When the New England Patriots selected N’Keal Harry with the 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft, they added a big wide receiver that brings strong hands, excellent vision and a physical edge to the table. All in all, Harry 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.
As such, his role could resemble that of another Patriots wide receiver that is currently serving an indefinite suspension: Josh Gordon. For much of last season, his first in New England since the club acquired him via trade from the Cleveland Browns, Gordon served as the primary big-bodied receiver on the perimeter as well as a security blanket for quarterback Tom Brady — a role Harry should also be able to fill.
Let’s take a look at the film to see what the Patriots may have in mind for the rookie, and how Gordon’s 2018 could serve as a blueprint for Harry’s 2019.
The slant was one of Gordon’s most popular routes in 2018, as his route running and ability to stay in position against defensive backs allowed him to consistently provide a reliable target for Brady. The following plays from his very first game with the Patriots — in week four against the Dolphins — already illustrate this:
Slant were Gordon's most popular route o/s. I didn't see Harry run many at ASU, as they opted for tunnel screens in the quick game, but he's big and long enough to win on slants.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
Harry's releases will need work if he wants to elevate himself to go-to check option vs press pic.twitter.com/SnAoG6pIRs
On the first play shown, the veteran wideout aligns on the far weak side of the formation against off-man coverage in a 3rd and 6 situation. New England uses a double-slant pattern on this side of the field and Gordon executes his in-cut perfectly to get himself open and catch the perfectly thrown pass for a new set of downs. Later in the same game, on another third down, the Patriots ran the same basic concept to convert: again, Gordon lines up out wide on the weak side of the team’s 3x2 look before running a slant versus off-man zone.
Arizona State, for comparison, did not use Harry often on slants. The final play of the clip above, however, shows him run that route successfully — as does the following:
An even better example of Harry running a slant that got lost in the shuffle. Shows his quick catch ability and how dangerous he is after the catch pic.twitter.com/kcvnnYppSi— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
While the rookie does need to work on his release against press-man coverage, he is a dangerous weapon if able to get open on slant routes — something he shows in this clip. Harry fights through contact at the top of his route before breaking towards the inside, and plugs the football out of the air on the fly before quickly turning his head around to proceed down the field.
Along the way, he also displays some terrific run-after-the-catch abilities to keep going through a pair of tackle attempts. All in all, Harry does have potential to find similar success on slant routes as Gordon did last year. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots use him the same way.
The Patriots did not use Gordon a lot in the screen game, but when they did it was mostly in the form of smoke and tunnel screens. While the success on these plays is nothing to write home about, the idea behind them is noteworthy: New England used them to try to take advantage of defenders playing off or biting on potential hand-offs:
Gordon's work in the screen game mostly came on smoke and tunnel screens from a reduced split in + territory— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
Flash didn’t have much success last season, but they’re a way to get Harry the ball quickly with a chance to work his magic pic.twitter.com/iy37038tbK
In Harry’s case, screen plays would allow him to quickly get the ball and use his already solid post-catch skills to create additional yardage. The play above against UTSA is a good example of that: aligning as the single wideout on the left side of the formation, Harry goes against off-man coverage and receives a quick pass. As was the case on the second slant example above, he quickly turns upfield to accelerate; this allows him to get a favorable angle against the defensive back.
Harry, like Gordon, will probably only see irregular passes thrown his way on screen concepts. When his number is called upon, however, he should be able to turn it into positive plays more often than not based on his quick reaction skills.
As can be seen, the Patriots have numerous options to use Harry like Gordon when facing off-man coverage. Another route to attack it that should work well with the first-round rookie is the curl:
Curls get the ball in Harry’s hands quickly when defenses play soft coverage against him.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
Like Gordon, he has the frame to prevent breakups, the catch radius and hands to pluck the ball from defenders, and the YAC ability to rip off big plays pic.twitter.com/pA4cdDkGbX
New England regularly used Gordon on curl routes due to his frame: he has the size to prevent pass breakups from closing defenders, the catch radius and hands to steal passes away, and the yards-after-the-catch abilities to turn the comparatively short passes into big gains. The two plays embedded above — against the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings — illustrate this quite well.
Both times, Gordon lines up near the boundary against cornerbacks playing ten yards off the line of scrimmage. The timing with Brady is perfect on each of the plays, which allows the big-bodied wide receiver to seemingly effortlessly brush off defenders with a quick turnaround and take advantage of bad angles. Gordon, like Harry on the other plays shown so far, reacts instantly after the reception to gain additional yards.
The third play shows Harry run a curl and the result can best be described as Gordon-esque: he catches the short pass, turns around immediately to put himself in a position to fight off a defender, and create significant yardage after contact (and in this case even find the end zone). Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to get Harry in this position as often as possible considering how his skill set on curl routes is similar to Gordon’s.
Gordon and Harry are both long pass catchers at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-2, respectively, that are dominant at the catch point. Furthermore, they are excellent at tracking and adjusting to deep balls while also being strong enough to bully cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage. These traits open up opportunities downfield on fade routes, where both can go through or over smaller defenders:
Gordon and Harry are long, dominant at the catch point, excellent tracking and adjusting to the deep ball, and strong enough to bully corners off the line.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
These traits open up opportunities downfield on fades, where they can go through or over smaller CBs pic.twitter.com/YQmoJbkt9S
On all four plays here, the two wide receivers’ abilities to track the football in the air is on full display — as is their concentration to come away with the catches on one of the toughest routes to play. What also stands out is their ability to win their one-on-one matchups: Gordon, for example, gets a good release on both plays (against the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears) to give Brady the confidence to release the ball that way.
Harry, meanwhile, has to go against a press-man technique on all three plays and succeeds as well. He is active with his hands to disengage quickly and get open down the sideline on the first one. The Arizona State product is then able to track the football and secure the catch. The second and third receptions are more contested and illustrate some of Harry’s strengths and the shortcomings he still needs to work on.
For one, he fails to properly disengage from the cornerbacks on both of them which creates only a small window for the quarterback to throw to. However, Harry times his jumps well and is able to out-muscle the defenders for the football on all two plays. The concentration he shows is tremendous, as is his ability to secure the catches.
Just like the slants discussed above, both Gordon and Harry have been productive running dig routes — in Gordon’s case especially off play action as he flies by hesitating defenders with seemingly little effort. When inside the numbers, the 28-year-old is a tough matchup against these in-breaking routes. Harry, meanwhile, offers a similar skill set when called upon to run digs:
The play-action dig is a staple and one of Gordon’s most productive routes, particularly i/s the #'s. Like Flash, Harry offers a big body over the middle who can snatch the ball from incoming defenders and make tough catches in traffic when the second level cheats up to play run pic.twitter.com/RnZc3QoqyX— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
What also makes Gordon and Harry so dangerous on crossing patterns is their ability to shield the football against smaller defensive backs. The rookie’s first clip above shows this: the cornerback has him tightly covered from his off-man alignment but he is unable to reach around and break up the pass as Harry is in good position to make the catch and secure the ball. He certainly knows how to use his frame.
Once again, his run-after-the-catch skills are on display: on the second play, Harry outmuscles the defender on the top of the route to get open. He catches the ball on the fly and shows his speed to outrace two more defenders for the end zone. When he gets into open space with the ball in his hands, Harry can be quite dangerous — just like Josh Gordon as the play against Chicago shows.
While no traditional inside receivers given their size, both Gordon and Harry can do damage from the slot. This rings particularly true against single-high safety looks and when they can muscle through and stack smaller (but possibly shiftier) slot cornerbacks.
Gordon and Harry are at their most dangerous from the slot against single-high looks, where they can muscle through and stack smaller slot corners. They can also get 1-on-1's against safeties vs some split coverages from i/s. Harry capitalized on these opportunities in college. pic.twitter.com/Dau5tv2AdH— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 10, 2019
The first two plays show the pass catchers get inside position down the seam and simply outrun the one-on-one defenders before making strong concentration catches: Gordon gets open on a head-fake towards the boundary; Harry simply uses a little stutter-step to move by the cornerback. Each pass catcher’s straight-line speed — especially when able to build up against off-coverage — is on full display. Plays number two and three from Harry again show the 21-year-old adjust well to deep passes and using his body to get himself in an advantageous position to come away with the reception.
With Gordon expected to return from his suspension at one point this season, the two wide receivers’ abilities to perform from the slot could become a big factor in the Patriots’ aerial attack: both possess outstanding size and good straight-line speed to go against shiftier but maybe not as physically imposing slot cornerbacks. A lineup with Gordon, Harry and Julian Edelman as the pass catchers would be a challenge to defend for any defense in the NFL — especially when you add Tom Brady and the running back corps.
Gordon’s and Harry’s abilities to line up in the slot certainly help make this possible, as it would allow New England to shape-shift on the fly without having to substitute. The veteran will need to return off his indefinite suspension first, of course, but the idea itself is certainly an intriguing one from the Patriots’ perspective.
All in all, Harry is the current New England wide receiver with the best chances to lock down the X-receiver role as played by Gordon last year. He may not be a stud against press coverage yet, but few rookies are — and he will get plenty of off-coverage and scheme help. Until Gordon returns, he will be the top perimeter wide receiver. And afterwards, anything seems possible.