In the first two installments of this series on New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, we looked at his abilities to help the club replace currently suspended Josh Gordon and free agency departure Cordarrelle Patterson. Harry has the frame and route-running abilities to find success as a prototypical X-receiver in New England’s offense; he also has the vision and agility to be used on misdirection plays.
Harry’s potential impact does not stop there, however, as he could also help fill the biggest shoes of them all: Rob Gronkowski’s. The future Hall of Famer, of course, decided to call it a career earlier this offseason. In turn, the world champions lost their biggest receiving weapon — not just in terms of size but also when it comes to putting pressure on a defensive backfield on every single down.
Before unrealistic expectations get established, however, it needs to be pointed out that Harry will not replace Gronkowski’s pass-catching role one-for-one. The former is a first-year player, after all, while the latter is arguably the greatest mismatch of his era. That being said, Harry can help take over some of the conceptual ways how New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got the big tight end involved.
Red zone threat
In 2018, the Patriots used Gronkowski differently than they did in the years before: while he still made his fair share of plays in the passing game, he served more as a blocker than a receiving threat. This became apparent in the red zone, where the team lacked a conventional and consistent target with the length and overall size to win on jump balls or back-shoulder throws (more on them later).
Harry — who was measured at 6-foot-2 and 3/8ths and 228 pounds at the combine — could help fill this void for the Patriots. After all, he regularly showed at Arizona State that he knows how to use his size and properly control his body to make plays inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
NE sneakily lacked a conventional red zone threat in '18 (more on that very soon). Gronk's receiving role was significantly cut back, so he was no longer a regular money zone threat.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 14, 2019
Harry used his length, frame, awareness, and body control to dominate from the RZ in college pic.twitter.com/9yv0D6u64L
The plays above show what Harry could bring to the table to help ease the pain of losing Gronkowski as a red zone threat: an ability to out-jump smaller defenders and shield the football off against them. Gronk does all of it on the touchdown reception from last year’s season opener against the Houston Texans, as he times his turnaround perfectly and uses his frame to put himself in the ideal position to come away with the reception.
The 32nd overall pick of this year’s draft needs to show that he can do the same against NFL-caliber competition, but his college tape is encouraging. Just look at Harry’s third clip above, which looks almost exactly like Gronkowski’s score against Houston: he positions himself well to put some distance between himself and the defender guarding him, before expertly timing his jump and going up for the football.
If Harry can keep outmuscling defenders at the top of routes, he should find success in the league as a consistent red zone threat.
Contested catch ability
What made Gronkowski such an exiting and productive player was his ability to win contested catches and be successful even with defenders draped all over him. He was outstanding at using his frame and excellent body control to come away as the winner in tight matchups on a regular basis:
Some X WRs have been big-bodied targets for Brady, but no one came close to Gronk. His blend of physicality, impenetrable frame, and crazy body control are irreplaceable.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 13, 2019
Harry has to prove he can out-muscle NFL CBs, but his track record shows he could be an interesting fill-in pic.twitter.com/8E4H338bc8
On the first play shown here — from week thirteen of the 2017 season — he is able to out-jump Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White to make the catch over him. Even though the defender is in a good position to at least knock the pass incomplete, New England’s tight end holds on. The second play is similar, with Gronkowski displaying tremendous concentration to track the ball and strength to wrestle it away from Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry.
Harry’s abilities to locate the football in the air are not dissimilar to Gronkowski’s, and the wideout too has shown proper body control and concentration to hold onto contested throws. The first of his plays, against UTSA is another illustration of that: he once more times his jump well and shields the football from the defender with his frame. Even thought the cornerback keeps battling through the catch, Harry is able to complete it.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady likes to give his receivers a chance to make a play, and Gronkowski earned this trust early on in his career. If Harry can do the same, he could develop into a dangerous jump-ball receiver on the perimeter and in the red-zone.
Run-after-the catch ability
Gronkowski was a unique weapon. Not only did he possess a 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame that he knew how to use against press-man coverage and when going up for jump-ball passes, he also had the strength and elusiveness to fight through contact in the open field. This made him one of the toughest players to tackle in all of football: when he got going, he was like a freight train on the loose.
Harry does not offer the same run-after-the-catch abilities comparative to his size, but he still has the physicality and agility to either evade or run through tacklers to gain additional yards:
Gronk was one of the hardest humans to bring down in NFL history and regularly sparked the offense with his otherworldly efforts after the catch.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 14, 2019
Harry's unconventional elusiveness and physicality with the ball could provide a similar presence for the Patriots offense pic.twitter.com/pCzkkc5PeH
The first of Harry’s plays here shows this. He catches the slant route from his left-side slot position and quickly turns around to head up the field. An overly motivated safety helps him break a tackle attempt along the way, yes, but he still displays very good body control to keep his feet under him and accelerate to gain significant yards after contact.
Will he be confused with Gronkowski for his ability to add yards after the catch? No, because he is differently built. However, he has the speed and strength to stiff-arm defenders out of the way or step through tackle attempts if need be.
One of the staples of the Brady-to-Gronkowski connection was the back-shoulder throw and catch. Over the years, the duo made this play one of the best bets in all of football because of its outstanding chemistry and some of Gronkowski’s skills already mentioned above: his ability to use his body in order to position himself perfectly, his timing on jumps (when necessary), and his strength to fight through contact.
Harry has yet to prove himself in this department, but a) he and Brady have plenty of time to work on back-shoulder concepts, and b) he already showed his skills in college:
12 to 87 was nearly unstoppable on back-shoulder fades. Brady tried to spark a similar chemistry with Josh Gordon, but his ball placement was poor and they clearly weren't clicking. Harry will have plenty of time to gain his QB's trust on this staple play pic.twitter.com/449ssHub5s— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 14, 2019
Arizona State liked to throw it to Harry on back-shoulder passes, as the two plays against Texas Tech illustrate. Both times, the wideout makes a decisive cut back for the football to get himself in a favorable position versus the defensive back. Again, he uses his frame to shield the defenders off — and his ability to track the football in the air.
All in all, Harry’s size and physicality should help him to find success on some of the plays that the Patriots liked to run with Gronkowski. As noted above, he will not be a one-for-one replacement for one of the most productive players of all time. However, the first-round rookie will add an element to New England’s aerial attack the club lost when Gronkowski announced his retirement in March.