FOXBORO, Mass. — Expect to see a leaner, nimbler N’Keal Harry when the New England Patriots take the field this season.
A musclebound 6-foot-4, 225 pounds as a rookie in 2019, Harry said he “slimmed down” this offseason and placed an emphasis on improving his footwork.
The 2019 first-round draft pick hopes that work, which began just a week or two after New England’s wild-card playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in January, will help unlock his NFL potential in Year 2.
“I went into this offseason just attacking and just trying to improve all facets of my game,” Harry said after Tuesday’s training camp practice. “(Footwork) was one of them that I thought I had to improve on. That was one I focused on a lot.”
Harry wouldn’t reveal his target weight, but photos and videos of him that surfaced during the offseason showed less upper-body mass, which might have contributed to the clunky route-running he displayed in his first year with the Patriots.
The Arizona State product excelled in contested-catch situations and with the ball in his hands, but he struggled to create separation, and a significant portion of his limited offensive production came on designed gadget plays.
“I just felt like I was a little bit big,” said Harry, who caught 12 passes on 24 targets for 105 yards and two touchdowns after spending the first half of the season on injured reserve. “I just felt like slimming down a little bit and being a little more thin would help me getting off the top of my routes, getting in and out of my breaks and my releases. … It was more just like not lifting as much, just slimming down, eating better. There were a lot of things that went into it.”
On the footwork side, Harry worked with trainer Rischad Whitfield — known as “The Footwork King” — whose client list includes the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAndre Hopkins, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
“He’s very good at what he does,” Harry said of Whitfield. “He helps guys get lighter on their feet. That’s something that helped me out. I noticed right away.”
Harry’s offseason routine also included throwing sessions with all three of the Patriots’ starting quarterback hopefuls: Jarrett Stidham, Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer. With OTAs and minicamp wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, the young wideout used these sessions to begin building chemistry and camaraderie with Tom Brady’s prospective replacements.
“It helped a lot,” Harry said. “Just getting to go out there and throw with your quarterbacks, especially during the offseason, trying to build chemistry always helps a lot. It also helped our off-the-field relationship. I knew Stidham and Hoyer more than I knew Cam. So I got to meet Cam a little bit this offseason and get to know him as a person as well.”
Preseason injuries stunted Harry’s development last summer, and he had trouble picking up the Patriots’ notoriously complex playbook — a far cry from the straightforward system he played in at ASU.
“We were a signal offense,” Brandon Aiyuk, Harry’s former Sun Devils teammate, said at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. “So for (Harry), going into camp, he was hearing NFL play calls and verbiage for the first time.”
Harry, who lagged far behind fellow 2019 draftees A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf, Marquise Brown and Terry McLaurin, echoed Aiyuk on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of things about this offense that would be hard to pick up at first, a lot of little details that a lot of guys don’t have to pay attention to in college,” he said. “This second year has helped me a lot. The offseason, just getting to study some things and knowing the offense a lot more. So I came back, felt very comfortable with it, and it helped me a lot being a second-year guy.”
The Patriots, who lacked legit receiving threats outside of top wideout Julian Edelman and running back James White during Brady’s final go-round in Foxboro, will be expecting more out of Harry this season.
The 22-year-old now has had a full year to digest the calls, reads and other particulars that make Josh McDaniels’ offense so effective against opposing defense but often difficult for young receivers to learn. If he can remain healthy, play with more fluidity and develop a rapport with whoever winds up winning the Patriots’ QB job, he has breakout potential.
“I was looking forward to it, really right after the playoff game last year,” Harry said. “I took about a week or two off, just to let my body recover, and then I was right back to it. I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to get a step ahead, and just to be at the point where I wanted to be at coming into the season.”