Ever since a rule change in 2012, NFL teams are allowed to bring players back from their injured reserve list: currently, two players are eligible to return to practice if they a) were placed on the list after roster cutdowns, and b) missed at least six weeks of action. The New England Patriots have, of course, multiple players as candidates to use the two IR-return designations on — but only one that can come back as early as this week.
Wide receiver N’Keal Harry was placed on injured reserve shortly after cutdown day, which gave the team the ability to bring him back after a six-week absence. With those six weeks now in the rear-view mirror, he is allowed to rejoin his teammates on the practice fields — a move that would open a 21-day window during which he would need to be activated to the 53-man roster, and also cost the Patriots one of their two return designations.
Judged by head coach Bill Belichick’s statements during a conference call on Monday, it sure sounds like the Patriots’ plan is to go this route: “If he is ready, yes,” Belichick said when asked about Harry possibly returning this week. “We hope he’ll be ready to go. [...] Mentally, he’s been able to keep up with everything. It’s just physically, he needs to be able to show that he can go out there and participate competitively at the practice level we’re at.”
Harry returning to practice this week would make him eligible to return to game action by Week 9, when the Patriots go on the road to take on the Baltimore Ravens. Needless to say that having the talented rookie available could be a boost for the wide receiver group as a whole — one that had to rely on undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski quite a bit during last Thursday’s game against the New York Giants because of injuries.
If Harry returns — and it sure sounds like he might as early as this week — he would step into the fourth/fifth wide receiver role behind top-three Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett. The latter two players, of course, are currently rehabbing from injuries of their own: Gordon hurt his knee against the Giants and was unable to finish the game, while Dorsett injured his hamstring early in Week 5 and was held out of Thursday’s contest.
Harry’s return also means another thing: one of the other eligible players to return will not be able to come back. The expectation at this point in time is that Isaiah Wynn (toe) will be given the second return designation, with fullback James Develin (neck) seeing his season come to an end on injured reserve.