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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The music was blaring, the ball was snapped and the rookie wide receiver wearing No. 50 chopped his feet and exploded to his left.
It was a slant route, and N’Keal Harry, the defending champion New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick, had perfectly boxed out his man. The ball arrived on time, and Harry paced into the end zone for a touchdown as his new teammates roared with approval.
This flash of promise — which happened only a few plays into the 11-on-11 goal line portion of the Patriots’ third practice of organized team activities — was the first that Harry showed on this gray, overcast day on the practice fields outside Gillette Stadium. It was not the last.
Soon after, the muscular 6-foot-2, 225-pounder caught a crossing pattern for a touchdown, followed by a diving stab in the back of the end zone. Later, he elevated over a defender to haul in a contested jump-ball fade for a touchdown.
As far as OTA practices go (especially one without pads and minus a certain G.O.A.T named Tom Brady) it was a heck of a day, even if the talented rookie has already become too indoctrinated into “The Patriot Way” to appreciate it.
“That’s just my job,” Harry said, when asked about one of his touchdown catches. “As a wide receiver, my job is to get separation, get open and then catch the ball. So that’s my main focus every time I step out there on every play.”
Considering it’s not even August, Harry’s head-down, eyes-open approach is for the best. He hasn’t proven anything yet, and it’s not like the talent he flashed Thursday was a secret.
“Yeah, I think everybody saw that in college,” quarterback Brian Hoyer told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “Obviously, he’s a first-round receiver for a good reason.”
Indeed, it’s been 23 years since the Patriots invested a first-round pick in a receiver. Harry has the look of a bonafide No. 1 target in terms of size, playing style and confidence, even while sporting one of the goofy, non-position-specific jersey numbers that head coach Bill Belichick made all the Patriots rookies wear for OTAs.
But what wasn’t known before the draft (and what still isn’t known now) is whether Harry will successfully earn Brady’s trust in the short term and prove to be a first-round value in the long term. And there are two primary reasons for that.
Shades of a past ASU bust haunt Harry
Harry is used to arriving on the scene with lots of hoopla and still find a way to live up to expectations. He was Rivals’ top prep receiver in 2016, when he stepped on Arizona State’s campus and immediately emerged as the Sun Devils’ No. 1 passing option. He averaged 71 catches, 963 yards and seven touchdowns over three seasons before declaring for the NFL draft.
NFL scouts loved his overall production and aggressive style of play, as few wideouts in the nation competed as hard for the ball when it was in the air as Harry did. Others bristled at his inability to consistently create significant separation against defensive backs, despite his success.
“It was a concern for sure,” one scout told Yahoo Sports. “I think he reminded people a lot of Jaelen Strong and that turned guys off.”
Strong, a similarly sized third-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2015, was productive at Arizona State like Harry, and tested out as a similar athlete. However, he rarely created much space against college corners and he has had a harder time doing that in the NFL, as he was released by the Texans in 2017 and has caught a mere 31 balls for 330 yards and four touchdowns since his selection.
The Patriots’ coaching staff, however, is hard at work to ensure that Brady’s newest weapon doesn’t suffer the same fate. Receivers coach Joe Judge has spent the past month teaching Harry tricks to create separation, and Harry seemed plenty open on Thursday.
“He’s got really good hands and play strength — which does help,” the scout said. “But that lack of twitch and burst kind of is what it is.
‘I didn’t have to do it a whole lot at Arizona State’
Yet, that’s not the only area where Harry will need to improve to become a bonafide weapon for Brady, who has been operating the Patriots’ offense for 20 years and rarely makes mental mistakes.
Brady often throws to players who are just as steady, hence his increasing reliance on 5-foot-10 wideout Julian Edelman. And one of the areas Edelman shines, in addition to his superior route running and quickness, is with sight adjustments, which calls for receivers to alter their routes mid-play depending on the defensive coverage.
And while some college offenses don’t require many sight adjustments, the Patriots’ offense relies on them plenty, so picking it up quickly can be difficult. It’s one reason that some of New England’s mid-round wideouts have failed to live up to expectations during Belichick’s rule.
“The way [defenses] are able to disguise some things ... it’s tough [to pick up],” Patriots receiver Matthew Slater explained to Yahoo Sports. “It takes a lot of film study, a lot of communication with your quarterback [and] with the players around you [to get it]. This offense is very complex.”
Harry, to his credit, seems to understand that the consequences for a missed sight adjustment in the NFL is an interception or incompletion.
“I didn’t have to do it a whole lot at Arizona State, but [knowing your sight adjustments] — that’s the expectation [here] for the whole team,” Harry told Yahoo Sports. “That’s something I want to be able to do. And I want to earn not just coach’s trust, but my teammates’ trust as well.”
Harry has impressed the veterans
So to get up to speed quicker, Harry has also been aggressive about approaching multiple veterans with questions, both during practice and after.
“The thing I appreciate about him, as well as the other rookies, is just their attitude so far,” Slater said. “That says a lot as a first-round pick. You come in, you’re able to humble yourself and work, and that will go a long way with your teammates.”
It’s also notable, considering some rookies tend to be shy about asking for help in a league where veterans are often wary of losing their jobs to younger, cheaper players.
“I know he wants to win, you know what I mean?” Hoyer said. “He’s coming with questions like ‘Hey, how can I do this? What should I do on this play?’ He’s been everything a rookie should be.”
Harry credits his inquisitiveness, in part, to the results-oriented culture Belichick has created, where veterans are encouraged to help rookies in the name of getting the job done. But he also insists he simply just wants to be great.
“There’s no point in sitting in the meeting room, being confused, not knowing what to do and not asking the question,” Harry said. “I don’t want to come out here and then mess it up because one, I’m gonna be mad at myself, and two, everybody else is going to be mad at me because I’m expected to come out here and know everything.”
Especially once Brady — who is skipping OTAs for the second straight year — arrives for the start of the Patriots’ three-day mandatory minicamp on June 4.
And while Harry has not spoken with Brady in person yet (his only communication with him has been through social media), he is determined to keep working to get better in the meantime, one contested catch — and correct sight adjustment — at a time.
“Knowing my assignment, knowing what I’m supposed to do — that’s the best way to get a quarterback to trust [you],” Harry said.
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