The Patriots initially signed Chris Harper as an un-drafted free agent out of the University of California. Harper would then catch 15 passes for 150 yards and a TD in the preseason to make the initial 53-man roster. After appearing in the season opener against the Steelers, the Patriots released Harper and re-signed him to the team's practice squad. With the injuries to Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman the past two weeks, the Patriots have opted to bring him back to the 53-man roster. With an open vacancy at one of the starting WR jobs for the next 6-8 weeks, someone is going to have to step up and do their best to replace the production lost by these injuries. Harper has much a chance as Aaron Dobson or Keshawn Martin.
While Harper doesn't boast the downfield separation speed that Dobson has or the good athletic numbers that Keshawn Martin has, but he has the athleticism to thrive in this offense. Harper doesn't boast a great shuttle (4.36) or 3-cone (7.03), but he makes up for it in the ability to create a strong stem in his routes, short area burst, and good hands. Another knock on Harper coming out of Cal was his lack of size, particularly with his weight at 175 lbs. That's one area that will improve on an NFL Strength and Conditioning Program. In terms of the intangible qualities, Harper has a future in this offense and the coaching staff probably thinks the same. Even though there isn't any regular season film of him making catches, we'll try to dissect the preseason film. Preseason can be a good indicator of talent, especially for a fringe roster player like Harper.
In this tiny film breakdown, due to the lack of an All-22 camera angle, I'm going to have to bring this play to you in the form of GIFs. There are many more plays I would have liked to put on here, but given the limitations on replays and camera angles, I could only find four good plays over the entire preseason.
Play #1: Harper Draws Pass Interference Flag (1:50 1st Quarter, Preseason Week 2)
Harper is running an in-cut on this route against man coverage. Harper utilizes a stutter-step to get inside release on Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who panics. Jean-Baptiste grabs a hold of the jersey and uses that leverage to play the ball. Easy call for the officials. That's a situation where he shows off his short-area acceleration to make something happen on offense.
Play #2: Harper Slant for 21 (5:34 2nd Quarter)
This is an example of the Slant-Flat combination working at it's finest. Harper is running the slant and Jonathan Krause is running the flat behind it. Harper quickly gains inside leverage with a quick jab-step to the outside to force the corner to take a false step to the outside before turning inside for the slant. With no Saints player working in the middle of the field, thanks to a Cover 1 defense with the safety playing 20 yards downfield, there is no one there to defense the pass. Harper makes David Hawthorne and Jean-Baptiste miss in the open field before getting tackled by Kenny Phillips at the Saints 47 yard line.
Play #3: Chris Harper Big Punt Return (2:13 4th Quarter)
In addition to serving as receiver depth, Harper is also going to have to serve as a potential punt returner. This play shows his return of the preseason. The Saints do a good job of pinning him to one side of the field with a directional kick to the far sideline in the video. Despite the lack of real estate to work with, Harper is able to elude 5 potential tacklers in the play and bursts up the sideline for 28 before being pushed out of bounds by the punter. In addition to having players step up on offense, having shorter fields to work with will also be a boost.
Play #4: Back Shoulder Fade for 19 (5:42 4th Quarter, Preseason Week 4)
On this play, the Giants matched Harper in man coverage with Jayron Hosley, who was playing over the top of Harper on the play. However, since he wasn't in-phase with the receiver, he never turned to look for the ball. The key to a good back-shoulder catch is for the receiver to use his body to shield the defender from the ball. The pass from Ryan Lindley was on target and Harper went up to get it. Hosley had no chance to play the ball and all he can do is tackle the receiver.
From his preseason tape, Harper definitely shows that he has the skills to play receiver in the NFL. The only concern for him is that playing time will be sparse for him, although I would not be surprised if a job opened up for him in the offseason with Danny Amendola a likely cap casualty. Harper is more of a Z than slot, although most Z receivers can play in the slot effectively as well.