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Grading the N’Keal Harry selection and how he fits in the Patriots offense in the immediate and long term

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Read more: 5 winners and 3 losers from the Patriots drafting N’Keal Harry

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots have finally broken the seal as N’Keal Harry became the first wide receiver drafted by the team in the first round in 23 years. That solved New England’s need to find a physical receiver on the outside who can make tough catches to beat tight man-to-man coverage, a major flaw on the 2018 Patriots offense. In addition to his ability to win 50/50 balls, he is electric running after the catch.

The Patriots greatly value that skill set as we’ve seen Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman make defenders look silly over the years. He’s not a great separator due to the lack of elite speed, which was probably the only thing that kept him out of the Top 10 considering the tape and production were excellent, so the Patriots will have to scheme him open on certain plays.

Strengths

  • Large catch radius due to 33” arms
  • Strong hands and a natural hands catcher
  • Physical run blocker and route runner, understands how much he can get away with on the push-off
  • Knows how to use his body to shield defenders from the ball
  • Sets up double moves well, especially the out-and-up route
  • Inside/Outside versatility
  • Very difficult to tackle after the catch due to rare size and strength combo, potential punt returner option?
  • Impressive leaping ability and high-pointer of the football, which shows up in his contested catch rate of 57% (!!!)

Weaknesses

  • Not exceptionally fast or shifty in his routes, which explains the separation issue
  • Struggles a bit vs. press coverage on the outside, was mostly contained by likely 2nd round selection CB Byron Murphy last season
  • Will need to be more consistent with his release from the line of scrimmage, especially when moving to a timing-based offense
  • Route running will have to be more crisp to generate a bit more separation at the NFL level

Rookie Year Projection

Harry probably doesn’t start off as a major factor in the offense unless he flat out destroys the competition in preseason, but that won’t hinder him for long. Being a great open field runner, the Patriots can find ways to get him the ball in space. Whether it’s the quick screens, end-arounds/reverses, or even as a returner, there are multiple ways to allow Harry to wreak havoc on defenders in the open field. He’ll probably spend more snaps at the X receiver position unless someone else lays claim to that role than at the Z or slot, although he profiles well for that role too.

I would not be surprised if Harry ends up being the Patriots’ primary punt returner in 2019 because he is a monster to tackle in the open field despite not being shifty as Julian Edelman or exceptionally fast. With teams likely focusing in on Edelman and James White, Harry should see a lot of 1-on-1 coverage early on. I expect him to see close to 80% of the snaps on offense with only Edelman seeing more snaps at the position.

Long Term Projection

I see a lot of Anquan Boldin similarities: big, physical route runner who isn’t great at separating on routes but can make the contested grabs. Despite his physical limitations, Boldin carved out a lengthy career in which he was one of the NFL’s most dominant receivers for over a decade with a likely enshrinement in Canton. If you want a more contemporary example, his strengths as a pass catcher are very similar to future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Routes that allow Harry to utilize his size (back-shoulder fades, slants, in-breaking routes) and ability to run after the catch will maximize his value in the offense. He is also a very competitive and punishing run blocker, which is not surprising considering he’s almost as big as a tight end, so you don’t have to take him off the field for any play. I would like to see the Patriots use the same bag of tricks to get Edelman free releases on Harry, so defenses can’t key on him either.

How Many Downs Can He Impact: All 4

He can do almost everything you can ask a receiver to do. Blocks well, solid route runner, physical at the catch point, wins a lot more 50/50 balls than he loses, and a monster in the open field. His elite run after catch ability makes him a great fit for a kick and punt returner, which will help him get on the field while he’s figuring out his role in the offense.

Pick Grade: A

The Patriots addressed their most glaring draft need with a potential 5-year starter in their offense. When considering the other players on the board, there was Jawaan Taylor, A.J. Brown, and Greedy Williams to consider as other possibilities.

Taylor’s drop in the draft has been due to medical concerns about his knees and back, the two most troublesome areas for a player to have. A.J. Brown is a player of a similar mold to Harry, a big physical target who uses his size to get open with inside/outside versatility but perhaps not being as great after the catch is why the Patriots chose Harry instead. Williams is an enticing prospect simply due to his production and size at 6’2” although teams passed on him due to him being only 187 pounds, which is a concern since the Patriots like cornerbacks who can press. Also given the Patriots are pretty much set at the position for 2019 (and probably 2020 too), it makes zero sense to take a corner who won’t be able to see the field versus a wide receiver who will get opportunities to play right away.

Harry’s biggest issue is separation, although the Patriots have a brilliant play caller on offense with Josh McDaniels and there are plenty of easy ways to get the ball into Harry’s hands.