Last week, we took a closer look at how New England Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry could help the team replace some of the production that was (temporarily) lost when Josh Gordon was indefinitely suspended. The first-round draft pick seems tailor-made to fill the X-receiver role previously played by Gordon due to his frame, route-running, and ability to track and catch contested passes down the field.
However, Harry’s skillset and possible contributions to the Patriots offense could also help fill the void created by another departure: Cordarrelle Patterson’s. A former first-round draft pick like Harry, Patterson left New England in free agency this offseason after playing a unique role in 2018. Not only did he serve as the team’s kickoff returner, he also was a gadget-type player on offense that was used in multiple ways.
Let’s take a look at the film to find out how Harry can help replace the production and versatility Patterson brought to the table.
In order to take advantage of Patterson’s straight-line speed and vision, New England regularly employed him in the running game — be it as a ball carrier or as a decoy. One way to get the football into his hands was by using (or faking) jet sweeps: Patterson originally lined up split out wide but started to motion across the formation close behind the quarterback, who would then give him the football on a quick hand-off.
All in all, the Patriots ran eleven jet sweeps with Patterson last season and gained a combined 90 yards. Here are some of those runs:
CP was primarily an off-ball receiver to influence defenses on jet motion and sweeps, keys to a lot of the team’s play action and run concepts.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
Harry wasn’t as much of a direct extension of the run for ASU as Patterson was for NE, but he has the traits to succeed in the role pic.twitter.com/IRQ7aBo2IS
What makes the jet sweeps with Patterson work is his elite combination of acceleration and speed — one that allows him to get to the edge and to break tackles. The first of the plays above, from the Patriots’ week sixteen game against the Buffalo Bills, illustrates all of it perfectly: Patterson activates his second gear once he receives the hand-off, which helps him evade a tackle attempt behind the line of scrimmage and get into the open field.
For Harry to find similar success on this concept, he will need to not just show off his burst but also his ability to read the blockers in front of him and exploit holes that might open up. If he can get around the edge, though, the rookie will be tough to bring down due to his size and strength. Either way, it would not be a surprise if New England used Harry on jet sweeps from time to time.
Similar to the jet sweep, the end around was also used to take advantage of Patterson’s blend of speed, quickness and vision. On the first two plays here — two of four end arounds New England ran with Patterson in 2018 (for a combined 18 yards) — he is given the ball after the fake hand-off. As can be seen, he is again able to get around the edge to head up the field, breaking a tackle attempt in the backfield on the second run:
McDaniels liked to run fake handoff sweeps with CP aligned as the on-ball WR close to the strength of the formation— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
ASU used Harry similarly on double reverses. He may not have Patterson’s burst or speed to the edge, but N’Keal clearly plays at a different speed holding the ball pic.twitter.com/g0CAoSpL7S
Arizona State also used Harry in similar fashion, as the third clip shows. While it is a variation of the end around concept — a zone-read hand-off to reverse — the idea behind the play is the same: the wide receiver needs to get to the edge and follow his blocks up the field. Harry does all that well on this play against Texas Tech, and accelerates properly once he has the football in his hands.
While he may lack Patterson’s burst or speed to get around the corner, he still can be a dangerous option on misdirection plays like end arounds, reverses, and, as noted above, jet sweeps.
Harry proved himself a capable runner with the football in hands during his college career, and the Patriots will most certainly use those abilities in the screen game just like they did with Patterson last year. One of the ways to do so is throwing quick smoke screen passes to the wide receiver in the flat when defenders are playing off or out of position. The first of the plays here — from New England’s regular season opener against the Houston Texans — is an example of that:
Brady loves his freebies. If corners play soft, he’ll gladly throw a smoke screen out wide and let his receiver do the rest.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
CP and Harry are loads to bring down and excellent at manipulating defenders in space. They’re also surprisingly agile in the open field for big WRs pic.twitter.com/8dj5Vz3vqi
Quarterback Tom Brady sees the cornerback slightly back-pedaling and immediately takes advantage: he throws the short pass to Patterson, who accelerates to get beyond the line of scrimmage and to a new set of downs on this second-and-short play. Patterson’s burst is on display once more here, as is his agility to move upfield and around the defender right after catching the football.
The second play — a quick screen to Harry — works in similar fashion, with the main difference being Harry evading multiple tacklers and reversing field to turn a potential loss of yardage into a sizable gain. The gist is this: both Patterson and Harry are loads to bring down and are excellent at manipulating defenders in space. They are also surprisingly agile in the open field given their size.
As was already discussed in the first installment of this series, screen plays would allow Harry to quickly get the ball and use his post-catch skills to create additional yardage. While smoke screens like those above are an option to put the football into the youngster’s hands, so are tunnel screens:
CP lined up o/s without motioning usually meant that a tunnel screen was coming. Flash also ran a few as the o/s receiver i/s the numbers.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
N’Keal saw a ton of these screens at ASU, where he routinely showed off his abilities to read and set up blocks. Could be one of his go-to’s pic.twitter.com/act3FM9wRS
One of the key ingredients in a successful screen game is the ball carrier’s patience to let blocks develop and ability to properly read them.
Patterson shows this in the first clip above, when he received the football in week two against the Jacksonville Jaguars: he catches the ball after moving slightly inwards from his boundary alignment as the Z-receiver. At that point, the blocks are already starting to be set up. Patterson then reads the situation quickly and starts running behind blocks from tight end Rob Gronkowski and fellow wide receiver Chris Hogan — turning a 2nd and 17 into a new set of downs.
Harry, meanwhile, displayed the same skills in college and regularly identified the correct blockers to move behind. The first of his two clips above — from last year’s game against Oregon when he had 7 catches for 105 yards — shows this well: he starts by moving behind his lead-blocker, trying to get to the boundary; when he sees the cornerback react, he cuts back to the middle of the field to get around him.
Another way to get the 32nd overall pick of this year’s draft the football in the screen game is by using bubble screens:
McDaniels can also get the ball to Harry on bubble screens when he’s lined up inside. Have a feeling he’d be pretty comfortable in that role too pic.twitter.com/AishGPaiID— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
New England loves to run these concepts and Patterson gave them the very good player to perform them due to his aforementioned skillset. Once again, acceleration in the flat to get around the edge is important as is an ability to either evade tacklers in front or hit them to keep the momentum going. In the clips above, both Patterson and Harry are able to quickly move past the line of scrimmage to gain five and seven yards, respectively.
Patterson may not have been a consistent threat as a receiving option for the Patriots in 2018, but he provided solid depth and rotational abilities. Take the following two plays, for example, when he served as a check-down option for Brady: the quarterback’s first reads are elsewhere but he goes back to Patterson for easy completions — giving the elusive wideout a chance to work his magic.
Patterson was able to rip off chunks of yardage pretty much every time Brady went to him as a check-down option, especially as a decoy on run fakes and off of motion— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
Harry could excel here, as he did his fair share of damage after the catch on routes behind the LOS pic.twitter.com/iR3z2oHjtb
New England used Patterson primarily as a decoy on run-fakes and off motion runs, so it remains to be seen whether or not the team has a similar role in mind for Harry. If it does, however, it would not be a surprise to see him move out to the flat as a quick-hit target in case other plays further down the field do not develop as anticipated. Given his run-after-the-catch skills, Harry could excel in such situations.
You can’t talk about Cordarrelle Patterson without mentioning the kicking game: the Patriots’ offseason acquisition served as the team’s primary kickoff returner in 2018, and ran back 23 kicks for 663 yards and a touchdown. Harry, for comparison, did not return even a single kickoff at Arizona State. He did, however, work as a rotational punt returner and fielded 14 kicks that he returned for 165 yards and the following touchdown:
Like Cordarrelle, N’Keal also offers upside in the return game. Had a couple of insane returns in his college career pic.twitter.com/MvKFhYtAeb— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 12, 2019
While the 21-year-old has yet to return kickoffs, the vision and ability to maneuver around tacklers he displayed on punts could make him an enticing option. On this particular play from last year’s game against USC, he patiently awaits the coverage defenders before making his move and in Patterson-like fashion was able to get around the corner. Once there, Harry moves well through traffic to take the punt to the house.
It is plays like this that make Harry appear like a player capable of replacing Cordarrelle Patterson and his contributions to the Patriots. While the rookie lacks the straight-line speed and outstanding burst of his predecessor at wide receiver, his vision and ability to break tackles make him an intriguing addition to New England’s offense — and another tool for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to work with.
Ultimately, Harry will not replace Patterson one-for-one. He will, however, be used on some of the same routes and concepts to take advantage of his skillset. And don’t be surprised if the results are equally impressive.