Being a first-round draft pick comes with certain expectations, and in his first year in the league N’Keal Harry was unable to meet them. The 32nd overall selection of the 2019 draft missed considerable time due to injury and was never quite able to make a regular impact on a struggling New England Patriots passing attack: despite serving as the team’s number three receiver by the end of the year, he caught just 14 total passes last season.
His second year in the league, however, shapes up to be a different story. Harry has played 112 of a possible 136 offensive snaps through the first two games of the season, second among the team’s wideouts behind only Damiere Byrd’s 188, and set new statistical career-highs in both Weeks 1 and 2.
After catching five passes for 39 yards against the Miami Dolphins on opening day, Harry added eight catches on a team-high 12 targets versus the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. Two games into his sophomore campaign, the young wideout has therefore already surpassed his rookie production and appears to be well on his way to becoming an integral member of New England’s offensive attack this season.
“‘Dough Boy’ has grown in front of everyone’s eyes,” said quarterback Cam Newton about Harry after the game in Seattle. “For him to gain confidence in himself, I think that’s a start. And I think that’s what he’s doing. I think [Sunday’s] game was a great indication of that and what he could potentially be. Yet through it all, he still has to keep building to become the best version of himself.”
So far, this version of Harry is vastly superior to the one that had its fair share of struggles in 2018. He may not yet be on the same level as some other second-year wide receivers in the league, and still has the occasional negative moments, but he is carving out a steady role within the Patriots’ offense alongside Byrd and veteran Julian Edelman.
“He definitely showed a lot of toughness,” said Edelman about the 22-year-old on Sunday. “He made a lot of plays out there and we are going to need that from him. He showed that he can go out and make plays consistently. Tough plays, hard plays — took some bang-bang shots. I am so proud of him for going out and playing like that. We’ve all wanted him to come out and play and he’s been getting better and better each week.
“That was a great performance on him. I don’t know what the future will tell. If he keeps on working, I think he’s going to be a really good football player, just got to keep on working. He’s grown up a lot this year, I feel, becoming a professional, owning, getting his work in, playing multiple positions. He’s doing well in the run game, doing well in the pass game. I am very proud of him and the way he played.”
Harry leaving a positive impression on two of New England’s offensive leaders is no surprise. Not only has he shown he can get on the same page as Newton, he also showcased the ability to play a physical game as a run blocker and a receiver.
The best example of this came against the Seahawks. Harry held onto the football for a fourth down conversion despite taking a hard hit to the head from Seattle safety Quandre Diggs — a play that led to Diggs’ disqualification, while Harry popped up and caught seven more passes during the game. While the 13-yard gain will likely become a footnote in the story of the 2020 Patriots, it was an impressive play by the youngster.
Bill Belichick’s remarks on Monday also echoed Newton’s and Edelman’s thoughts on Harry.
“N’Keal has continued to work hard. His role has expanded from what it was his rookie season,” said the Patriots’ head coach. “He’s made steady strides and improvement in his game. He’s now lined up in different positions and is able to add some variety to his route tree and the roles on the team that he can perform. When you throw a pass, it’s not designed to go to one guy, unless it’s a screen pass. That’s just not really the way it works.
“But, based on the coverages and the way things turned out, he got more opportunities. I’m sure if he continues to be productive, that those opportunities will increase.”