It’s nice that other teams picked but let’s be real: this is the only pick we care about. Let’s talk N’Keal Harry. I did not see this pick coming. Why did I not see this coming? The reason I did not see it coming and the reason I SHOULD have seen it coming are the exact reason I hate and love this pick.
Why do I love Harry in one word? Versatility. He can do almost everything at an above average level. That’s the reason I should have seen this as a potential pick. Harry can make contested catches. Harry can catch in tight spaces. Harry can catch away from his body. Harry can play outside. Harry can play inside. Harry can evade tackles. Harry can break tackles. Harry can catch jump balls. Harry can be a red zone threat. Harry can return punts. Harry can run short, intermediate and deep routes. Harry can do a nasty double move. Harry can be successful after the catch. Is there anything he cannot do?
There is one important thing he cannot do at an above average level. Why do I hate this pick in a word? Separation. Harry is not good at separating. There are a lot of ways receivers can get separation. The ways that statisticians will tell you are consistently the most successful are an explosive release, route running, long speed and short area quickness. Harry runs solid routes. And for his size Harry displays solid short area quickness. But he does not excel in any of those things. His release is bad. His long speed is bad.
If Harry is able to get separation on a consistent basis he is going to be a monster. But the exact same thing could be said of Cordarelle Patterson, and despite having the speed Harry lacks, he was never able to get it done and has been a pedestrian receiver his entire career. I think Harry is a better player than Patterson. He can actually run routes, for example, but I see a lot of dangerous similarities with their release. To compound this concern is the fact that Harry played against the Pac-12 which seems to only bother playing defense half of the time. This is not SEC tackles going against SEC defensive linemen. I place separation at the top of my values when ranking receiver prospects. This is not an insignificant flaw.
One thing that encourages me is the fact that this was almost certainly the top wide receiver on the board for the Patriots. Only one other wide receiver was taken before the Patriots pick. Now to be fair, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown could have been their top pick. He was projected to be the first wide receiver off the board in numerous mocks and that is exactly what happened. But I have a strong suspicion Harry was at the top of Bill Belichick’s board. Daniel Jeremiah said the Patriots put a ton of work into scouting him. Getting your top pick at #32 is extremely rare. The Patriots may have just done it here.
It may be cliche but that doesn’t make it untrue. As Nick Caserio said in his presser, the job of the receiver is to get open and catch the ball. Harry might be the best catcher out of the draft prospects but he’s got to prove he can get open too. Consistently getting separation is the way most successful NFL receivers operate with a few exceptions. The question is whether N’Keal can improve his separation or be the exception to the rule?
I personally think he will need to be both. Not only will he have to improve his route running and his release, but he will also need to exhibit those skills that allow certain wide receivers to buck the NFL trend. Can he do that? The Patriots place a premium on mental aptitude because they know pretty much anyone who comes to the NFL must develop to succeed. Yeah alright, occasionally you get guys that come in their rookie year and earn All-Pro nods but such phenoms are the product of luck as much as anything else.
So who could N’Keal Harry develop into? I keep seeing him compared to Anquan Boldin. I don’t think that is the comp here, though: he’s a much better athlete than Boldin was, though their game may be similar. I think a better comparison in terms of the athletic profile and how he plays is Allen Robinson. Both players have superior measurables outside of their long speed and use those measurables to successfully compensate for their lack of speed. In my opinion that’s the realistic best case scenario.
The unrealistic best case scenario? The Patriots just drafted their version of DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is like a suction vacuum: any ball you toss his way is sucked into his hands. The chances of Harry being Hopkins are tiny because the chances of Hopkins being Hopkins are tiny. But Harry is probably the best in the draft in terms of just grabbing the ball. If he improves his release and route running he is going to get separation and the 4.53 40-yard time just isn’t going to matter in my opinion.
I also think he is good fit for Tom Brady, who despite his calculated tendencies, has always loved throwing the ball up where only his receiver can get it. Harry will do his best work on intermediate and short throws which is Brady’s bread and butter. His yards after the catch ability will make him a great pairing with Josh McDaniel's scheme. Caserio said the Patriots are only concerned with drafting good players and I believe him: they wouldn’t have drafted Harry if they did not think he was a good player.
But I guarantee you there are other good players they like, and in my opinion, ones with less risk. Need did play a role here, but as I said earlier I think Harry was probably the top receiver on their board. So this was anything but a reach in the Patriots’ mind.
Ultimately, Harry’s size will compensate for his lack of separation but he will need to improve his release and route running to succeed at a high level against NFL competition. Since that is far from guaranteed I can’t grade this as an A because there is meaningful risk involved here. That being said Harry has the skills to be a wild success in spite of the fact that he will never separate like many top receivers. The fact that he has upside, fills a major need, and is a scheme fit makes this a solid B for me.
I said at the beginning of this draft that I essentially had all the big name receivers graded in the second round. I did not have a first round grade on a single one. All of them showed promise and all of them had major question marks. The bad news was that it increased the likelihood of the Patriots picking a bust. The good news was that it also increased the chances of the Patriots grabbing a steal because of the lack of consensus. One of these low first and second round receivers will be a stud. Are the Patriots the one getting the steal? The bust? Something in between? We will find out.
P.S. Harry said he was confident he was going 33rd overall to the Cardinals if the Patriots passed on him. Talk about a draft miracle. He could have been with one of the NFL’s worst franchises. Instead he lands with the best in NFL history.