The New England Patriots could have their top 2019 draft pick back on the practice field this week.
Wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury before the Patriots’ season opener, is eligible to resume practicing ahead of a possible Week 9 return to game action.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the team hopes to have Harry at practice as it prepares for next Monday’s matchup with the New York Jets.
“If he’s ready, yes,” Belichick said Monday in a conference call. “… We hope he’ll be ready to go.”
Players placed on IR are prohibited from practicing for six weeks, but Harry has remained closely involved with the team. Belichick said he is not concerned about the 21-year-old’s mental readiness but needs to be sure of his physical health and conditioning before making a “final determination” on whether Harry’s ready to return to practice.
“Mentally, he’s been able to keep up with everything,” Belichick said. “It’s just physically, he needs to be able to show that he can go out there and participate competitively at the practice level we’re at.”
The Patriots broke with tradition when they selected Harry with the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, using a first-round pick on a receiver for the first time since Belichick arrived in 2000. The Arizona State product wowed observers with a slew of highlight-reel catches during training camp but struggled to consistently create separation.
A hamstring injury against the Detroit Lions ended Harry’s preseason after just three snaps. He hauled in impressive catches on two of those snaps, totaling 36 yards.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the Patriots will gauge Harry’s game readiness by how he performs in practice. The earliest the young wideout could make his season debut would be Nov. 3 against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I think the fairest thing to do for any young player, especially a guy who’s missed as much time as N’Keal has, is we’ve got to get him back on the practice field,” McDaniels said. “We have to make smart decisions about when he’s ready to do what. Certainly, to put a player back in a position and say, ‘Hey, do everything, and do it all well, and do it all well under pressure, and do it all well under pressure against seven different defensive looks that you might get,’ and different personnel on the field each week that he hasn’t necessarily played against — I think there’s things that we can hopefully build in to and do quicker than others.
“I think the practice field and the results we get on the practice field will tell us when the right time is to use him in different roles. It’s really no different for him now than it would be at the very beginning of the season. You get him in there, and he’s going to make some mistakes. He’s going to learn from them. Hopefully, he improves because of it. And I think we’re going to use our practice repetitions and the work that we put in on the practice field each week moving forward as the barometer to tell us when the right time is to do more or to maybe pull back and do less. The goal will be for him the same as it is for each one of our other players: let’s try to put him in position to do something he does well on game day. And if we’re doing that, we’re being fair to the player and giving him an opportunity to go out there and play fast and be aggressive, which is the goal.”
If healthy, Harry should be able to help a Patriots receiving corps that’s dealt with various other injuries in recent weeks, with Phillip Dorsett (hamstring) missing most of the last two games and Josh Gordon (knee) being knocked out of last Thursday’s contest before halftime. A nagging chest injury also has limited Julian Edelman in practice, though it has not diminished his production.
With Dorsett and Gordon unavailable, the Patriots were forced to rely on undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski during last week’s win over the New York Giants. The duo played 57 and 50 offensive snaps, respectively, and hardly left the field in the second half.
Teams are permitted to activate two players off IR each season. Having Harry practice would burn one of those two slots, even if he never returns to the active roster (see: Malcolm Mitchell, 2017). If Harry is not activated within 21 days of his first practice, he would revert to IR, ending his season.