The 2020 NFL Draft is filled to the brim with wide receivers.
So, did the New England Patriots jump the gun by selecting N’Keal Harry in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft?
Harry, chosen 32nd overall, became the first wide receiver picked in the first round by the Patriots since Terry Glenn in 1996. His rookie campaign left much to be desired — he totaled just 12 catches for 105 yards with two touchdowns in seven regular-season games after returning from an ankle injury — but NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein explained Saturday on WEEI that Harry still stacks up well in relation to this year’s loaded wide receiver class.
“I think N’Keal Harry would fall about the same place,” Zierlein said, as transcribed by WEEI.com. “I think he would potentially be the back end of the first (round).”
This is relatively high praise given this year’s depth. ESPN’s Mel Kiper recently said, “we have 30 to 35 receivers with (at least) second- or third-round grades,” while also projecting in his most recent mock draft that seven wide receivers would go in the first round, tying an NFL record.
Obviously, the Patriots would have preferred more production from Harry in his first taste of the NFL, especially as New England’s offense struggled for much of last season — their final campaign with Tom Brady — thanks to a lack of reliable pass-catchers.
But the Arizona State product flashed enough potential that it’s far too early to consider him a lost cause, or even to suggest that New England needs to draft a wide receiver in the first round of this year’s draft.
“Look, he’s a competitive guy who relies too much on contested catches,” Zierlein said of Harry. “But I remember talking to the late Darryl Drake, God rest his soul, from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was a wide receivers coach and he was a guy I would talk to. He and my dad coached in Arizona and I had known Darryl for a while. I remember talking about N’Keal Harry specifically and I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know about this guy. He doesn’t separate. He doesn’t get open.’ He goes, ‘Lance, first of all, separation in college and separation in the pros are two different things. He has just got to get open enough and he has to own that catch space.’
“He said if (Harry) can get with a team with an accurate quarterback, we can coach up as wide receiver coaches some things in the routes. There are some things we can help him do. He said he’s super competitive. He’s big and strong. He said, ‘I think he will be OK.’ ”
That last point is crucial, as the Patriots’ quarterback situation is unclear in wake of Brady’s departure. Jarrett Stidham, the apparent frontrunner for New England’s starting QB job, has drawn high praise from his teammates, coaches and NFL scouts, but the 2019 fourth-rounder is an unknown quantity, making it even more difficult to project how Harry will perform in Year 2.
“Now, he’s going to have to work a little bit harder and really fine-tuning the routes, just like JuJu Smith-Schuster did with the Steelers, because he is going to have to open that window a little more,” Zierlein said, per WEEI.com. “I think that is very, very possible, and I like what he brings in terms of a big, strong body. I watched it with DeAndre Hopkins in Houston for years and years. Those kinds of guys can win in the league if they really are very physical and competitive once the ball goes up, because if you can’t own that catch space, it doesn’t matter, you can’t play in the league.
“But N’Keal Harry can do that. I think he relied on that too much in college because he knew he could beat guys up. It’s a little harder in the pros. But once he figures out the pro game and grows into it, I think he has a chance to be a pretty good receiver there.”
This year’s wide receiver class is headlined by Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Clemson’s Tee Higgins and LSU’s Justin Jefferson, among others. It remains to be seen whether Harry will rise above those college stars at the next level in the years ahead, but perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out based on what the Patriots wideout didn’t provide during his rookie campaign in 2019.