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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Exploring N’Keal Harry’s time and future with the Patriots

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Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The 2020 New England Patriots have officially broken my brain. Just when you think you’re out, they pull you right back in.

Inconsistency has been the word to describe this year’s Patriots. New England has gotten big wins over playoff contending teams such as the Dolphins, Ravens, Raiders, and now Cardinals, but have lost some head scratchers to teams such as the Broncos and Texans. They have proven they can line-up against anyone, as they battled division leaders like the Chiefs, Bills, and Seahawks, but were too inconsistent to close out those games.

So now, they are stuck in NFL purgatory. If they win out, New England has a strong chance of sneaking into the AFC playoffs — a run that might not last long. But a few more losses would leave them on the outside looking in of both the playoffs and the top of the draft board.

It’s a tough place to be, and with the way this season has gone, who knows where they will end up. So, let’s just hop on in to this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag:

@eghirarduzzi This Patriots team is frustrating. All year, there’s been so many times they look like they have a really legit shot at being strong contenders, if they could just put it all together and show a little consistency. Am I living in fantasy land ?

I completely agree, Erik. As we just went over, the Patriots have been all over the place this season — so you are not in fantasy land. New England’s offense was playing extremely efficient football from Week’s 8-11, then they put up a season-low 179 yards of total offense on Sunday against Arizona as the struggling defense and special team units carried them to victory. If they can be more consistent in all three units, they really have a chance to be a contender even with an offense that lacks firepower.

@willddawg Seems like the pats are playing a lot of uneven football. Offense shows up defense doesn’t Vice versa. What needs to happen for a more complete complementary game?

So how do the Patriots play a more complete game? The defense seems to be rounding in to form at the right time and the special teams unit seemed to come to life as they shook-up their kickoff return unit on Sunday. As for the offense, the key all year has been not turning the football over. In the impressive four game stretch from Week 8-to-11, New England turned the football over just once. The week’s their offense has looked the worse (Week 6 vs Denver, Week 7 vs San Francisco, Week 12 vs Arizona), Newton threw a total of seven interceptions as they scored a total of 35 points. If the Patriots have any chance of winning out and sneaking into the playoffs, taking care of the football should be priority No. 1.

@ChipNshoulder Are the Patriots working there way to the best #13 overall 1st round draft pick this year? #Postpulpit

The Patriots currently have the No. 15 overall pick in this year’s draft. If they fail to make the playoffs, their first-round pick will most likely fall into the 14-18 range. If they make the postseason and lose in the Wild Card round, New England will select anywhere from 19 to 24. It certainly is not the place to be if you are looking to draft your next franchise quarterback. If the Patriots seriously want to target one of the top QBs available, they will have to move into the top-10 (more likely the top-8) which will require some serious draft capital. Keep an eye out on Florida’s Kyle Trask as a late-first- or early-second-round option for the Patriots at the position if they do not move up.

@Advil would dk metcalf have sucked if we drafted him? i’m convinced we could have drafted any wr and still failed to develop their skills but maybe i’m being cynical?

This is something I have actually wondered myself. When looking at N’Keal Harry’s time in New England, they have not really used him like he was utilized in college. So, who says they would have used DK Metcalf correctly?

Throughout Harry’s time at Arizona State, he feasted as a contested catcher and an intermediate threat — boasting a 112.3 passer rating when targeted between 10-19 yards in his final season. However, during his time in New England so far, the team has refused to target him downfield, using him more on shallow routes. Harry’s aDOT this season is a measly 5.98 yards, which ranks 108 out of 118 receivers with at least 20 targets, per NFL Next Gen Stats. For someone who excelled in college when targeted downfield, it’s odd to wonder why New England has refused to let him run downfield (especially this year with Cam Newton under center).

Now, it’s also not all on the coaching staff as Harry has certainly taken a step back from the player he was in college. Harry was a yards after the catch monster in college, recording 38 broken tackles over three years and 61 explosive plays over his last two seasons. Even as New England has put Harry in position to gain YAC on these shallow crossing routes, he hasn’t. The second-year pro has averaged 4.2 YAC/R, just 0.7 yards over his expected YAC/R.

Now turn your attention to DK Metcalf. His usage in Seattle has been nearly the opposite of N’Keal Harry. Metcalf’s 14.51 aDOT ranks fifth in the NFL of receivers with at least 20 targets. He has also been more successful with the ball in his hands, recording 5.3 YAC/R (1.9 yards above his expected). Based off Harry’s college skills, you’d think that’s how he should play/be utilized by New England. Metcalf, who was the ninth receiver taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, always had the pure athletic dominance, but his progression from Years One to Two is extremely visible — something that N’Keal Harry has not shown. As a result, Seattle has been able to line Metcalf all over the field in his second season and have introduced new route concepts to the star receiver — something the Patriots have not been able to do.

So, while Metcalf has clearly taken a step forward this year, it’s tough to argue he would have even been given a chance to shine in New England. Perhaps if he was a Patriot, Metcalf’s health his rookie year would have allowed him to see the field immediately and make a larger impact (Harry missed New England’s first nine games last season). Either way, there’s no clear sign that says Metcalf would not have just ended up being used similarly to how Harry is used now and struggled. They were similar players coming out of college and their usage/production have gone in extremely opposite ways in the pros.

Because of this, I don’t like to say the Patriots “missed” on Metcalf in the 2019 draft. Obviously, he’s a one-of-a-kind talent but in New England, perhaps incorrect usage could have easily lead him down Harry’s path. To me, the receivers the Patriots missed on are A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, and Terry McLaurin — three wide outs all taken after Harry that would have been perfect fits in the Patriots offense.

@carter88johnson Any chance Harry could transition to a receiving tight end? He’s already a decent blocker and would probably just need to add weight. He is struggling to get separation from corners so maybe playing on the end of the line could help?

This is an interesting thought on what to do with Harry. His route tree this year has been similar to a tight end’s and his blocking is one of his biggest strengths. Harry, 6-foot-2, 225 lbs, would certainly need to add weight as the average tight end weigh roughly 240 lbs. He will never be an in-line tight end with his hand in the dirt, but with his size and body frame, perhaps he could carve out a role as a Trey Burton (6’2”, 238 lbs) or Jordan Reed (6’2”, 242 lbs) type of player.

@guillemp14 #postpulpit is N’keal Harry done in NE? Do you see him bouncing back and contributing on offense the remainder of the season?

Is he done? Not yet. Is it looking good? I think that answer is obvious based off the last two questions and answers. He will contribute the remainder of this season because they have no other choice at the moment; although it should be noteworthy that Harry played his lowest percent of snaps last week (49 percent), not counting the Week 7 game he left early with a head injury (a number that could drop even more when Julian Edelman returns). New England have to make some moves at the wide receiver position this offseason, so Harry’s production/usage over the last five games could be telling to his status in 2021.

@kirb410 Edlemans rumored status?! Is he traveling with the team, did HE have Covid or was it close contact.

Speaking of Edelman, it was rumored he was ready to return this week before being placed on the Covid-19/Reserve list. There has been no update as to whether he tested positive or was deemed a close contact. As to whether or not he’ll return this season, Bill Belichick had this to say on Monday:

“I know he’s working extremely hard, and I would certainly never count Julian out of anything. He’s got tremendous will and a great work ethic, and [he’s] very competitive. Football is very important to him.”

@man_vs_himself 1. Why aren’t Pats playing young TEs more? 2. Is it time for Bill to rip up & throw away their rating/assessment protocol for drafting WRs (maybe pass catching TEs too)? Whatever they’re doing is totally off, needs to be shredded, burned, and started fresh from a clean Sheet

  1. Both tight ends are currently on the Patriots’ injured reserve list, although Dalton Keene was back at Patriots practice on Wednesday.
  2. Yes. Whatever they’re been doing has not worked... at all. Throughout Bill Belichick’s tenure, New England has taken wide receivers who run above average three-cone and short-shuttle drills, prioritizing agility and lateral movement. They went against that trend with N’Keal Harry in 2019, who has the heaviest, and strongest, player the Patriots ever drafted. So who knows what the correct formula is, but something certainly is not working. Perhaps they should instead invest at the position in free agency with more proven players from here on out — or just kidnap the Steelers’ wide receivers scouts.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!