FOXBORO — For the first time in the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots drafted a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry is the lucky man, but it’s Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels that should consider themselves fortunate after the addition of the 21-year-old.
Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio pointed out Harry’s outstanding college production early Friday morning, and that’s what stands out when you dig into his career at Arizona State.
In three seasons, Harry put up 2,889 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons over the last two years.
Harry is also a darling of the analytics crowd, ranking in the 88th percentile in the percentage of his teams’ total offense and touchdowns while also producing immediately as a freshman.
At the combine, Harry ranked in the 98th percentile in SPARQ score posting excellent numbers in both the weight-adjusted 40-yard dash (90th percentile) and explosiveness drills (78th percentile).
When you factor in his production, breakout age (18.7 years old), athletic testing and system fit it makes sense that Harry is the first Patriots wide receiver selected in the first round since Terry Glenn in 1996.
Below, we’ll go through Harry’s film at Arizona State to illustrate how he’ll fit into the New England offense:
Out of the 30 qualified receivers in this draft class, Harry ranked second with 17 contested catches over the last two seasons only behind Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
The now Patriots wideout has terrific body control, a large catch radius (33-inch arms) and a thick frame to box out defenders down the field and pluck the ball out of the air.
Although Harry isn’t an elite separator, he makes up for that with his ability to win 50/50 balls and create separation on double moves.
On this catch, Harry, who often aligned in the slot, completely fools the defender across from him on an out and up. Harry sells the out route by turning both his upper and lower body to the sideline pointing his feet toward the boundary and snapping his head back to the quarterback like he’s looking for the football. Once he gets the defender to bite, he transitions to a go route and adjusts back to an under-thrown ball to high-point the throw.
Another element of Harry’s jump-ball skills that stand out is what’s referred to as “late hands” and an awareness to pull the ball away from the defender to protect it as he finishes the catch. Harry doesn’t give any tells to the defense that the ball is coming towards him making it difficult for them to make plays on the football when their back is to the quarterback.
Harry makes contested catches all over the field and has the potential to be a mismatch in the red zone.
YARDS AFTER THE CATCH
Along with his contested catches, Harry’s physicality and size come out as a ball carrier where he racked up 38 broken tackles over the last three seasons.
Due to his skill after the catch, Harry tallied 61 explosive plays over the last two seasons, tied for the most in this draft class (plays of 15-plus yards).
Tom Brady’s new target has the creativity, elusiveness and contact balance to both run through weak tacklers and slither around defenders in the open field.
Here, the quarterback likely had the option to hand the ball off or throw the quick pass to Harry if the defender was playing off of him at the line of scrimmage. Harry’s contact balance, the ability to run through tackles while staying on his feet, is on full display as he bounces off the corner before reversing field to turn a pass behind the line of scrimmage into a massive gain.
On this play, Harry catches a quick hitch on the perimeter and shows off incredible elusiveness to make multiple defenders miss in tight quarters.
At the NFL level, Harry won’t be able to reverse field with such ease, but he’ll rack up yards after the catch in the Patriots’ offense that will give him space to maneuver.
And his ability to create after the catch opens up the possibility of screens and other gadget plays to round out his route tree.
As we know, the middle of the field, specifically the intermediate level, is Tom Brady’s favorite area to operate and that’s where Harry does a lot of his damage.
Last season, he averaged an incredible 5.68 yards per route run and a 112.3 passer rating when targeted between 10-19 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
One weakness of Harry’s game is that he struggled to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage due to a lack of nuanced route releases.
Harry doesn’t consistently close the space between him and the defender making his moves too early in his release.
However, to avoid press coverage, Harry might be best suited as a “big slot” receiver where he can use his size to and body positioning to box out smaller defenders.
This time, Harry is aligned as the “X” receiver on the weak side but he’s in tight to the formation. The corner is in a soft-press technique giving him a little cushion, and Harry attacks it with a speed release immediately getting into the body of the defender. Harry carries his stem past the corner keeping him on his outside hip while gaining inside leverage. Then, he fights through contact and snaps the route off over the middle creating separation out of his break. Once again, you see his explosiveness after the catch as well.
Harry was at his best working the middle of the field at the intermediate range, which bodes well for his fit in the Patriots offense.
Based on the information above, what gets me excited about the Patriots’ selection of N’Keal Harry is how it differs from some of their misses at the wide receiver position in the past.
Unlike second-round busts Aaron Dobson and Chad Jackson, we have seen Harry produce at a high level in a power-five conference for multiple seasons.
We aren’t projecting who he might become someday like those two because we already know who Harry is as a player, a proven commodity, not an upside pick.
There are some concerns about his ability to consistently separate down the field, but the Patriots can make things easier on him by moving him around the formation.
By aligning him in the slot or motioning him before the snap, Harry will see his fare share of free releases at the line of scrimmage, which should unlock his playmaking abilities.
My expectation is that Harry will take on a similar role to Chris Hogan in the Pats offense where he plays both in the slot and on the perimeter working off of Julian Edelman.
Hopefully, Harry will elevate that role to a new level.