Two years into his NFL career, N’Keal Harry has not lived up to the natural expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick. With injuries limiting him in both 2019 and 2020, he has failed to establish himself as the impact player the New England Patriots surely hoped they would get when they selected him 32nd overall in the 2019 draft.
Entering his third season in the system, Harry therefore appears to be at a crossroads. Either he finally makes the jump and builds on the positives he showed at times over the previous two years, or he will find himself buried on the team’s rebuilt wide receiver depth chart — and possibly off the team altogether.
The process of turning his career around starts on the practice fields, and Harry seems to be aware of that. He is, after all, among the players present at Gillette Stadium for New England’s voluntary offseason workouts.
His position coach, Mick Lombardi, also stressed the importance of practice during a recent media conference call. Talking about fellow wideouts Isaiah Zuber and Kristian Wilkerson, and later Harry as well, he noted the importance of taking advantage of every rep they are getting.
“Every rep is like a bar of gold. And those guys take it seriously,” Lombardi said.
“[Zuber and Wilkerson] are two serious young men. They work extremely hard, they’ve been devoted this offseason. And I think they go with this mindset, if they get a rep whether it’s in walkthrough, whether it’s on the field, I think they’re very grateful for the opportunity and they’re definitely taking advantage of that in terms of being here, being available and just doing what they can to get better each and every day.”
Zuber and Wilkerson are each entering their second season in the Patriots’ system after joining the organization as rookies last year: Zuber was picked up as a free agent after the draft, while Wilkerson was added to the practice squad following a short stint with the Tennessee Titans. Each of them spent the season on New England’s developmental roster, while also seeing the occasional live snaps through game day promotions.
Zuber appeared in four games that way and touched the football four times for 50 yards on 26 snaps. Wilkerson, meanwhile, played only two snaps in his debut and did not register any catches or rushing attempts.
The two obviously lack the status of the former first-round draft pick sharing the locker room with them. However, this also means that they are under less pressure to perform than Harry.
Lombardi later also spoke about how important the current offseason would be for the 23-year-old and his development.
“Just like we talked about with Isaiah and Kristian: each rep, even for N’Keal, each rep in a game is the same thing for him. We hit a lot last offseason, talking about him and him growing as a player. He’s still a young man looking to grow and get better. I think the same thing can be said for him taking those mental reps,” Lombardi said.
“He’s just a guy, you’ve seen, he’s played multiple position, he’s played different roles whether that’s a blocker, a pass catcher, on special teams. The more you can handle, the more you can do, the better. Each and every time he takes a rep the better he’s going to get. I really enjoy working with N’Keal, and I look to grow with him as we enter the third season.”
Harry started the 2020 season in encouraging fashion, playing 78.9 percent of offensive snaps over the first five games and catching 18 passes for 166 yards as well as a touchdown. However, a concussion suffered in Week 7 changed his trajectory.
Harry’s playing time share decreased to 64.5 percent after his return and he also caught only 14 more passes for 137 yards and a touchdown — seeing fewer combined balls 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.
Lombardi, however, defended his young receiver and his comparative lack of production over the first two years in the league (especially when compared to fellow third-year wide receiver Jakobi Meyers).
“Production can be viewed in many different ways,” Lombardi said. “The thing with N’Keal, he’s definitely played a lot and he’s done a lot to help this team. He’s an extremely smart player, he knows what to do, he’s been dependable. And I think in terms of production you can define it by wins and losses, and I think that’s how N’Keal defines it too. At the end of the day, he could care less if he catches 10 balls but we lose.”
Harry breaking out in Year 3 would obviously be huge for New England’s struggling passing game, but the team did obviously not want to leave itself vulnerable. Instead, it tried to cover all of its bases in free agency: not only were tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry added, the Patriots also invested in wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
Together with Meyers and punt returner Gunner Olszewski, they fall into the roster lock or near-roster lock category. In turn, only a handful of spots remain open for the likes of Harry, Zuber, Wilkerson, Tre Nixon and Devin Smith.
At least publicly, Lombardi does not have any preference about who should make the cut later this year and earn these spots. Instead, he pointed out that he would be enjoying coaching the group because of its work ethic and willingness to improve.
“I’m just excited to coach these guys on the field whether it’s Kristian, Isaiah, you name it,” he said. “Those guys work hard. It’s fun to coach guys who work hard because they are looking to get better and I’m a better coach because of that.”
Looking to get better and actually doing it are two different things, though.
Unless Harry, Zuber and Wilkerson — as well as the other wideouts on the roster — actually prove their value to the team on the practice fields and later during exhibition games, their roster outlook remains uncertain. So, if every practice rep indeed is like a bar of gold, it is all about cashing in.