The Patriots entered the 2020 NFL Draft with 13 selections sprinkled across the three-day event.
After several trades, as is tradition, Bill Belichick made ten picks. But despite what league executives touted as one of the top classes in years, the Pats did not draft a wide receiver.
In all, 35 wideouts heard their name called with 16 selections in the top 100, yet none of them went to the team that ranked tied for 23rd in cumulative receiving grade in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.
By skipping out on a potentially historic wide receiver class, the Pats’ football czar sent a message to his 2019 first-round pick, N’Keal Harry: we believe in you and are counting on you to step up.
“I’m sure all our young players will improve in year two,” Belichick said in his post-draft video call. “Got a first-round pick on N’Keal last year, second-round pick on [Mohamed] Sanu. That was really off this draft. Obviously have Julian [Edelman] and a number of other young players. I think that will be a very good group.”
Along with a vote of confidence for Harry, Belichick also put his support behind veteran trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu and other second-year receivers such as Jakobi Meyers.
But it’s evident that the Patriots still believe Harry has star potential despite a rocky rookie campaign that saw him miss half the season due to injury and tally only 12 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.
The Pats wideout ranked third-to-last among the 2019 rookie class in Pro Football Focus’s yards per route run metric out of 21 qualifiers and was dead-last in Next Gen’s average yards of separation metric out of 143 qualified receivers.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 3, 2019
Standing at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, Harry is an elite athlete with above-average speed for his size and excellent explosiveness scores at the 2019 NFL combine.
We saw glimpses of Harry’s physical gifts on contested catches and schemed touches designed to get the ball in his hands. But his athleticism is not leading to consistent production because of poor route-running technique.
Whitfield has an impressive client list that includes Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Richard Sherman, and Le’Veon Bell. Both pro and college stars flock to the Houston area to train with Whitfield, who gets their technique right for the upcoming season.
“I specialize in movement,” Whitfield said in an exclusive interview with CLNS Media.
“Everything I do is based on an athlete, depending on the position they play, the movement they have to do in a game. For instance, N’Keal is a receiver, so I don’t do the weight part, the strength part, the speed part; I do the getting open part.”
Harry and Whitfield connected through Harry’s agent, Jeff Nailey, who is longtime Whitfield protege Quartney Davis’ agent as well. And Pats teammate Mohamed Sanu also called up the Footwork King on Harry’s behalf.
“Mohamed Sanu was another one that said N’Keal Harry needs to get in with you because he needs the footwork to help him with releases and stuff like that,” Whitfield added.
As for Allen, the brother of former Pats tight end Dwayne Allen reinforces Whitfield’s work and takes things to the weight room to focus specifically on muscles that Harry uses on the field.
Allen is the owner of All-En Sports Performance located in Houston and trains clients such as NBA star James Harden, Ravens safety Earl Thomas, and Houston receiver Kenny Stills along with Harry.
“I’m all about the fundamentals. That’s what I start with first; it starts at the bottom, it starts with the feet both in the weight room and on the field. Everything else falls into place, and we mimic those same movements in the weight room,” Allen explained.
Together, the duo works with Harry six days a week to refine his routes and body movement from the ground up, starting with the most important aspect, according to Whitfield, releases.
STEP ONE: ROUTE RELEASES
“That’s the main thing that N’Keal is missing. I told N’Keal you have to win at the line of scrimmage. The thing is when you get to the NFL, it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are because you aren’t going to bully these defensive backs,” said Whitfield.
In today’s NFL, the game is cat-and-mouse at the line of scrimmage between receivers and defensive backs playing press-man coverage to disrupt and smother releases.
The Patriots have the best press-man corner in the business on their roster in reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore plays a game of chicken on every snap, staying square for as long as possible, forcing the receiver to make the first move. Whoever declares their hips first, loses, since it gives away advantageous body positioning. Corners can be patient because quarterbacks don’t have all day to throw. Eventually, the receiver needs to run a route, and the ball needs to come out.
The best releasers, like Packers wideout Davante Adams, know how to beat press corners by stacking together moves in a forward progression to get them off their spots. Adams, who is also a bigger wideout (6-1, 212 pounds), uses sudden and explosive releases at the line to create space for vertical routes down the field.
“These defensive backs aren’t going to let you go through them, and you can’t go around them. We gotta get them off their spot,” Whitfield explained.
“When you’re big, you have to be light on your feet. We don’t want defensive backs to get their hands on him [Harry] because then they can control him. He’s a big dude when DBs get their hands on him, they can control him, they can stop him from getting into his routes.”
As Whitfield described, Harry’s biggest issue currently is that his releases are dull and ineffective. He spends too much time at the line of scrimmage instead of gaining ground, his feet are heavy, and his movements lack suddenness. As a result, cornerbacks are draped all over him.
“I’m working with him on the technique, and any movement you make, you have to make it going forward. Be light on your feet. Don’t drop so low, rise up, be quick, shift your hips. We are working on it night and day,” Whitfield told CLNS Media.
“Gotta get a little bit twitchier and more foot speed. He likes to be heavy and wide. I say N’Keal you’re trying to push vertical against a defensive back then once you want to get him off the spot, you get wide. You get wide, and your feet stop. Your feet stop, and you get stuck, and now we are in trouble.”
“He was too heavy, dropping too low, getting too wide, and stopping his feet. It starts with your feet. You have to beat the defensive back with your feet and then finish with your hands.”
With Whitfield, Harry goes through an hour and a half or more of explosive movement drills that mimic route releases to improve his foot speed and break bad tendencies. There are no footballs, no catching passes, and currently, Harry isn’t even running full routes.
“Right now, we are still working on releases. I like to stick to releases until it’s right. When I know it’s right, I’ll move to the top of the routes. Then we’ll start putting it together,” Whitfield said.
“That’s the thing, we aren’t catching footballs out here, and we aren’t running routes. That’s the first thing I have to make sure that’s taken care of [releases]. I gotta get him sharper, quicker steps. We are going to keep chomping at it and keep working on his releases. At the end of the day, that’s going to dictate how much separation he gets and how fast he gets into his routes.”
STEP TWO: ROUTE BREAKS
Along with his work with Whitfield, Harry fills out the rest of his week by training with Allen.
Allen’s older brother, Dwayne, played for the Patriots for two seasons, including a victory in Super Bowl 53 that younger brother Justin was front and center for in Atlanta.
“I actually flew with the Patriots on the plane to the Super Bowl that they won. I was on the field after they won. Me and my brother are very close, that’s who I look up to. He’s like the hero that made it out of the hood,” Justin told me.
Allen describes a “crazy upbringing” filled with “freak accidents” that led to seven different major surgeries that had nothing to do with sports, which taught him all about the human body.
“I had to study my own body to learn to walk again, run again, so I use that experience as well as my playing experience and help these guys understand their body better and put themselves in a position to stay safe,” he said.
As for Allen’s role in Harry’s training, he does both on-field and weight room work with the Pats wideout. And it was Justin who pointed out a flaw at the top of the route in Harry’s technique.
“You got a guy with the god-given ability like that, just give him the basics,” Allen said of Harry.
“Before I train my players that come through, I put them through a little body control drill. When I put him through the drill to evaluate him, he was stepping underneath himself. He recognized that I recognized it, and we started correcting it very quickly. I’m very impressed with that.”
By stepping underneath himself, Harry is losing ground in his cuts, making it easier for defensive backs to stick to him through his route break. The key at the top of the route is that your “drive” leg or the leg you cut off should be pointed towards the sideline along with your head the next time it hits the ground. Instead, Harry’s inside foot in the example above steps behind the original break point the next time it hits the ground.
— The Draft Network (@TheDraftNetwork) March 27, 2019
Here’s an excellent breakdown from wide receiver guru and Cover1.net scribe Brad Kelly on Hunter Renfrow and how he creates separation at the top of his routes by gaining ground with his drive step, something Harry is not currently doing adequately.
“We’ve been working on getting in and out of breaks, getting his feet quicker; the small details that any receiver would work on during the offseason,” Allen continued. “Moving their hips, being violent, getting his hands moving, keeping his feet moving, making sure he’s not stepping under himself, making sure we are gaining ground.”
“When you break it down to them and teach them why they’re practicing these movements, how their mind aligns with their feet and the motion of their body, it’s scary because now they can control, now they know how they’re controlling that speed.”
STEP THREE: SECOND-YEAR BREAKOUT?
As both Allen and Whitfield pointed out, a potential breakout for Harry in his second season goes beyond his offseason work with the two movement gurus down in Texas.
In his rookie campaign, Harry spent the first eight regular-season games on injured reserve after missing most of the preseason with nagging ankle, hamstring, and toe injuries. The ailments stuck with Harry even after his NFL regular-season debut in November, and the time lost on the practice field learning the complex Pats offense and meshing with then-quarterback Tom Brady was palpable.
But with his health and a sound situation around him, both Allen and Whitfield see a hungry and determined Harry, training to put his rookie season behind him and deliver in year two.
“The first workout we are an hour and a half out there. After the session, I see N’Keal on the side, and he has the octagon out, and he’s working. I said that’s someone that wants to be great. That’s what it takes. I do see a breakout coming for him because he knows he has to be the guy. Every session we have N’Keal gets better, better, and better,” Whitfield said.
“He’s extremely hungry, very hard working. He’s a competitor, and he wants to be one of the best. Putting all those things together, I look for him to have a breakout season coming up,” Allen added.
And Harry will have Whitfield in his corner during the season too, if there is a season, as Whitfield remains in touch with his clients and breaks down their film to help them improve.
“Everybody that I’ve worked with in the offseason, the way I train, the energy I bring, the intensity, the situations I’m explaining with these guys, they perform like crazy during the season. During the season, I’ll send them voice-overs of the video of the game, what I saw, I’ll do a voice-over and have them work on that,” he said.
The Pats wideout will remain in the Houston area for most of the summer working alongside fellow second-year receivers Mecole Hardman (Chiefs) and Deebo Samuel (49ers).
For those learning about Whitfield and Allen for the first time, Harry could not be in better hands.
And with Belichick believing in his talent that made Harry the 32nd overall pick in 2019, the arrow is pointing up.