Fairly or not, N’Keal Harry arrived in New England with plenty of expectations after becoming the first wide receiver drafted in Round One since Bill Belichick took over as the Patriots’ head coach in 2000. Harry’s rookie campaign started promising — he looked good during offseason workouts and regularly displayed his innate talents early in training camp as well — but hit a roadblock just three snaps into his debut.
Harry hurt his ankle during the Patriots’ preseason opener and was forced to miss the remainder of the exhibition schedule. He opened the regular season on temporary injured reserve, and upon his return was slow to adjust to the pro game. While he eventually finished the season as the team’s number three wide receiver alongside Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, his stint on IR and slow growth led to him catching just 14 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.
Now entering his second year in the league and in New England’s system, a fully healthy Harry seems poised to take the next step in his development.
“I learned that in the NFL, you have to prove yourself day in and day out,” the 22-year-old said about his experience in 2019 during a media conference call following Tuesday’s training camp practice. “This is a league where nothing is given to you, you earn everything day by day. That’s my approach coming into this season, and that’s my approach stepping on to the field every day.”
“There’s a lot of things, a lot of detail that you don’t have to pay attention to in college. This second year has helped me a lot.”
Harry is heading into 2020 as one of only two roster locks at the wide receiver position together with Julian Edelman. But while his spot on the team is safe for the time being, the Arizona State product is well aware that he needs to improve after a disappointing rookie year. In order to do that, Harry — the Coronavirus pandemic be damned — was active during the offseason trying to get into better physical shape.
“I just felt like I was a little bit big. I just felt like slimming down a little bit and being a little more thin would help me get on top of my routes, getting in and out of my breaks and my releases,” he said on Tuesday. “It was more just like not lifting as much, just slimming down, eating better. There were a lot of things that went into it.”
One of those things also was improving his footwork following a rookie season during which he struggled to consistently win his one-on-one matchups against press-man coverage. In order to get better with his releases, Harry recruited the help of Rischad Whitfield, a personal coach whose nickname “Footwork King” is a clear indication about the service he provides: Whitfield was enlisted to help the young Patriot use his feet more efficiently to get open.
“I went into this offseason just attacking and trying to improve overall facets of my game, and that was one of them that I thought I had to improve on. That was one I focused on a lot,” said Harry. “I was looking forward to it, really right after the playoff game last year. I took about a week or two off, just to let my body recover, and then I was right back to it. I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to get a step ahead, and just to be at the point where I wanted to be at coming into the season.”
While the 2020 season will be no make-or-break year for Harry just yet, the Patriots are counting on him to make a jump and turn into the playmaker they are desperately looking for at the wide receiver position — especially with Edelman and Sanu both on the wrong side of 30, and no other pass catchers having an established role within the team’s offense.
From a physical perspective, Harry should be in a position to become just that. All he needs to do now is show it on the practice fields as well after what was two relatively quiet days of practice for him.