The New England Patriots back in April liked N’Keal Harry enough to make him the first wide receiver deemed worthy of a first-round pick in the Bill Belichick era.
Fast forward just over seven months, through an injury that knocked him out most of the preseason, an eight-week injured reserve stint and a costly error that caused a turnover, Harry played just two offensive snaps Sunday in the Patriots’ 23-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Harry caught a pass on one of those snaps that should have gone for a touchdown if not for some incompetent officiating. Harry lined up on the right side of the formation and came in motion to get tight. He caught a swing pass from Tom Brady, broke three tackles, tiptoed down the sideline and dove for the pylon. It should have been six points, but the goal-line official thought he saw Harry step out of bounds.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the play, Harry showed the skills he had promised at Arizona State. The 21-year-old was one of the best receivers in the nation at picking up yards after catch much in the same way he did as he careened off Chiefs defenders Sunday. In Harry’s second career game, he made an impressive back-shoulder catch to haul in a touchdown — that one counted — that showed off his power and athleticism.
He’s made mistakes. Failing to sharpen his route against the Houston Texans led to a Brady interception. Harry’s probably made plenty more in practice, but one of the Patriots’ top failings this season as they’ve lost three of their last five games is the inability for a wide receiver other than Julian Edelman to make a play.
If only the Patriots had a first-round pick to turn to. Oh wait, they absolutely do, and he played two snaps Sunday.
Harry doesn’t necessarily need to play every snap. He doesn’t need to be involved in complicated option routes. He doesn’t even need to go in motion. Design some plays for the young lad. You’re telling me he can’t run a slant to Brady’s liking? He can’t run a go? A curl? A comeback?
They were more experienced players, but the Patriots incorporated Antonio Brown into their offense in less than a week and Josh Gordon had a 100-yard game in his fourth appearance with New England. Those guys weren’t doing anything overly complicated, and Harry doesn’t need to either.
Every Patriots player needs to earn his role. Harry was unable to do that this summer or early in the season because of an injury. So, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers and Mohamed Sanu all passed him on the depth chart. But it’s not working. The Patriots are averaging just 17 points in the four games Harry has (barely) played. The rookie should earn more playing time after he caught a pass, turned upfield, bounced off of defenders and (should have) scored a touchdown.
The Patriots’ schedule gets easier over the final three weeks of the regular season as they travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals followed by home matchups with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. If the Patriots don’t integrate Harry more into their offense before the postseason, they’re simply not trying hard enough to give the offense a much-needed jolt.