FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick has us so trained to expect the unexpected that we don’t believe him when he tells us the Patriots’ draft plans three weeks in advance.
Belichick pretty much told us exactly what he was going to do when he spoke to the media back on April 10.
“This is another year where there’s a lot of big receivers – 6-4, 225 [pounds], 230, whatever they are,” Belichick said. “I mean, somebody’s going to have to cover those guys one of these days.”
That will certainly be a fun matchup to watch in 1-on-1 drills in training camp.
Both give the Patriots an element they didn’t have — a tall, physical receiver to catch contested balls on the outside, and a tall, physical cornerback to cover tall, physical receivers.
Of course, we won’t know for at least a year if either Harry or Williams can actually play in the NFL. The Patriots’ history at developing receivers is spotty, as is their track record of second-round defensive backs (Ras-I Dowling, anyone?). So let’s not pencil in either player as a Pro Bowler just yet.
But, on paper, these picks look solid. Harry fills an immediate need of a specific role, while Williams gives the Patriots some much-needed youth in the secondary, and will allow Bill Belichick to run his defense the way he wants to, with two physical, press-man corners on the outside (Williams and Stephon Gilmore).
Let’s start with Harry. The Patriots had never drafted a receiver in the first round in 19 previous years under Belichick, though Harry went 32nd and Chad Jackson was drafted 36th overall in 2006 (try not to think about how that one turned out).
In one sense, Harry doesn’t fit the profile of a prototypical Patriot. For a team that loves versatility, Harry isn’t exactly a Swiss Army knife. He ran the ball a few times in college (scoring two touchdowns), threw a couple of passes (one touchdown, one interception), and had a handful of punt returns, including a 92-yard touchdown against Southern Cal last year. Harry played a little bit out of the slot.
But that’s not really his game. Harry is a big, outside receiver, who can catch jump balls and back-shoulder throws and will use his size to punish cornerbacks in the run game.
“We’ll start him at one spot, and then see wherever that goes from there,” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Thursday.
Think Brandon LaFell from 2014, when he caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl.
Herm Edwards, Harry’s coach at Arizona State, has another comparison.
“If you look at his height, his size, and probably his speed, similar to Dez Bryant when you look at him,” Edwards told WEEI on Friday. “Same body build, the ability to go up and really fight for the football. He wins 90 percent of the contested balls. Not afraid to go over the middle. Has really good running skills when he gets the ball in his hands. You can see that on some tape.”
And think Josh Gordon, who was a similar player for the Patriots last year. Gordon will probably be back from suspension at some point this fall, but the Patriots can’t count on him. And they can’t count on having to remake their offense on the fly like they miraculously did at the end of the 2018 season en route to another Super Bowl.
Harry will be the steady presence on the outside, and Gordon the Wild Card. The Patriots’ experience with Gordon last year – dropping him into the offense on the fly and turning him into a productive player by simplifying the playbook for him – likely gives them confidence that they can have similar success with Harry.
The Patriots need this type of big weapon in their offense to balance out mini-mites Julian Edelman and James White, and to help replace Rob Gronkowski.
Harry gets a lot of criticism for not being able to create separation, but that seems overblown. Give me the wide receiver who can catch contested balls in traffic over the guy that needs to be wide open to catch a pass.
“I would say the coverage in this league is tight, regardless of the type of player or receiver that you are,” Caserio said. “He has some physical attributes that are important to that position.”
As for Williams, he plays a position that isn’t one of the Patriots’ most immediate needs – that would be tight end, offensive tackle, or defensive line — but is an important piece for Belichick’s defense. Belichick wants to play press-man coverage on the outside, and he couldn’t do that with incumbents J.C. Jackson or Jason McCourty.
Now the Patriots have a potentially elite duo at cornerback, similar to what they had in 2014. Gilmore, a first-team All-Pro, will play the role of Darrelle Revis, while Williams is the Brandon Browner.
Williams does have the versatility to play in the slot or move to safety, but covering those big receivers on the outside is where he will have the most value. The cornerbacks he most admires are Richard Sherman and Jalen Ramsey.
Williams doesn’t lack for confidence, which is important for a cornerback.
“I feel like I got the complete package,” he said Friday. “I can run, cover, and hit. If you look at all my numbers in the SEC, I was ranked first in everything.”
It’s true, Williams led all SEC cornerbacks in interceptions (four), pass breakups (13), and solo tackles (48). He will look good on the outside of the Patriots’ defense.
The Patriots now have a bit of a logjam at cornerback, with Gilmore, Williams, McCourty, Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Duke Dawson, and Keion Crossen. Perhaps trading Jones is in the works, or moving Dawson to safety.
But McCourty likely only has one or two years left, and Gilmore is entering the third year of a five-year contract. So unless Williams is a total bust, you can lock him into the lineup at a cheap rate for the next four years.
“With those big guys, you’ve got to get hands on them,” Williams said. “They will go up and get the ball, so you’ve got to go up there and fight for it. That’s something I feel like I bring to the table.”
The Patriots got bigger at receiver this weekend, and got bigger at cornerback — just as Belichick told us would happen.