For as egregious a miss as the Dominique Easley draft pick looked like when he was released in 2016, once the (alleged) details started coming out, the release looked like one of those deals where the logical reaction was “Oh my god, I can’t believe this didn’t happen sooner”.
Put another way, even if you take Easley’s considerable inability to stay on the field with a grain of salt, once the details started coming out, whether it was (allegedly) skipping training appointments or getting sued for (allegedly) letting his dogs bite people, or (allegedly) partying in Vegas instead of going with the team to the Super Bowl, the Patriots would have been more than within their rights to release this as their official press statement when they released him after only two seasons:
All that is to say, when N’Keal Harry’s agent went public about working with the New England Patriots on a trade last week, in a complete reversal of the Easley release, the only logical conclusion is, “There are no winners here. This makes everybody involved, whether it’s N’Keal himself, N’Keal’s people, the Patriots, and Bill Belichick, look bad”.
Since our relationship here is built on trust, I’ll level with you all: I started this draft last week, when the news broke that N’Keal Harry’s agent decided to punch way above his weight class and demand that the Patriots trade his underachieving client. There have been three or four draft versions of this opinion piece that have required various tweaks as new details come out, and in an unusual series of events, each update on the situation only serves to pour more gasoline on what a Nashville-bachelorette-party train wreck this whole thing is.
Here’s the timeline of events, as shown on the Twitter-machine:
Update: As dialogue continues with the team, I'm told the current plan is for #Patriots WR N'Keal Harry to attend training camp. In his ongoing preparation for team activities, Harry currently has plans to train with T.J. Houshmandzadeh, per source.— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) July 12, 2021
We’ll run these down in a second, but no matter how you slice it, there are no winners here. The whole thing makes, not in any particular order, N’Keal, his agent, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the Patriots as a whole look somewhere between incompetent, stubborn, and/or delusional.
I guess we should start with the elephant in the room: N’Keal’s production, or lack thereof, that appeared to be the catalyst for the trade request.
We all know his stat lines by now, but just for context purposes, here we go:
- 2019: 7 games played, 24 targets, 12 receptions, 105 yards, 2 touchdowns
- 2020: 14 games played, 57 targets, 33 receptions, 309 yards, 2 touchdowns
[Captain Obvious has entered the chat] This is not what you want from a first-round wide receiver!
You’ve also already doubtless seen the stats from *cough* a few other receivers who were drafted in the same class after Harry, so there’s no need to rehash all that for the 10,000th time. Oh, a professional football team with one of the best GMs of all time could’ve made a better pick than the one that they made? You don’t say. That never happens!
Here’s where it gets tough; saying you didn’t get the targets is one thing, but among other things, this stat from PFF is... not really helping your case:
N’Keal Harry has been open on just 25.5% of his targets against Single Coverage.— PFF NE Patriots (@PFF_Patriots) July 6, 2021
99th out of 100 qualifiers. pic.twitter.com/vtiYTUpgmk
Put another way, N’Keal hasn’t exactly made himself easy to throw to, which, when you’re playing in a system that famously (or infamously) relies on timing, quick breaks, decisive moves, and reading the coverage and reacting accordingly, is going to be a pretty, pretty big factor on whether you’re successful in New England or not.
Speaking of that famous/infamous “System™”, there’s quite a few points we have to address with regard to the staff that scouted him, drafted him, and decided what his role in the offense would be — which, if you believe the beat writers, were not always the same people.
First off, it’s been floated on more than one occasion by everyone from NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran on his Patriots Talk podcast to our own distinguished alum Evan Lazar of CLNS Media on the Patriots Beat podcast that the Pats scouting department was not terribly keen on N’Keal Harry in the draft process, but Bill Belichick went ahead and picked him anyway.
This whole practice of trusting a specific college coach has burned Belichick before, most notably with all the Urban Meyer Florida Gators (even if you don’t count The Tight End We Do Not Speak Of), and if that same phenomenon *allegedly* transpired to the point where he overruled his own scouts and selected Harry despite some doubts that he could be a difference-maker at the NFL level, it’s the definition of a troubling look for a GM that’s had some historic misses at the wide receiver position:
*before anyone pops off, yes, i’m aware that Bill did not draft Ochocinco, or Reche Caldwell for that matter, but he still traded valuable draft picks for Ocho, and according to Shalise Manza-Young of Yahoo Sports, “Bill loved Chad”. Objectively, both of those didn’t work, whether you think he was already washed or not. So, there’s that.
There’s a substantial argument to be made that Bill Belichick’s lack of draft acumen at the receiver position has more to do with simply not allocating premium draft picks to receivers, relative to, say, tight ends, defensive linemen, and linebackers, but last time I checked, the job of GM is building a complete football team, so, the song remains the same.
Which brings us to our next point: Even if you assume the worst-case scenario, which is that N’Keal Harry was Bill Belichick’s draft crush for whatever reason, shouldn’t a well-renowned offensive coordinator like Josh McDaniels be able to figure out something, anything to make him into a productive part of the offense? We’re not asking for a Justin Jefferson season here (OK, maybe we are), we’re just asking for, let’s say, N’Keal to be productive enough that if he were hypothetically the WR3 in the Patriots’ default 11-personnel package, that’d be acceptable.
Whatever your opinion is on N’Keal’s talent, motivation, understanding of the Patriots offense, etc etc etc, Josh McDaniels was not able to do that. Or anything remotely close to it. If you put someone in a time machine to April 28, 2019, and told them that in 2020-2021, N’Keal Harry had Jakobi Meyers’ stat line, and vice versa, would anyone blink? Probably not!
Part of that is the pupil, no doubt, but at some point, it’s on the teacher if, in this case, a receiver is not improving and his stat line is merely a function of “Well if he gets X number of targets, he’ll catch roughly half of them, and that will not change regardless of whether you force-feed him the ball or not”.
It should also be noted that many analysts, including our own Patriots Nation Podcast hosts Pat, Ryan, and Keagan at least somewhat believe that N’Keal’s disappointing on-field product can be directly traced to Josh relegating Harry to a role he’s not particularly well-suited for:
I’ve always believed in N’Keal Harry the player and have given Josh McDaniels a ton of flack for how he’s deployed him.— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) July 6, 2021
Looks like minicamp reaffirmed Harry’s belief that his role wasn’t going to change.
They drafted a vertical possession guy to play a gadget role where he never runs past 5 yards. This is what happens.— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) July 6, 2021
Also Tom Brady having a weird vendetta against him and refused to throw him the ball was weird.
To add onto this: Belichick has, historically, asked players to do what they are good at. That was never the case with Harry. He won a few contested catches last season, but was never given a real opportunity to do that. He has clear limitations, but let him do what he’s good at https://t.co/t6MRYOUyR8— Pat Lane (@plane_pats) July 6, 2021
The Brady situation that’s 20/20 in hindsight notwithstanding, the Patriots have excelled for quite literally longer than some fans have been alive at putting specific players in situations that set them up to both succeed and help the team accumulate Ws. How on earth is it possible for an offensive coordinator who’s regularly in the top-five for head coaching jobs to not put a consensus first-round/early second-round AT WORST talent in a position to be productive?!
(Save your snarky answers for the comments, we all know the ostensibly clever answer is “Because Harry sucks LOL”; that’s a “Well just buy a new car” answer to the question “Why isn’t my A/C working?”)
And last, but certainly not least, even if deciding what percentage of blame should be dealt out to the player, the team, the coaches, the agents, and whoever else isn’t your thing, the question remains: How do the Patriots fix it and remain relevant in the post-Brady era?
There’s truly no easy answer; in the meantime, though, everything about N’Keal Harry requesting a trade and then (presumably) saying through his agent that he will still report to camp makes every single person involved here look oblivious at best and ignorant at worst.