N’Keal Harry found himself in the headlines before the New England Patriots even kicked off their training camp last week. Jamal Tooson, the agent representing the former first-round draft pick, released a statement in early July officially requesting his client be traded after two disappointing seasons.
One month later, Harry is still on the Patriots’ roster. And based on his practice performance so far, it would not be a surprise if he remained there for the foreseeable future as well.
The 23-year-old, after all, has been one of the big winners of New England’s first week of training camp. While he did have a comparatively quiet first few days, he has looked like the team’s best wide receiver as of late: Harry caught a combined eight passes during competitive team drills over the last three sessions, while also looking impressive during 1-on-1s.
Now in his third training camp as a Patriot, Harry is looking better than he ever has. So, what has changed for him?
“The last couple of years I’ve been focusing on playing big ... I feel like a lost a little bit of my wiggle. So, this past offseason, that’s what I’ve focused on a lot. A lot of agility drills and stuff like that, just trying to get that wiggle back,” he said last week.
“I’ve been getting here early, working on my body, staying late, working on my flexibility, my mobility. I feel like if I can continue that routine and incorporate the film study that I’ve been incorporating that’s going to help me tremendously throughout the season.”
The Patriots’ first-round draft selection in 2019, Harry has had a disappointing tenure with the club during his first two seasons. Missing time due to injury in both of his years as a pro, he has appeared in just 21 of 33 games over the course of his NFL career. The Arizona State product has caught 45 passes on 81 targets for 414 yards as well as four touchdowns, along the way. He has also carried the football seven times for a combined 49 yards.
Harry showed some progress early on during the 2020 season and initially served as a starter-level pass catcher, but a concussion changed his trajectory. He missed a pair of games and was effectively relegated to a rotational role after his return in Week 10.
One month after his agent requested a trade, he seems to be intent on turning his career around.
Harry’s development has also not gone unnoticed among his teammates. Speaking on a conference call on Thursday, quarterback Cam Newton expressed his confidence in the player he has nicknamed “Doughboy.”
“I’ve always had the confidence in ‘Doughboy’ to be what he is. He’s still not scratching his surface. He’s believing in it, and you guys are seeing it. And it’s good for his confidence,” Newton said.
“But, nevertheless, he’s taking initiative and he’s more comfortable. I think before the play’s even called he understands the personnel groupings. He understands what Josh [McDaniels] is trying to do to him and for him and with him. I think that’s important, and once he understands that piece that’s when the game can slow down for him and it just becomes running a great route and catching the football.”
Eight practices into this year’s camp, Harry appears to be on a good way. He has taken advantage of his size both as a pass catcher and a blocker, and seems to be developing a nice chemistry with both Newton and fellow quarterback Mac Jones.
“My confidence has been very good this training camp so far,” Harry said. “I feel like anything they ask me to do, I can do, and I can do it at a high level. Confidence is definitely not an issue for me right now.”
Harry is currently playing that way, and has made some highlight-reel catches along the way. While it remains to be seen whether or not his performance can translate to the actual playing field, it is encouraging to see after back-to-back seasons with more downs that ups.
Success, however, can be defined in different ways. For Harry, it is not necessarily tied to how many receptions or catches he sees.
“I have very high standards for myself,” he said when asked what would constitute a successful 2021 season from his individual perspective. “So, a successful season for me would just be playing to the ability that I know I can play at. I know I can play at a very high level, so that’s just my biggest thought for myself.”
At this early point in the process, he appears to be on a very good way.