In 2009, there was Terrence Nunn. In 2010, there was Darnell Jenkins. In 2011, there was Buddy Farnham. In 2013, there was Kenbrell Thompkins. In 2014, there was Brian Tyms.
And now in 2015, there's Chris Harper.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to find a promising wide receiver from the reject pile every offseason. Every training camp, this one prospect is heralded as a potential roster candidate due to their preseason production and (other than Thompkins) special teams potential.
Chris Harper has a team-leading 12 receptions, 117 yards, and 1 touchdown, across two preseason games. He leads the team in punt returns and kick returns, too.
But in 2008, C.J. Jones also led the team in receptions, yards, and punt returns- and he was second to rookie Matthew Slater in kick returns. Jones made the final roster and was waived after just one week on the team. Needless to say, preseason production speaks little to a player's roster hopes.
Instead, let's look to the game tape to see what Harper brings to the team- his strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and potential.
- Flashes quick hands. Harper doesn't reveal his target until late in the pass trajectory, meaning that defenders can't use Harper's body against him to defend the ball. Unless the defender is looking back towards the ball, Harper will be the only player aware of the ball.
- Strong in traffic. The Patriots have used Harper to run curl routes right at the first down marker. This puts his back to the defender that will be closing in strong and fast. Harper shows an ability to ignore the defender and ensure the catch is completed. Players like Josh Boyce hear footsteps and bail, while Harper is giving his everything to make the play. Additionally, he is fearless running across the formation.
- Versatile and plays inside and out. Harper spent a lot of his time against the Packers towards the inside of the field, and a lot of time on the outside against the Saints. He was successful in both. When he plays inside, he is pretty dangerous turning around at the sticks, or turning towards the flat by the sidelines. When he plays outside, he runs a nice post route in front of his defender. He can also run a go route, but struggles to distance himself in a foot race.
- Runs Patriots routes. Of course, while "go" routes are important (roughly 10.5% of the Patriots passing plays), Tom Brady threw a significantly below-average number of passes 30+ yards down the field (really only the Chiefs' Alex Smith throws fewer). Instead, Harper runs the routes (short/intermediate out, hitch, backshoulder, post) that move the chains and runs them in a way that would get him on the field so he could further develop as a receiver.
- Quality foot speed. While Harper's distance speed isn't great, his agility is very good. He has quick feet that allow him to maintain his speed in and out of breaks. When he commits to a quick break in his route, Harper is able to generate considerable separation from the defender. This is crucial in order to get open and once he improves as a route runner and as a receiver, his foot speed will serve him well.
- Savvy at attacking open zones. Harper does a good job of understanding coverages and will sit in open pockets of the opposing defense. When he has an off-man, he knows where to run and sit as a quick target. When defensive backs pass off receivers on combination routes, he takes advantage of the transition period.
- Active run blocker. Perhaps it's just Harper trying to make the team (which isn't a negative in any way), but he gives 100% when the Patriots are running the ball. He, on more than one occasion, sprung the running back or created an open lane for the back to break free for extra yards.
- Special Teams player. Not to be ignored, Harper adds value as both a kick and punt returner. He's not great at either, but he did help set up the Patriots game winning drive against the Saints. He'll likely improve with practice.
- Happy feet. Harper doesn't have the greatest speed so he tries to shake free from the defender at multiple points in his route. He can use misdirection steps off the line of scrimmage, and he can do them when he stems his route. Sometimes it works. Unfortunately, the Patriots run a timing offense so each additional false step delays Harper from being where he has to be to catch the ball- and when defenders don't bite, Harper has no chance to make a play. Also, the happy feet reduce the value of his foot speed.
- Tips run plays. Julian Edelman is a great wide receiver because he doesn't reveal that the Patriots are running the ball. He explodes out of the snap regardless of whether or not he's an actual target. Some players, like Brandon LaFell, will run at three-quarter speed out of the snap in order to stay in front of and block their defensive back. Harper comes out of his snaps like LaFell.
Now some coaches will have players primarily run at less-than-full speed to run block, especially if the run is in their direction and the block is paramount. Some will have the receivers vary their approach to keep defenders off balance. But Harper shows the same tell with every run play because he wants to block and a couple Saints defensive backs figured it out and immediately turned to run support. LaFell can get away with it because he has a much larger frame than Harper.
- Struggles against man and press coverage. Harper's happy feet hurt him against cornerbacks who engage with the receiver. If a defender gets his hands on Harper, he struggles to disengage and break free.
Harper lacks the physical athleticism to dominate defenders and will instead have to use his savvy to generate separation. At this point in time, his inability to get off of tight coverages and his reliance on numerous stutter steps greatly reduce his ability to defeat veteran cornerbacks. Additionally while he's a willing run blocker, he needs to improve his approach so defenders don't immediately know the play call.
Unfortunately, the 5'11, 185 lbs receiver doesn't really have the frame or strength that will allow him to physically shed tight coverage. Unless Harper can learn how to break free of tight coverages, he won't see the field in a real game.
Luckily, most of Harper's weaknesses are coachable or can be reduced with greater practice. He will have to change his style of play to ensure he breaks out of his routes more efficiently and that will likely help him against tighter coverages. His quick feet are a definite strength and he needs to trust that they'll generate separation, instead of using them to try and misdirect defenders.
Harper really has a nose for the ball and shows a lot of positive traits that could lead to a successful NFL career. His versatility, willingness to block, and his current route tree all point to a positive impact with the Patriots. He's a perfect type of #3 receiver that can complement Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman.
Hopefully Harper won't go the way of Nunn or Jenkins, and hopefully he'll stick around longer than Thompkins. It will take a couple of injuries for Harper to get a chance in a real game, but he can add value on special teams until that opportunity arises. Harper has plenty of skill that can allow him to overcome his smaller frame, but he's still raw and needs to be coached up to embrace his skill set.
Harper will likely have two more weeks to prove his value to the team. He's far from a roster lock, but he shows plenty of promise.