Better late than never: New England Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry made his long-awaited NFL debut on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, after starting the regular season on the injured reserve list. Now back healthy again, the Patriots used their first-round draft pick in a rotational role alongside and saw him get some modest production. All in all, Harry caught three passes for 18 yards in his first game as a pro.
His debut may not have been spectacular from a statistical perspective, but it did give a glimpse into how the Patriots might plan to use the youngster moving forward and what he can bring to an offense that has had its fair share of turnover at the wide receiver position this season. Let’s therefore take a look at a handful of his 32 offensive plays (of 74; 43%) against Philadelphia, but not before analyzing his alignment.
The Patriots primarily used Harry as an X-receiver — essentially filling the role previously held by Josh Gordon — and he filled to role on 27 of his snaps with the other five coming in the slot. While he was used only sparingly in the first half, his playing time increased in the second in part because of a head injury that forced Phillip Dorsett out of the game: Harry played nine of his snaps before Dorsett’s injury in the early third quarter, and 23 afterwards.
On 13 of his 32 plays, the rookie was used as a blocker either in the running or the screen game. On the remaining 19 snaps he ran the following routes (as charted by NESN’s Doug Kyed):
- Deep routes: 6
- Curl-routes: 5
- In-routes: 4
- Slant-routes: 2
- Out-routes: 1
- Screen: 1
With that out of the way, let’s dig into the film to see how Harry performed in his first game since the Patriots’ preseason opener against the Detroit Lions — and his actual regular season debut alongside quarterback Tom Brady:
1-10-NE 26 (10:17) (Shotgun) R.Burkhead left end to NE 27 for 1 yard (R.Darby).
As noted above, the Patriots used Harry a lot as a blocker and he did just that on all five of his snaps in the first quarter. The following 1-yard run by Rex Burkhead is a good example of what the rookie wideout can offer in terms of blocking — a skill highly valued by New England head coach Bill Belichick — and how smaller defensive backs will be in a difficult position against his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame.
The play started with the Patriots in a tight formation, and Harry (#15) aligned on the far left side alongside fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (#14):
The blocking up front eventually broke down, with a miscommunication as the likely reason for it: Sanu’s responsibility appears to have been safety Rodney McLeod (#23), but he instead moves towards the inside to help block defensive end Derek Barnett (#96). This, in turn, forced left tackle Marshall Newhouse (#72) to slow down and block McLeod instead of moving further up the field to take on cornerback Ronald Darby (#21).
Darby was the free man after Harry had gone on to block cornerback Avonte Maddox (#29). And while the play itself was stopped after a gain of just one yard, the rookie receiver looked good: he mirrored Maddox well, and also was not fooled by a spin-move from the defender and extended his arms to keep him at bay. While plays like this show the weaknesses of New England’s run blocking, they also are encouraging when it comes to Harry.
2-10-NE 36 (11:47) T.Brady pass short middle to N.Harry to NE 47 for 11 yards (R.Darby).
Harry’s first reception of the day came in the second quarter, when he ran a quick slant to the inside and was able to grab an 11-yard pass in a 2nd and 10 situation — helping the Patriots’ answer an Eagles touchdown with a field goal. On the play, the rookie wideout was aligned as the X-receiver on the far left side of the formation with Ronald Darby aligning eight yards off in a single-high Cover 1 defense:
Tom Brady (#12) faking the hand-off to running back Sony Michel (#26) forced the underneath defenders to move up closer to the line of scrimmage, creating an opening in the middle of the field to exploit. Harry did just that when he ran an in-cutting route and was hit in stride by the quick pass as Brady’s first read on the play. While Darby quickly tackled the 21-year-old, the play itself was well executed.
1-10-NE 21 (9:17) T.Brady pass short left to N.Harry to NE 25 for 4 yards (N.Gerry).
Harry’s second reception of the day came in the third quarter and after Dorsett had been lost to a head injury. The play itself was a quick bubble screen, and Harry’s elusiveness was on display while running it: he wiggled his way to a 4-yard gain despite the blocking not materializing and limiting the play’s impact.
New England began the play in a 2x2 formation but motioned Julian Edelman (#11) across before the snap to isolate Harry once again on Ronald Darby. The play is a classic misdirection look: the offensive line and running backs shifted to their right after the snap, despite the pass eventually getting thrown to the other side of the formation after a fake hand-off. The play is a difficult one to execute, though, as it needs the offensive line to quickly reverse course.
Marshall Newhouse and left guard Joe Thuney (#62) did just that, but the Eagles caught up quickly and closed in on Harry after he made the first defender — safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27) — miss after Thuney engaged him. The play was not a particular success, but it did show Harry’s short-area quickness and ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
1-10-NE 48 (5:03) T.Brady pass short right to M.LaCosse to PHI 45 for 7 yards (A.Rush; A.Maddox).
New England did not just use Harry in the short and intermediate passing game, however, and instead also had him run his fair share of deep patterns: as noted above, the rookie attacked the deep portions of the field on six different occasions but he was never thrown the ball (his fourth target of the day fell incomplete after getting broken up on another slant route) — in part because the protection up front was shaky at times.
The following short pass to tight end Matt LaCosse (#83) is a prime example of this:
Harry, once again, was aligned as the X-receiver in a 1x3 formation and saw Darby on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And with deep safety Rodney McLeod moving down the field to help cover the underneath areas against Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, Harry had a one-on-one situation. A deep pass never materialized off the play-action fake, however, as Tom Brady had to check down the football with pass rushers approaching.
If Brady had had more time to scan the field, he would have seen Harry get inside position on the post route and potentially given him a chance — the rookie does have a strong pair of hands, after all. While the deep connection did not get established on Sunday, it would not be a surprised to see Harry get some deep targets further down the line.
2-8-NE 35 (5:46) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to N.Harry to NE 38 for 3 yards (R.Darby).
Harry’s third and final reception of the day again came on a short pass. The rookie ran a curl route against Ronald Darby, who again played off, which then allowed him to make a 3-yard catch on a scramble drill: Brady was pressured after his first reads failed to get open and when left tackle Marshall Newhouse was unable to hold his block. The quarterback eventually escaped the sack attempt by Derek Barnett and threw a quick pass to Harry:
The 32nd overall selection of this year’s draft did not do much on the play in terms of route-running — he planted well on the curl and did not attempt to advance as the play started to break down — but he still made an impressive reception with Darby draped all over him. As is the case with his other plays, it was not necessarily eye-popping but it did show what Harry can bring to the table in terms of body control and hands.
All in all, his debut is therefore a solid foundation to build upon. While he did not get targeted a lot by Brady, Harry showcased some of the skills that made him a first-round pick — and could make him an interesting addition to the Patriots’ offense further down the line.