The 2020 NFL season was unlike any other in pro football history so far. With the Coronavirus pandemic having a major impact on the league’s day-to-day operations, players and coaches alike had to adapt and find ways to keep moving forward despite the challenges presented.
The environment this created was a difficult one for all involved, even outside of a health perspective. Normal NFL life was not possible, and the youngest players in the league felt this more than anybody else.
While rookies were forced to enter the pro level without any in-person offseason work, second-year players also were in an unfavorable spot. The famous performance jumps they might take with one year of experience under their belt looked differently as well, something New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a recent media conference call.
“It really makes those second-to-third-year players, in a way, first-to-second-year players because they didn’t get the full first-to-second-year experience,” Belichick said.
The Patriots currently have 13 players on their roster who were in their second seasons last year. While some took a sizable leap in 2020 — running back Damien Harris and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers stand out — others plateaued a little or did not show the development you would like to see out of them.
Among that latter group is N’Keal Harry. The Patriots’ first-round draft pick in 2019, Harry was off to a promising start in 2020 but an in-season concussion changed his trajectory. He managed to appear in 14 games but he was essentially a third option down the stretch and finished the season with only 33 receptions for 309 yards and 2 touchdowns — disappointing numbers for a player of his draft status.
Now entering his third year, Harry is a prime candidate to finally make a big leap despite a recent trade request put forward by his agent.
Belichick, however, has spoken in positive terms about the 23-year-old.
“N’Keal’s in good condition. He’s working hard,” he said. “Keep taking it day by day, and as the competition unfolds, see how things stack up everywhere, not just with him, but all the way across the board. It’s really the same for everybody.”
Harry is not the only Patriot trying to carve out a more prominent role heading into his third season. Second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams, third-round offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, and fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham also fall in the same category.
But while those three have either had inconsistent practice performances so far in training camp (Williams, Cajuste) or are dealing with injury (Stidham), Harry’s potential was on full display time and again. On Tuesday, for example, he won all three of his 1-on-1 opportunities as the team put on full pads for the first time all summer.
“Certainly they learned from a season and going into another season. But without the spring, without all the foundation of laying that you do in the spring, both training, fundamentals, scheme installation, team building and communication and so forth and all those things are part of it too, there’s a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2,” Belichick said.
“The next biggest jump probably is year two to year three, but when you look at a year like last year that wasn’t a normal Year 2 to Year 3, maybe there’s an element of that first-to-second-year jump as well that’s also added in there.”