With the NFL Draft in the books and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series kicks off with the lowest jersey number currently issued — that of wide receiver N’Keal Harry.
Name: N’Keal Harry
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 1
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Harry joined the Patriots as the 32nd overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft — making him the first wideout selected in Round 1 since Bill Belichick’s arrival in New England in 2000. Despite his draft profile and intriguing skillset, however, Harry had only a minimal impact in his first year with the team. After starting the season on injured reserve due to an ankle injury suffered in the preseason opener, Harry served primarily as a depth option at the wide receiver position.
Over the next two years his status on the roster would not change drastically. He showed some promise as a sophomore in 2020, but failed to elevate himself into a consistent starting role in what was an anemic passing offense for the Patriots in Year 1 after Tom Brady. His 2021 campaign was more of the same: even with Mac Jones succeeding Cam Newton as the team’s starting quarterback, Harry never moved beyond rotational status and once again struggled to build a rapport with the man throwing him the ball.
The combination of inconsistent development and injuries did not allow Harry to live up to his first-round label. Instead, he enters the fourth year of his career with some disappointing numbers to his name: Harry appeared in only 35 regular season and playoff games over the course of his three-career up until this point. Serving primarily as a depth option and a blocking receiver, he registered just 59 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns. He also carried the ball eight times for an additional 56 yards.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a 33-catch season that saw him gain just 33 309 yards and score two touchdowns, Harry made headlines during the offseason when his agent publicly demanded that the Patriots trade his client. The team did not grant the wish, and it was not hard to see why early on in training camp: Harry was a standout performer and appeared to make some significant strides compared to his first two seasons with the team. However, an injury changed his trajectory yet again.
Harry hurt his shoulder in the second preseason game versus the Philadelphia Eagles and was subsequently placed on injured reserve to open the regular season. When he returned in Week 4 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he found himself as the fourth option at the position and the number two X-receiver behind Nelson Agholor. As such, Harry played only a marginal role on offense in 2021. When all was said and done, he had been on the field for only 331 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps (28.3%).
Injuries had something to do with that. Not only did he miss the first three games of the year on IR, he later also suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss a Week 9 game in Carolina. However, his role also contributed to his limited exposure and lack of opportunities. In Week 17 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, he was declared a healthy scratch in favor of second-year man and former undrafted free agent Kristian Wilkerson. All in all, Harry therefore appeared in 13 of 18 games.
Along the way, he saw a mere 21 catchable targets come his way. Hauling in 12 of them, Harry gained 184 receiving yards and did not score a single touchdown. While he did post the best yards-per-reception number of his career at 15.3, he was hardly a factor for the Patriots and served primarily as a blocker rather than a legitimate passing threat. In fact, a significant portion of his production — two catches for 54 yards — came from backup quarterback Brian Hoyer in mop-up duty.
Harry and starting QB Mac Jones, meanwhile, never appeared to establish a rapport. The most noteworthy moment of his season did therefore not happen on offense but rather on his lone special teams snap: with the Patriots trusting his ball handling in windy conditions versus the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, he was put deep to field a first-quarter punt. He muffed the catch, with the Bills recovering and scoring a 14-yard touchdown on the very next play. The play was emblematic for Harry’s 2021 season.
What is his projected role? A big-bodied target, Harry should theoretically be well-suited to move between the X- and Z-receiver roles in the Patriots’ scheme. As noted above, however, he ended last season as the fourth option on the position depth chart and number two on the outside behind Nelson Agholor. With Agholor still around and the club adding both DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton during the offseason, however, the 24-year-old projects as a package-specific depth option at best.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots split Harry out wide on 86.6 percent of his offensive snaps as a rookie, with that number dropping to 62.2 percent in Year 2. Last season, he once again was used primarily as a perimeter receiver: 87.5 percent of his offensive snaps (287 of 328) came with him aligned outside the formation. He offers some theoretical versatility — Harry carried the ball eight times between the 2019 and 2020 seasons and also went 2-for-4 in college as a trick-play QB for 60 yards as well as a touchdown and an interception — but has been used rather one-dimensionally since arriving in New England.
What is his special teams value? Harry offers plenty of experience from his time at Arizona State: he saw regular action as a punt returner during his last two seasons 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. That said, it is obvious the Patriots do not see him as a member of their return units. He played a mere 32 snaps in the kicking game over his first three years in the NFL, and muffed his lone punt return attempt.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the fourth and final season of his rookie contact, Harry is counting $3.21 million against New England’s salary cap with $2.02 million in guarantees. The Patriots do have options to bring his cap impact down, although both involve them moving on from their former first-round investment. Trading Harry, for example, would create net cap savings of $1.17 million versus a $1.34 million dead money charge. Cutting him, meanwhile, would free up $493,111 with $2.02 million in dead cap.
How safe is his roster spot? Despite his status as a former first-round draft pick, Harry’s spot on the roster is quite shaky. Harry has been the subject of trade rumors going all the way back to last offseason, and the Patriots would likely not hesitate to move on from him if the right offer came along. He remains on the roster for the time being and will likely be heading into training camp with the team as well, but the circumstances paint a clear picture: Harry appears to be headed out the door either through trade or release.
One-sentence projection: Harry will not be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster come the regular season and instead leave the team via trade.