FOXBORO — The Patriots could get a big boost in their receiving corps with first-round pick N’Keal Harry eligible to return off of injured reserve on Sunday against the Ravens.
Harry returned to practice two weeks ago after sitting out the remainder of training camp and preseason as well as the first eight weeks of the regular season due to a hamstring injury.
And on Monday, Patriots wide receivers coach Joe Judge offered some insight into Harry’s progress and what he has seen from the Arizona State product on the practice field.
“He’s working hard. He’s definitely enthusiastic to be back out there,” Judge to CLNS Media. “He’s doing everything we are asking him to do. We are excited to have him out there, and we’ll see how he does this week.”
For Harry, the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of him contributing in a big way for the remainder of his rookie season is getting back up to speed after a long layoff.
“He missed a lot of ball from training camp till just recently got back on the field, so there’s a lot of things he had to rework to get back in the flow of things,” Judge said. “The speed of the game, the timing with the quarterbacks, reading the coverage, and making adjustments. You can’t jump back into where you left off when you miss that amount of time.”
“It’s different than running routes in rehab with the trainers, and then all a sudden you put Stephon Gilmore across from him in one-on-ones. You have to get used to the speed of the game, reading defenses out, making adjustments. He’s out there competing every day and working as hard as he can.”
Speaking to other Patriots pass-catchers, many of them pinpointed the difficulties of learning the various route adjustments in the New England offense based on the type of coverage that Judge mentioned.
For example, if the defense is in cover-2 zone coverage, the receivers will run routes differently than if they drop into a cover-3 zone. The Patriots also ask their receivers to make adjustments based on leverage, like if a defender is inside of them, they run outside away from the defender.
Current and former Pats receivers said that can slow you down to the point where you’re thinking too much rather than running at full speed.
As far as the process goes for teaching those intricate details, Judge explained how the Patriots go about getting young players and new acquisitions up to speed in that regard.
“It starts with showing them on film what it’s going to look like then it goes to the walkthrough giving them a slowed-down version of teaching what it could be then it goes to practice and them executing it at full speed,” he said. “Different defenses present different challenges of how they disguise coverages. You have to learn each week how certain things are going to look and how they are going to read it out. The best thing they can do is hit it in practice. They are going to make mistakes, then correct the mistakes and get it right the next time.”
But Judge reiterated that he likes what he sees from Harry in that regard, and also likes the competitive nature the first-round pick has at practice.
“I think he brings good competitiveness, and that’s the number one thing you have to have to start with [in the NFL]. It doesn’t matter how much talent or physical ability you have; if you don’t come out there and be competitive, it’s all going to be neutralized by the opponent anyway. He’s come out playing fast, playing hard, and the true test will be when it’s game action.”
Back in training camp, my biggest concern with Harry’s game was his technique at the line of scrimmage in his releases and his breaks at the top of his routes.
There’s no denying that Harry has the physical tools to succeed, but he was losing ground at the top of his route because of poor footwork, and his release package needs refining.
However, the Pats receivers coach mentioned that those things are a common problem for younger receivers and that they all need to work on them when they get into the league.
“All these young guys have a lot of fundamentals they need to work on, and it’s always releases at the line of scrimmage and top of the route technique,” Judge told me.
Last week, the Patriots placed wide receiver Josh Gordon on injured reserve and reportedly will release the talented wideout once he’s healthy enough to play again.
Although Judge tempered expectations, one might think that Harry’s progress played a role in the teams’ decision on Gordon, and Harry is a prime candidate to eventually replace Gordon at the “X” receiver spot in the offense. In college, Harry also played some in the slot, as well.
Judge wouldn’t reveal where Harry is lining up in practice, however, telling me, “I could tell you that, but then I’d have to kill you.”
We’ll have to wait and see how the Patriots will use Harry’s unique skill set, a combination of contested catch ability along with the yards after catch talents that are rare for his size.
But things are ramping up for the first-round pick at practice with Judge saying he has moved past scout teams reps and is preparing like he’s playing on Sundays despite remaining on IR.
“Everybody we have out there, no matter what part of the roster they are on, we always treat everyone like we are getting ready for the game that week. So, from walkthroughs to meetings to practice on the field, we are getting everybody as ready as we can,” Judge explained.
The expectation is that Harry will return to game action this season, and it could be as soon as this week against the Baltimore Ravens.