With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series kicks continues with wide receiver N’Keal Harry
Name: N’Keal Harry
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 15
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 + 5th-year option (2023 or 2024 UFA)
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 1 since Bill Belichick’s arrival in New England in 2000. Despite his draft profile, however, the rookie has had only a limited impact over his first two seasons in the league. With injuries bothering him both as a rookie and as a sophomore, he has appeared in only 22 games of a possible 32 games and so far has only 47 catches for 435 yards and 4 touchdowns on his pro résumé.
Harry’s experience, of course, extends far beyond his two rather challenging seasons in the NFL. Before arriving in New England, 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 2020 season look like? Coming off a disappointing rookie season that saw him play in just seven games and catch 14 passes for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Harry entered his second season in the New England system as a prominent member of the team’s wide receiver group. As such, he saw considerable action early on in the season and established himself as a top-three player at the position — a role he would keep throughout the year albeit with changing playing time and target shares.
All in all, Harry’s 2020 season can be divided into two halves. The first saw him emerge as a starter-level wideout: over the first five games of the season, Harry was on the field for 78.9 percent of offensive snaps (266 of 337) and ranked second behind only Julian Edelman with 18 receptions that he took for 166 yards as well as a touchdown. Not all went well for Harry — he had a fumble for a touchback, was the target on an interception, and was unable to haul in a crucial fourth down against Denver — but he had showed promise.
However, the Patriots’ Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers changed the course of his season. On his 11th snap of the contest and with a 6-yard reception in the books at that point, Harry suffered a concussion and was forced to miss not just the remainder of that game but the next two as well. He did return in Week 10 against the Baltimore Ravens, but from that point on was relegated to the number three spot on the depth chart behind Damiere Byrd as well as fellow second-year man Jakobi Meyers.
With those two ahead of him on the depth chart and being featured as the clear one-two punch at the wide receiver position, Harry’s playing time share decreased to 64.5 percent over the second half of the season (307 of 476). He also caught only 14 more passes for 137 yards and a touchdown — seeing fewer combined passes thrown his way over the last eight games of the season (24) than the first five (29). For as encouraging as he had looked early on, his concussion halted his momentum.
All in all, the 2020 season was another rollercoaster ride for Harry. In spurts, he showed his first-round potential and how the Patriots could successfully use him within their scheme. However, he never broke out as the consistent threat in the passing game the team was lacking throughout the year and therefore posted some disappointing numbers again: Harry finished with 14 in-game appearances and 57.8 percent of offensive snaps (584 of 1,011), while catching 33 passes on 55 targets for 309 yards and 2 scores.
What is his projected role? A big-bodied target suited to move between the X- and Z-receiver roles in the Patriots’ scheme, Harry ended last season as the third option on the position depth chart. With the team adding Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency, and with Jakobi Meyers still around, the 23-year-old is projected to be used in a package-specific fashion rather than an every-down role yet again: Harry has the frame to work as a red zone and perimeter target, but he likely should not be counted on to see the same kind of exposure he had early in 2020.
What is his special teams value? Harry played a mere 21 snaps in the kicking game over his first two years in the NFL, but he does offer plenty of experience from his time at Arizona State: he saw regular action as a punt returner during his last two years as a Sun Devil, 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. While the punt return role is in the safe hands of Gunner Olszewski, Harry might get some looks as a kickoff returner heading into 2021.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots split Harry out wide on 86.6 percent of his offensive snaps in 2019, but they trusted him with more snaps inside the formation in 2020: he aligned on the perimeter of “only” 62.2 percent of his snaps (364 of 585) last year. His theoretical versatility extends beyond his positional usage, though. New England’s coaches have also called his number 8 times on designed runs for 56 yards. However, he gained no yards on his two rushing attempts in 2020 — possibly a sign of things to come. On top of all that, Harry also went 2-for-4 in college as a trick-play QB for 60 yards as well as a touchdown and an interception.
What is his salary cap situation? Harry is counting $2.75 million against New England’s salary cap this year entering the third season of his rookie contract, currently the 26th highest cap number on the team. The Patriots would not clear any money by cutting him after June 1 — they would actually lose cap space with his 2022 guarantees then also hitting the books (h/t Miguel Benzan) — but they would create net savings of roughly $500,000 in case of a trade (his fully guaranteed salary of $1.41 million would come off but he would be replaced on the Top-51 list by another player).
What is his roster outlook? Harry has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason, and the Patriots would likely not shy away from moving him if the right offer came along. That said, he remains on the roster for the time being and projects as a top-four wide receiver for New England this season. Make no mistake, he is facing a make-or-break season, but the improved supporting cast should help him fill a more specialized role and therefore a) see fewer opportunities to get hurt, and b) be used according to his strengths. Harry is no roster lock, but there is a clear path onto the team for him.