Nine games into his rookie season, the most promising sign for N’Keal Harry, the first wideout taken in the first round by the Patriots during Bill Belichick’s tenure, is that he’s not wearing No. 17, the digits of death that belonged to washout rookie wideouts Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson, and Taylor Price.
The 15 on his jersey represents the only numbers Harry has as a Patriot. He missed the first eight games of the season after being placed on injured reserve Sept. 2 with an ankle injury and was a healthy scratch last Sunday in the Patriots’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He has yet to catch a pass from Tom Brady in any game situation — preseason, regular season, or millennial “szn.”
Now, it’s lowered expectations season for Harry. History says that it’s time to concede that any notable contribution the Patriots get from the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound target this season should be viewed as gravy. Unless he has Tyreek Hill-like mental makeup speed, Harry has too much catching up to do to catch on as a reliable option in a passing attack searching for more of them.
Only one rookie receiver has ever caught more than 40 passes in a season during the Belichick-Brady era: the estimable Deion Branch in 2002, still the gold standard for neophytes. Only four have topped 400 yards: Dobson (519), Branch (489), Kenbrell Thompkins (466), and Malcolm Mitchell (401), who had his promising career cut short by chronic knee problems that hastened his drop to the fourth round in the first place.
Dobson and Thompkins surpassed 400 yards practically by default in 2013. That was a season in which the team reshuffled its receiving corps in the wake of Wes Welker’s departure and left Brady with a paucity of proven pass-catchers. Julian Edelman emerged. However, Danny Amendola struggled to breach Brady’s Circle of Trust, and three ultimately unremarkable rookies recorded starts at receiver: Dobson, Thompkins, and Josh Boyce.
Traditionally, wide receiver has been the rare Belichick blind spot in the draft. While Harry, the second receiver selected in the 2019 draft, is still in bubble wrap, another big-bodied receiver on another wideout-needy team, D.K. Metcalf of Seattle, is making an immediate impact. Metcalf and Washington’s Terry McLaurin have been rookie receiver revelations. A.J. Brown of Tennessee and Mecole Hardman of Kansas City also have excelled. All were taken after Harry.
But it’s not a coincidence that the rookie receiver to enjoy the most success with Brady was Branch in 2002. That was Brady’s first full season as the expected starter. Brady was closer in age and knowledge to Branch than subsequent rookies.
Now, after 20 years with the Patriots, the knowledge gap between Brady and his trainees is a yawning chasm. It’s tough enough to catch on with Tom if you’re given the practice reps and the playing time. Harry’s IR stint mandated he miss the first six weeks of practice. A hamstring injury forced him to sit out the final three preseason games. It’s like missing nearly an entire semester of calculus and then being asked to take the final.
Brady’s brain is the real Patriots offensive playbook. If you’re not seeing it the way he does and running in the way he wants, then you don’t know the offense. Period. No matter how many mental reps Harry took while out, he remains behind the 8-ball with No. 12.
That was obvious when Brady was asked about Harry last Friday, which in hindsight foretold that the rookie receiver would not be making his NFL debut against Baltimore.
“Yeah, he’s missed a lot of football — missed a lot of training camp, missed eight regular-season games,” said Brady. “So, he’s just got to try to work at it every day, and it’s going to be up to him to put the effort in and to . . .
“Everyone’s there to help him, but you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to do it and earn it, and earn the trust of your teammates and coaches and stuff. So, it’s good to have him out there.”
Brady was further prodded to give Harry some sort of imprimatur. He tacitly declined. But when asked about working with veteran newcomer Mohamed Sanu, Brady perked up, saying the two were on a roll. That roll carried over into the Ravens game as Sanu had 10 catches for 81 yards on a career-high 14 targets in just his second game with New England.
Jakobi Meyers, who has caught 14 of his 17 targets this season and is mentally miles ahead of most Patriots rookie receivers, played just one snap Sunday as the game plan featured a heavy dose of no-huddle. That requires receivers who are capable of processing and executing play calls at a high level and high speed.
When asked about Harry Oct. 14, Belichick downplayed any offensive aptitude concerns. He made it sound like the mental part of the game wouldn’t be the biggest hurdle for Harry, which was surprising at the time.
“I mean, he has been able to keep up with everything,” said Belichick. “It’s just physically he needs to be able to show that he can go out there and participate competitively and at the practice level that we’re at. Hopefully, that’s where he’ll be. But we’ll make our final evaluations on that before we put him out there.”
That was pre-Sanu trade. The tire-pumping and touting of the readiness of Patriots rookie receivers in years when the position is a little barren tends to be directly proportional to the need for them to plug a hole.
Actions speak louder than words. When the Patriots had a chance to put Harry on the field, they didn’t even dress him. With the benefit of the bye week, he can brush up on his fluency in Brady-ese, the patois of the Patriots passing attack.
The best hope for Harry to make an impact is that the Patriots incorporate him Kenny Britt-style. Distill Harry’s route tree down to slants, go-routes, and back-shoulder fades, patterns that allow him to capitalize on his frame, natural athleticism, and ball skills.
The Patriots will give Harry the green light to play, but expectations need to be tempered because this feels like a red-shirt season.