy nature. The best way to exploit this change is by investing in big-bodied receivers capable of outmuscling cornerbacks. Harry has the raw skills to take advantage of the NFL’s latest trend, but he needs more than just raw talent to be a star in New England’s offense.
First and foremost, Harry needs to develop a full understanding of the playbook. The Patriots run one of the most complex and precise schemes in the league, and first-year players have struggled to pick up the system. Routes change multiple times in the play based on the coverage, and Harry needs to see the field as Tom Brady sees it. This is obviously a lot to ask of a rookie, and not everyone is up for the task. Since 2000, only Deion Branch has recorded more than 40 receptions as a rookie and only Aaron Dobson has surpassed 500 receiving yards.
Additionally, Harry has room to grow as a player. While he showed an ability to be effective at the college level, he’s not great at getting separation. There are multiple ways for wide receivers to do their job, so this isn’t a dealbreaker. Harry used his size and strength to win at the college level, but he’ll need to prove that skill can translate to the NFL.
On top of that, Harry is surprisingly ineffective in the red zone. Despite his imposing frame, the Arizona State product struggled to bring in passes near the end zone. Harry never recorded double-digit receiving touchdowns, and most of his scores came from outside the red zone. According to Pro Football Focus, Harry only caught four of his 13 red zone targets and had a 79.8 red zone passer rating when targeted. With Rob Gronkowski retired, the Patriots need to find a new red zone threat in the offense. Harry has the build to thrive in the red zone, but he’ll need to work on improving his actual effectiveness near the pylons.
Last Word on N’Keal Harry
N’Keal Harry is the only wide receiver selected by Bill Belichick in the first round and should see a decent role in 2019. Thanks to some uncertainty at the wide receiver position, Harry has a chance to immediately contribute to the offense. The rookie excels at using his size to beat defensive backs and could be a matchup nightmare in a league which is focused on getting smaller and quicker.
However, Harry isn’t a sure-fire lock to produce. If he is to succeed in New England, the first thing he’ll need to do is develop a rapport with Tom Brady. Harry’s not known for his separation, and he’ll need to prove that his physical style of play can translate to the NFL level. Additionally, he’ll need to improve his efficiency in the red zone.
The good news is that Harry and Brady are already working together. Despite Brady being absent for OTA’s, the six-time Super Bowl champion brought Harry over to his house to develop some chemistry. It obviously takes more than one session to learn New England’s entire playbook, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Ultimately, Harry should be one of New England’s most successful rookie wide receiver. Brady proved back in 2013 that he can transform anyone into a good weapon if he has nobody else. While this receiver depth chart is significantly better than 2013’s, Harry could easily start the season as New England’s WR2. Assuming he stays healthy, look for Harry to finish the year with roughly 45 receptions for 500 yards and a handful of touchdowns.
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