What can New England Patriots fans expect from N’Keal Harry over the second half of the 2019 season? Even his coaches aren’t sure at this point.
Harry, the Patriots’ top pick in this year’s NFL draft (32nd overall), is eligible to begin practicing this week for the first time since being placed on injured reserve ahead of the team’s regular-season opener. If all goes to plan, the 21-year-old wide receiver could return to the 53-man roster and make his NFL debut as early as Nov. 3, when New England heads to Baltimore for a primetime matchup with the Ravens.
But even if Harry is healthy enough to play by Week 9, bringing his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and impressive contested catch ability to a banged-up Patriots receiving corps, those hoping for immediate production might be disappointed.
After all, this is a player who’s played a grand total of three snaps at the NFL level — all in the Patriots’ preseason opener — and hasn’t practiced since early August. Harry has been around the team during the six weeks he’s spent on IR, attending meetings and participating in individualized workouts with coaches and trainers, but he hasn’t experienced game speed or caught passes from Tom Brady, whose trust is notoriously difficult for young receivers to earn.
The Patriots will take a methodical approach to Harry’s reintegration. Head coach Bill Belichick said the team hopes to have him back on the practice field this week. From there, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will evaluate his progress and expand or reduce his role accordingly.
“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 explained Monday in a conference call with reporters. “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.”
Harry hauled in highlight-reel catches with remarkable regularity during his first Patriots training camp, but his inexperience was evident, as well. The Arizona State product often struggled to create separation against New England’s defensive backs and had issues with drops, as well.
The undrafted Jakobi Meyers, who had the best game of his young career last Thursday against the New York Giants, was the more consistent and reliable rookie throughout the summer.
“N’Keal is a talented kid, and he’s got a long way to go,” McDaniels said. “I think the thing with a younger player is always you see some of the skills and the talents they have, and you also see just the lack of experience just manifest itself in some things that they make mistakes on. But every mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve, and the way we’ve got to think about that with all our players, especially the young guys, is when they make an error, hopefully that’s a good thing moving forward (because) maybe we don’t make it again.
“N’Keal flashed the things we’ve seen from him. He’s a big guy that can go up and catch the ball. He’s a tough guy to get to the ground when he has the ball in his hands. And at the same time, like all young receivers, there’s a lot of nuances to playing that position in our league that are critical to being a good player — releasing at the line of scrimmage, top-of-the-route technique, finishing plays against tight coverage. Those are things that are all going to come with experience and repetition, and it’s exciting to have an opportunity to continue to work with him. I really like the kid. He’s diligent, he works hard, he’s got a good attitude, he’s a good kid. So we’ll see how we can progress moving forward.”
Inexperienced receivers rarely flourish in New England’s complex offensive system, but a few have enjoyed at least modest success as rookies. Aaron Dobson (37 catches, 519 yards, four touchdowns) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32-466-4) both posted respectable numbers in 2013, as did Malcolm Mitchell in 2016 (32-401-4), though all three flamed out shortly thereafter.
Assuming a return to full health, Harry will rejoin a receiver group that currently consists of Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. The Patriots also could look to add to that unit ahead of the NFL’s Oct. 29 trade deadline.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images