At the end of the NFL draft’s first round, the New England Patriots decided to not trade down but instead invest in one of the top wide receiver prospects available: Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, who will add size and physicality to the Patriots’ receiving group — two elements that the team lost when tight end Rob Gronkowski retired last month. Harry will not replace Gronk one-for-one, of course, but he should help soften the blow.
Generally, it is easy to see why the team liked him when looking at the tape. He is a big receiver who has strong hands, excellent vision and plays with a physical edge. All in all, he fits New England’s X-receiver mold perfectly — but his talents extend beyond just one particular role, as he also possesses the versatility to be moved around the formation to be used against the best available matchups.
Let’s dive into Harry’s film to find out exactly what he might bring to the table for the Patriots in 2019 and beyond.
Contested catch ability
One of Harry’s defining attributes is his ability to come down with the football in traffic — to a certain degree similar to what Rob Gronkowski brought to the offense. One reason for that is his knowledge of route concepts and how to best get himself in position to make a play on the football. The following reception against Oregon illustrates how some good route-running in combination with a bigger frame leads to a reception:
Beautiful out and up from Harry. Commits to the out with his head and body before accelerating out of his break and streaking upfield. Climbs the ladder and shows the hand strength to come down with the one hander pic.twitter.com/GC9yLunB3t— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Running and out-and-up route combination, Harry was able to shake free of the cornerback to give quarterback Manny Wilkins confidence in his receiver. Despite the defensive back right on his hips, the wideout then successfully climbed up the ladder to catch the pass through contact. Jump passes similar to this one will undoubtably be in the books for Harry considering his frame and experience making contested catches.
The same also is on display on the following play, when is covered in an off-man defense:
Adjusts to the low pass and hauls it in through contact at the catch point pic.twitter.com/QSn5pEsvC4— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Running and in-cutting route, Harry was able to haul in a low pass despite Oregon’s defender getting his hand in the breadbasket at the perfect time. However, Arizona State’s receiver was able to stay in possession of the ball through the breakup attempt — displaying strong hands together with solid concentration and also a nice, quick in-cut at the top of his route.
As noted above, Harry’s route running and spatial awareness of his defensive matchup is generally one of the reasons why he is a successful contested/jump ball catcher. The following play, despite being an incompletion, is another example of it:
Ball is delivered late and to the wrong spot, but Harry does a good job working into the CBs blind spot. In great position for a back shoulder fade, where he’ll dominate when he and Brady get on the same page pic.twitter.com/Ahio9eaizO— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Harry was in a position to make a play on the ball had it not been thrown his way late and to the wrong location. Nevertheless, the wideout did a good job getting in the area between the cornerback’s back and the boundary to put himself in a position for a back-shoulder catch. This ability should certainly come in handy in the NFL, and when playing with a quarterback like Tom Brady that trust his receivers to make plays.
Yards after the catch
Harry isn’t the speediest of wide receivers, but he certainly is able to break away from the defense for additional yardage after the catch. The following play against UTSA is a good example of that:
Harry isn’t a burner, but he’s got really good build up speed. Makes the catch with a defender closing in, shakes him, then finds daylight and takes it 60 yards to the house pic.twitter.com/gJyn4lRwSM— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Originally aligning on the left-side perimeter, Harry moved towards the middle of the field to plug a short pass out of the air — despite plenty of traffic surrounding him. Again, however, he made the grab and immediately got spun around before heading up the field. Finding a hole behind a block, the pass catcher gradually built up speed and in combination with some good downfield blocking was able to take the short pass for a 58-yard touchdown.
His vision to find holes and make defenders miss also is an asset in the screen game, as can be seen on this play:
Sets up the DB by running to the sideline before cutting back to the field and fights for extra yards to turn the quick screen into a 14 yard gain pic.twitter.com/AcEeiOQfS5— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Again, Harry registered a short reception on an in-breaking motion and in combination with some good blocking in front of him was able to head down the field almost immediately — something former Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola excelled at during his time in New England. Originally moving towards the boundary, Harry moved back inwards to shake his man before fighting through traffic to the first down marker.
Plays like this a stable of Rob Gronkowski’s skill set: defenders all over him, still being able to keep the legs moving. Gronkowski, of course, was in his own league when it came to fighting through contact, but Harry has some positive attributes in this area as well.
One reason for that is the 21-year-old’s physical play as both a receiver and a blocker in the running and screen game. First, a look at him out-muscling a defensive back for a reception:
One thing I love about Harry is his ability to bully smaller DBs. Stems the route inside to give himself more breathing room before breaking back out on the slot fade. Difficult route to defend with his combo of size, length, jump timing, and hand strength pic.twitter.com/xGUbjACXKg— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Starting in the left-side slot, Harry ran down the field before moving inside at the top of his route. He used his comparatively massive 6’2 frame to shield himself and the ball from the defender in coverage to make the reception. Given his combination of size, length and strength in combination with solid hands and an ability to time his jump perfectly, the cornerback guarding Harry had little chance of making a play on the ball without interfering with the receiver.
As noted above, his physicality is also on display in the running game:
Smitten with Harry’s effort as a run blocker. He’s got that junkyard dog mentality pic.twitter.com/GkYs9y0Vqt— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
On this play, we can see Harry getting his hands dirty as a blocker for Arizona State’s rushing attempt. Going against a cornerback, the wideout got a solid initial push to the inside in order to move the defender away from the potential rushing lane. He then followed this push up by heading up the field looking for the next player to block — which he did until the whistle was blown. All in all, Harry’s blocking in the ground game certainly contributed to the Patriots having him high on their draft board.
Room for growth
As with every rookie, of course, there is still room for growth when it comes to entering the NFL. The following three plays illustrate areas that Harry has to address. Luckily, neither of those are irreparable issues that might hinder his development at the next level.
Let’s start with a simple drop:
His hands are typically excellent, but Harry will suffer from focus drops from time to time. Wide open but doesn’t look the ball in and let’s it hit the turf pic.twitter.com/wbFtna5ETA— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
Usually a strong pass catcher, Harry struggled with concentration drops every now and then. All in all, Pro Football Focus credited him with six drops in 2018 and some — like this one above — are simply the result of the receiver losing focus by taking his eyes off the ball to soon to brace for potential contact. As said above, the issue should not be considered major at this point in time and especially considering that Harry will now play with one of the best ball-placement passers the NFL has ever seen.
One aspect that has been mentioned quite a lot when it comes to Harry is his lack of explosiveness off the ball. This is certainly something to keep an eye on, because it sometimes hindered his ability to enter his routes:
Harry isn’t very explosive off the ball, so he relies on a motor release to try and get CBs to open their hips. Often leads to a slower release and good corners know to stay square until he commits pic.twitter.com/X8rcTaNJi1— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
To make up for his explosiveness, Harry oftentimes relied on a motor release to try and get defensive backs to open their hips. If the defender does not bite, however, this presents a problem for the receiver: he lacks the burst to simply run by them and can get eliminated from a play if hesitating too much — especially if it also messes up the timing of the play. The Patriots’ coaching staff will likely find a way to mask this problem, but it is also something the player himself has to recognize and work on.
The third aspect in which Harry still has room for growth is him keeping his cards close to the vest at the begging of a play — something he did not do on this example:
This absolutely can’t happen in the pro’s. Gets his head around way too early and telegraphs the back-shoulder throw. That probably turns into a pick against an NFL vet pic.twitter.com/DEuj6EylJn— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) April 26, 2019
As opposed to Pac-12 cornerbacks, those in the NFL will find a way to take advantage if a receiver tips his hand too soon — the play above would therefore likely result in an interception (or worse) at the next level. Again, however, this is mostly a question of coaching. Just like the rest of Harry’s relative shortcomings at the moment, it can and will be worked on by New England’s staff.
All in all, the Patriots invested in a very polished receiver that still has some room to grow: he can eliminate his issues to become more consistent and simultaneously has an intriguing foundation as a physical player capable of making tough catches and generating yards after receptions. It will certainly be interesting to see how New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels uses Harry’s talents in 2019 and beyond.