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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: New England will count on N’Keal Harry making the second-year jump

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: WR Mohamed Sanu

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with one of New England’s second-year players.

Hard facts

Name: N’Keal Harry

Position: Wide receiver

Jersey number: 15

Opening day age: 22

Size: 6-foot-2, 225 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 + 5th-year option (2023 or 2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Harry joined the Patriots as the 32nd overall selection in the 2019 NFL draft — making him the first wide receiver selected in Round One since Bill Belichick’s arrival in New England in 2000. Despite his draft profile, however, the rookie only appeared in eight games after starting his rookie campaign on temporary injured reserve. That said, he was able to move up the depth chart throughout the season and ended it as the Patriots’ third wide receiver behind Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu.

Harry’s experience, of course, extends far beyond his lone season in the NFL. Before arriving in New England in 2019, he spent three seasons as a prolific wide receiver at Arizona State: Harry appeared in a combined 37 games for the Sun Devils between his freshman and junior years and finished with a combined 213 receptions for 2,889 yards and 22 touchdowns — all while also proving his value as a ball carrier, punt returner and occasional trick play quarterback.

What did his 2019 season look like? The Patriots as reigning world champions were the final team on the clock in the first round of last year’s draft, and decided to bolster an offensive skill position group that had its inconsistencies the previous year and also lost future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski to retirement during the offseason. Harry was their addition of choice, and he quickly made his presence felt during offseason workouts: the rookie saw plenty of reps and proved himself to be a reliable target capable of winning one-on-one matchups and out-muscling his opponents in crowded situations.

While he showed some rookie growing pains during training camp, he also regularly showcased his innate talents. Expectations were therefore high for Harry heading towards his first NFL preseason. Just three snaps (and a pair of receptions) into his debut against the Detroit Lions, however, he hurt his ankle and had to leave the game — an injury that would keep him out through the rest of preseason and later forced the Patriots to move him to their injured reserve list shortly after roster cutdown day.

Harry started the season on the sidelines, but eventually returned to practice in mid-October to claim the first of the team’s two IR-reactivation spots (the second would later go to offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn). New England decided to officially activate him to its 53-man roster just two weeks later, and even though he was not on the game day roster against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, the writing was on the wall: Harry would make his debut in a Patriots uniform sooner rather than later.

That day eventually came on the other side of the Patriots’ bye week: Harry’s first game happened in Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles, and saw him take the field as a fourth option at the wide receiver position. Over the weeks that followed, however, he was able to steadily increase his role and usage. By the time the playoffs came around in January, he was eventually locked in as New England’s third wideout as well as the top X-receiver — roles in which he had his ups and downs as he tried to find his footing in the Patriots’ system following his de facto three-month absence.

As a result of his at times slow growth process and stint on injured reserve, Harry finished his rookie season with just 14 receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns as well as six carries for an additional 56 rushing yards. All in all, he appeared in seven games during the regular season and New England’s lone playoff contest, and was on the field for 261 of a possible 622 offensive snaps after his activation (41.7%). He also saw 14 snaps in the kicking game — all of them on punt return teams — but did not register any statistics.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? While he ended his rookie season as New England’s third wide receiver, the team will count on Harry to make the second-year jump and establish himself as a viable top-two receiver alongside Julian Edelman in 2020. If able to do that, the 22-year-old would be the Patriots’ primary perimeter weapon and see a sizable increase compared to his 41.7% playing time share during his first year in the system.

What is his special teams value? Harry played a mere 14 snaps in the kicking game in 2019, as noted above, and saw most of his action as a front-line blocker. That said, his value extends beyond those contributions: he saw regular action as a punt returner during his last two years at Arizona State, and ran back a combined 14 of them for 165 yards — an impressive average of 11.8 yards per return — as well as one touchdown. If Harry enters Year Two fully healthy, it would not be surprising if the Patriots gave him some looks in the return game as well.

Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots split Harry out wide on 86.6% of his offensive snaps last year (226 of 261), and are not expected to drastically change this usage heading into the new season. However, he has still shown some versatility during his career: he had 23 carries for 144 yards and three scores in college, and had the aforementioned six carries for 56 yards during his rookie year as well. Furthermore, he completed two of four passing attempts for 60 yards as well as one touchdown and one interception while still with the Sun Devils. His versatility may not stem from his positional usage per se, but cannot be ignored either.

What is his salary cap situation? Harry signed a standard four-year rookie contract with the Patriots (albeit one that includes a fifth-year team option for the 2023 season) shortly after getting drafted, and is therefore on the books with a salary cap hit of $2.3 million this season. This cap number is certainly reasonable given his potential role as a starting perimeter receiver in New England’s scheme, but he still needs to show that he can live up to even that price tag after a rookie season that was at times disappointing.

What is his roster outlook? Given his draft status and progression over the 2019 season, Harry is one of two roster locks at the wide receiver position (the other being Julian Edelman). The real question heading into the 2020 season is therefore whether or not he can live up to the natural expectations that come with being a first-round draft selection, and make the famous second-year jump despite playing with a new starting quarterback.