It’s hard to expect much from N’Keal Harry this season

Ryan Hannable
October 15, 2019 - 6:00 am

Given the Patriots’ offensive struggles this season, particularly with the passing game, it seems likely an addition or two will be made to provide some help.

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Unfortunately, don’t count on rookie receiver N’Keal Harry to be that player.

The first-round pick who has been on injured reserve since the beginning of the season with an ankle injury is eligible to begin practicing this week, and all indications are it will happen. The earliest Harry can play in a game is Nov. 3 in Baltimore, but even with three full weeks of practice, it’s hard to count on him contributing much to the offense.

Just because he’s a first-round pick and has a ton of athletic ability doesn’t automatically mean he can contribute. Assuming that would be unfair to Harry.

The same thing is happening to an extent with Josh Gordon, who is having an average season, but because expectations were so high this summer, it feels like he’s not living up to his potential.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seems very aware of the situation Harry will be facing once he gets into games.

“I think the fairest thing to do for any young player, especially a guy that’s missed as much time as N’Keal has missed, is we have to get him back on the practice field,” he said on a conference call Monday. “We have to make smart decisions about when he’s ready to do what. Certainly, to put a player back in a position to 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 hopefully we can build into 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, either. You know, 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 kind of 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 positions to do something he does well on game day. And if we’re doing that, then 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.”

It isn’t just regular-season time Harry has missed, either. He was sidelined for the vast majority of the summer, playing in only one preseason game. Beyond that, even when he was on the field at the beginning of training camp he wasn’t showing much promise. His ability to make contested catches was the only thing that really stood out. He was dropping easy passes and it seemed like he was having trouble grasping the playbook.

Even though he was on injured reserve, Harry could still participate in meetings, but he couldn’t be on the practice field. Sure, he could have used this time to get on top of the playbook, but it’s one thing to know the plays and another thing to get out on the field and be exactly where Tom Brady wants.

This is really the only thing that matters in the Patriots offense.

Looking at the production of rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski through the first six games, it’s hard to imagine Harry being able to do much better, even being a first-rounder. Brady has spoken a few times already this season about wanting to work with veteran receivers and implying how difficult it is for rookies to learn the offense.

Only a few rookies have been able to contribute in the Patriots offense over the years, most notably Malcolm Mitchell a few years back, but none of those players missed as much time as Harry has.

The Patriots coaching staff is smart enough to use what Harry knows and does best to get the most out of him within the offense, but at this point it feels like it will just be specific packages and certain routes. It’s a long-shot to expect the whole playbook to be available to him, especially since it’s been growing since the regular season began and he hasn't been on the practice field.

We’re certainly not implying Harry won’t be able to contribute at all, it just doesn’t seem likely he will be able to do enough to drastically change the offense.

While it’s encouraging and exciting to potentially add a first-round pick to the offense, expecting a great deal from Harry would be a disservice to the rookie.

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