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So Now That it Looks Like N'Keal Harry Will Finally Play, What Can We Expect?

I think it's pretty safe to say that if N'Keal Harry is fielding questions at his locker and getting positive reviews from two team captains, that he's going to see his first professional action Sunday afternoon against the Eagles. Granted, he did get two weeks worth of practice in before the Baltimore game and didn't dress. But according to Mike Reiss, that was a game plan decision, based on the fact that the coaching staff wanted to load up on defensive linemen to stop the Ravens rushing attack and so they went thin at wide receiver to free up an extra DL spot. And since the Ravens ran for 210 yards and 3 TDs on 41 attempts, we know how well that worked out. So now seems as good a time as any to finally see what we've got the highest drafted wideout of the Bradichick Epoch. 

As a refresher, Harry was the second wide receiver to come off the draft board, one of nine to go in the first two rounds. So far the other eight have covered the spectrum from Hits like Marquise Brown of Baltimore (25th pick, 28 catches for 454 yards) and DK Metcalf of Seattle (64th pick, 28 catches for 595 yards) to Busts like JJ Arcega-Whiteside in Philly (57th pick, 2 catches for 14 yards) and UMass' Andy Isabella in Arizona (62nd pick, 6 catches for 174 yards, 88 of those coming on one play). And with just seven games to go in the season, if Harry can come anywhere near what the top of the rookie WR class has produced so far would feel like finding a briefcase full of unmarked bills. 

As far as Harry's attitude and those of his teammates, all sounds about as good as you'd hope, given his rookie year has been a washout so far. He's philosophical about the fact he aggravated a previous injury while trying to play through it in a preseason game and his teammates sound genuinely positive about how he's battled back:

Source - “No, I don’t have any regrets,” Harry said. “I don’t need to show anything. Me going out there and playing hard, playing through stuff, that’s just the type of mentality I have and that’s the type of mindset I grew up having. It wasn’t me trying to show anything, show toughness, it was just me.” ...

His teammates seem eager to witness his return — especially rookie cornerback JoeJuan Williams, who is typically matched up with the receiver in practice.

“At the end of the day, you’re all going to see when he steps on the field,” Williams said. “You can say all you want to about him. He’s a great player. You’ll see once he gets on the field. ... Whenever his name is called, he’ll be there. He’ll be ready. I know it."

“He’s a special kid,” receiver Mohamed Sanu said. “He [should] just go and be himself and let his abilities take over. Don’t think too much. Have fun. He’ll be good.”

And - Brady added: "Unfortunately for N’Keal, he got hurt early in training camp. He didn’t have the development when other guys were practicing for over two months. He’s working hard. He’s extremely hard-working. He wants to do it. He’s got a great edge about him. I really love that. I really love his tenacity and he’s learning every day, and he’s working hard to get better. I think that is all you can ask of a younger player.”

All of which is a long, way too slow windup to my premise: So now what? What can we reasonably expect out the guy? 

First of all, it wouldn't be an easy thing to gauge even if it wasn't the first game of Harry's career. At Baltimore, the Patriots went exclusively with 11-personnel (1-RB, 1-TE, 3-WR), with a rotation of backs and everyone else playing the entire game. Ben Watson, Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu playing every down and Phillip Dorsett playing 66 of the offense's 67 snaps. I defy anyone to find a game where they've ever done that. The plan was to limit substitutions, play at Warp Factor 11 and simply exhaust the Ravens into tapping out. And if they could've made a defensive stop in the 2nd half it might've worked. But it's doubtful we'll see a repeat.

As far as Josh McDaniels' offense, it's always been predicated on finding and exploiting mismatches. Whether that's finding Edelman against a slot corner, James White against a linebacker or Rob Gronkowski against the rest of the human race. And where talent mismatch didn't exist, they'd scheme one. Either by going with a 2-back run look, getting a defense to commit and then spreading them out, or by coming out in 5-wide, making you play small and then motioning guys in and checking to a run. Then taking advantage of your weakest point. So it's been a game of Go Fish where Brady can see your hand. But they've been so thin lately without James Develin or viable tight end options that that option is severely limited. And it's been showing. They're currently ranked 14th in Passing Offense by Football Outsiders. And from Patriots.com:

A look at other key statistics clarifies the picture of the offense further.

  • 15th third-down offense - 39.7 percent is third-lowest under Brady (2013 - 37.6 percent, 2003 - 37.0 percent).
  • 21st Red Zone offense - 50.0 percent is lowest since 2003, average is 60.4 percent.

Which to me speaks not just to a lack of scheme versatility, but to the lack of pure athleticism to beat coverages. Antonio Brown was only here for a cup of very crazy coffee. And Josh Gordon was apparently not as interested in playing tackle football as we saw last year. So now is the perfect time for a talent upgrade to the Edelman/Sanu/Dorsett mix. Which is where Harry comes in.

It's been a while so let me offer this reminder: As a route-runner, Harry is not going to remind anyone of Shadowfax. He fell on a lot of draft boards because he had one of the slowest 40s at the Indianapolis Kennel Show. He's not a stutter-step release guy with precise, Jerry Rice-like footwork. But here's what he is, from NFL.com:

  • Highly competitive at everything he does
  • Consistently productive over three seasons
  • Fearless play demeanor with alpha swagger
  • Uses hands to swat coverage jam and release from press
  • Big, presentable target on slants and in zone work
  • Leverages and stems his way to open catch space
  • Plays with patience and poise to win combat catches
  • Strong hands and well-respected ball skills
  • Outworks opponents to carve out work space in tight quarters
  • Wins jump balls with well-timed leaps and frame to shield the finish
  • Stiff-arm getaways after the catch
  • Junkyard dog who is willing to scrap as a blocker
  • Can clinch and manhandle finesse corners in space

He's a fighter. A tough, physical presence who'll use his body to get open and rip contested balls away. And, with Gordon now gone, at 6-2, 228 lb, he's the biggest receiver the Patriots have. Almost 15 lb heavier than Sanu. Which makes this a good week to have him, since the Eagles have one cornerback on their roster taller than 6-0, Rasul Douglas at 6-2, 209. 

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Since I've left put myself out onto a rhetorical limb here and need to make a prediction, I'm going to guess that the Patriots use N'Keal Harry in around 50% of their snaps. Mostly as a replacement for the tight end in 1-back sets. That he plays primarily the slot where he and Brady can make that psychic link that puts him into the Circle of Trust. That they match him up with smaller corners, let him work in narrow spaces with shorter throws for the most part. Slants and in cuts. And that his upfield opportunities tend to be between the numbers, mainly on seam routes, like the one Brady delivered right into Watson's hands but he dropped. If I have to put a number on it - and I'm being forced to by my own blog post - I'll give him about 6 targets and 40 yards. And don't sleep on him in the red zone, where he can be a weapon at the boundaries as well as along the goal line. 

You heard it here first. Finally the McOffense is becoming a semblance of what it was supposed to look like when they took a wideout with their first pick. It's been a long time coming and I for one can't wait for kickoff.