What if the solution to the Patriots’ biggest weakness is already on the roster?

Dan WetzelColumnist

He’s caught three career NFL passes. He’s played in one game. Almost no one outside of hardcore New England Patriots fans, Pac-12 followers and/or NFL draftniks has ever heard of him.

Yet it’s fair to wonder if N’Keal Harry could be the X-factor that determines who wins the Super Bowl.

Yes, N’Keal Harry, the New England rookie receiver who made his injury-delayed NFL debut Sunday in the Patriots’ win over Philadelphia

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Too much on such an unknown and unproven player? Sure. Of course. Absolutely. 

The Patriots are more than capable of winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy without Harry becoming a major factor in the currently stalled-out offense. No one player (other than Tom Brady) matters in New England. In 2016, the Pats lost Rob Gronkowski to injury in Week 12 and despite the sky-is-falling doom that enveloped Foxborough, they somehow never lost again.  

Still, there is a reason Brady is frustrated right now with the offense as Dallas arrives Sunday for a highly anticipated matchup.

Concerns include offensive line play and the running attack (the return from injury of OT Isaiah Wynn should help both), but maybe most important is the lack of an outside threat at wide receiver. That wouldn’t just give Brady someone to throw to, but take some defensive attention off the team’s best receiver, Julian Edelman. 

The Patriots have been desperately seeking receiving help all season to solve that glaring question. 

They brought back Josh Gordon but later let him go. They gambled on Antonio Brown only to watch it blow up after one week. They signed Demaryius Thomas and then traded him. They dealt for Mohamed Sanu and tried to make him a priority. They’ve put Benjamin Watson through a transaction turnstile.

N'Keal Harry made his Pats debut Sunday against Philadelphia. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
N'Keal Harry made his Pats debut Sunday against Philadelphia. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

And they (or at least fans and media) have hung on every PR announcement, social-media post and body-language signal from Gronk that might indicate he wants to make one more playoff run.

All along there has been Harry just waiting to get healthy. Belichick took him with a first-round pick (No. 32 overall) last spring, but he missed the Pats’ first nine games with an ankle injury.

The 6-foot-4, 213-pounder was a star at Arizona State, where he caught 22 touchdown passes over three seasons and delivered over 1,000 yards in each of his final two years. He’s a physical, big-bodied wideout who excelled at catching balls in traffic, on back-shoulder throws and over smaller defensive backs. He was also a notable run blocker. 

He may not be the speedster (4.53 in the 40) who can consistently take the top off opposing defenses, but put it this way: Belichick (due to the injury) just added someone he certainly believes is capable of being a No. 1 receiver for the club. If not, he wouldn’t have drafted him so high. 

If Harry winds up being that, and quickly, well, a lot of issues get solved in Foxborough. Yes, it’s a big “if.” At this point though, there isn’t any other way you can just add a guy with that much potential.

On Sunday against the Eagles, he caught three passes on four targets for 18 yards. That’s not going to scare defensive coordinators, but it’s a start. An 11-yard slant on which he gave Brady a large and easy target to hit was his most impressive catch. 

Besides, New England is almost always a work in progress across the season, fine-tuning everything for January. There is still time. And despite the worries, they are, of course, 9-1. May everyone have their problems.

“I thought N’Keal competed well,” Belichick said Monday. “There were some good things; there were some other things that we’ll have to clean up and he’ll improve on. But it’s good to have him out there, good for him to get an opportunity to play.” 

“There’s certainly a lot of things that he can learn from that game and improve on, which we all can, but especially for his first regular season game,” Belichick continued. “There were some positive things and there were some corrections, too.”

How quickly (if ever) Harry makes those corrections and wins the trust of his coach and quarterback is a Patriots subplot over the next month or so. 

“In any rookie’s first opportunity to play in the National Football League, there’s probably going to be some good and then some things to work on and that you learn from those experiences in the game,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “There’s no way you can simulate that in practice or walk-throughs.

“He made a few catches for us and helped us move the ball,” McDaniels continued. “He tried to block in the running game effectively and did a decent job there. … I thought he did some good things, and there’s definitely some things that we’ll be able to work on going forward to make N’Keal a better player and help our offense even more.”

The Patriots are an all-or-nothing franchise, Super Bowl or bust. 

N’Keal Harry doesn’t have to develop into a big-time player and solve a weakness that’s been present all season for them to win it. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie, and Brady and Co. tend to find ways to get it done.

But what if he does?

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