Bill Belichick became the New England Patriots’ head coach and de facto general manager in 2000, but his team did not pick a wide receiver in the first round of the draft until 19 years later. The player that caused Belichick and company to break that streak was Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, who heard his name called 32nd overall last spring and brought considerable upside as a pass catcher in New England’s system to the table.
He was not quite able to live up to said potential during his rookie season, however.
After all, the wideout was forced to miss considerable time due to an ankle injury suffered just three snaps into his preseason debut. Consequently, the Patriots moved Harry to temporary injured reserve shortly after roster cutdown day. He eventually returned to the field in Week 11, yes, but only slowly adapted to playing against NFL-level competition and in one of the most challenging offensive systems in all of football.
As a result, Harry finished the 2019 season with rather pedestrian numbers: he appeared in seven regular season contests and the Patriots’ lone playoff game, and finished with a combined 14 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns while also adding six carries for 56 yards. Harry did get better over the course of the year, however, and by the end of the season served as a top-three wide receiver for the team.
With that all being said, let’s dig a little deeper to find out how he performed in 2019.
Success as a rusher
The Patriots did not shy away from giving Harry opportunities and he was most consistently effective as a rusher, often taking handoffs when lined up in the slot or a reduced split as the following collection of clips illustrates:
Harry was most consistently effective as a rusher, often taking handoffs when lined up in the slot or a reduced split.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
These plays were good for an automatic 7+ yards and showed off Harry’s vision, balance, and dare I say ~slipperiness~ in the open field. pic.twitter.com/02Cg8Nm236
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did not have one set look for Harry as a ball-carrier but instead opted to use him on numerous concepts: he received hand-offs on jet-sweeps, reverses, end-arounds and more traditional pitch runs. The results looked good most of the time, and Harry averaged 9.3 yards per run in part due to the blocking and general play design but also because of his outstanding abilities as a ball-carrier in the open field.
Harry showed tremendous vision, balance and slipperiness whenever his number was called on running plays. Once he was able to get to the perimeter, as the clips above illustrate, he was hard to get down: he showed a strong second gear and ability to out-run defenders — all while not being afraid to lower his shoulders and take a hit.
Yards after the catch
The skills that made Harry such a strong rusher also translate directly to his yards-after-the-catch abilities. His balance and elusiveness are rare for his size:
The skills that make Harry such a strong rusher translate directly to his YAC ability. His balance and elusiveness are rare for his size and really fun to watch.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
Bc of that size, Harry can also run thru defenders who go too high or slip tacklers who don’t wrap up when going low pic.twitter.com/0lXSAfnjFR
The first play shown above, from the Patriots’ Week 14 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs, is a perfect example for Harry’s skills with the football in his hands: after receiving the short pass from quarterback Tom Brady, he quickly turned upfield to step out of a tackle attempt while keeping his balance through contact. Harry then read his blocking well and turned towards the perimeter behind fellow wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
Even after lowering his shoulders to brace for impact, the rookie was able to keep his momentum alive before extending into the end zone for what would have been a touchdown had the officials not incorrectly ruled him out of bounds. All in all, however, the play shows Harry’s abilities to generate yards in the open field.
Working the sidelines
Harry’s elusiveness and physicality with the football in his hands are not the only positives to take away from his first NFL campaign. The youngster also was able to work the sideline vertically — an element sorely missing from the Patriots’ aerial attack in 2019. While he will have to work on his releases to stack defenders more consistently, and also deepen his toolbox against man coverage, Harry made great adjustments and showed strong body control when cornerbacks stayed over the top of him:
Arguably the most exciting aspect of Harry’s game is his ability to work the sideline vertically.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
He’ll have to work on his releases to stack defenders more consistently and deepen his toolbox, but made great adjustments and showed strong body control when CBs stayed over top pic.twitter.com/Q1PlLOQGyj
Whether it was back-shoulder throws or jump balls against smaller defensive backs, Harry had some strong moments in 2019 when working down the sidelines. His concentration and hands in combination with a 78-inch wingspan made him a popular target on such plays.
Look no further than Harry’s first career touchdown in Week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys (0:39 in the video above): lining up split out wide to the formation’s weak side, Harry faced one-on-one coverage and was able to get to the outside by using a quick stutter step. The defensive back played him tight and moved him towards the boundary, but the wideout kept his position by using active hands and turning around at the right moment to catch Brady’s pass in the end zone — away from the defender.
The play was one of the best of the season for Harry and the Patriots’ passing offense as a whole, and one showing what he can add to New England’s vertical game in 2020 and beyond.
However, it is also important to note that his inability to generate space at the top of his routes was not always due to his own fault. At times, he was also being held without getting calls simply. His size and physicality certainly did not help him in this regard, even though he needs to get better to use them to get separation:
The rookie’s route running was an easy target for detractors, but it’s important to note he was also held at the top of some routes without getting calls because of his size.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
Brady’s ball placement didn’t help at times either. pic.twitter.com/mkVzh3pwqZ
On top of that, Tom Brady’s ball-placement did also not do him much favors at times either. While Harry needs to run cleaner routes and be sharper with his turn-arounds and cuts, not all was therefore as bad as it looked like on the surface. What is positive, however, is that his inconsistencies as a route-runner can certainly be worked on with the right coaching.
If Harry can get a full offseason and training camp to figure out the correct timing on his patterns and also get on the same page with Brady (or whoever New England’s quarterback will be in 2020) — something he did not have in 2019 due to the aforementioned ankle injury — he should become a much more efficient weapon as a result.
Harry did make some tremendous catches during the season, but he also struggled with drops at times. Pro Football Focus recorded three on 31 combined targets, but it appeared that he had more of them as some balls hit him in the hands but he still failed to come up with the receptions:
The issue was largely contained to two games, one of which was played in the rain and affected receivers on both teams, but Harry did have some drops.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
PFF recorded 3 on 31 targets, but I'd argue he had more bc there were balls he didn't come down with that hit him in the hands pic.twitter.com/UePcKiz1Ns
Of course, the issues were mostly contained to two games: the Patriots’ Week 12 game against the Cowboys when he also caught his first ever NFL touchdown, and the team’s wild card loss against the Tennessee Titans. The first of the two games, of course, was played in difficult conditions that made it hard for pass catchers to come away with receptions. The second, meanwhile, featured a mixture of inconsistent hands and route-running that saw Harry not put himself in the best positions to come up with the catches.
All in all, though, his hands should be fine: better route running and more consistent execution and concentration should help. Speaking of which...
The biggest issue with Harry’s rookie campaign was not his route-running or hands per se, but simply his inconsistency: most of his low-lights were plays that he was certainly able to make and also did make at times throughout the season. This in combination with some poor effort, however, led to his ups and downs.
I'd say the biggest issue with Harry's rookie campaign was inconsistency. Most of his low-lights were plays we've seen him make or stemmed from poor effort pic.twitter.com/WPH3o3Fatk— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 2, 2020
The first play here is a good example for Harry’s inconsistency: aligning on the near-side perimeter and going against off-man coverage, he was able to get inside leverage on his defender. Apparently thinking that he was not getting the football, however, the rookie slowed down midway through his route which in turn led to a pass sailing over his head and hitting the ground. Had Harry run the route at full speed, he might have been able to come up with a big catch.
Harry’s inconsistent play should also get better with more experience, though — something he lacked in 2019 not just because of his status as a rookie. Likewise, the flashes he showed during his first season as a pro cannot be ignored and make him a player to watch entering the offseason.
Taylor Kyles is working as a film analyst at Pats Pulpit and also co-hosts the Patriots Perspective podcast. Click here for more information.
Bernd Buchmasser is serving as Pats Pulpit’s managing editor.