clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

N’Keal Harry probably won’t save the Patriots’ passing game as a rookie

Reggie Wayne threw a penny on the tracks of the Patriots’ hype train, but for good reason.

Even though the Patriots made N’Keal Harry their first first-round wideout selection in the Bill Belichick era, he’s still got an uphill climb before he turns into Tom Brady’s next great receiver. Future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne would know.

“I think you have to pump brakes a little bit on N’Keal Harry and understand it’s going to be a process. Give him a year or so before he can actually go out there and play fast,” Wayne told ”I’ve always said that it’s going to take a year, maybe a year and a half before you can adjust to the speed and what’s going on for an NFL football team, especially for a quarterback like Tom Brady.”

Wayne experienced that adjustment firsthand back in 2015. Fourteen seasons with the Colts led him to Patriots’ training camp, where the 36-year-old asked for his release and opted for retirement after two weeks in his new home when it became clear he wouldn’t play a significant role in his former rival’s offense.

New England needs a player to step up early in 2019 after Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Josh Gordon’s indefinite suspension, and the thumb injury that will keep Julian Edelman out of action early in training camp. Unfortunately for Belichick, history backs up Wayne’s theory. If nearly two decades of the Brady-Belichick partnership are any indication, a rookie receiver — even one as accomplished as Harry — is going to need a fair share of time to adjust to the Pats’ offense.

The Patriots have gotten little from their rookie wideouts in the past

The most glaring blindspot in Belichick’s 19 years of prosperity in Foxborough has been his inability to consistently develop homegrown wide receivers. While he’s been able to turn rivals’ undervalued targets into standouts — Wes Welker, Chris Hogan, Brandon LaFell, and Randy Moss all come to mind — there’s a long list of washouts who failed to grasp the New England playbook and had little impact alongside Brady.

Harry probably won’t be the next Taylor Price, and oddsmakers are bullish on his potential. At 16-1, he’s got the eighth-best offensive rookie of the year odds this preseason. Asking him to transfer his prodigious Pac-12 performance (2,230 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in his final 25 college games) into a powerhouse first season is a tall task, however.

Here’s how the rest of the Patriots’ well-regarded young targets did after making the leap from amateur to pro ball:

Patriots rookie WRs with Tom Brady

Player Catches, final year of college % of his team's receptions Catches, rookie year w/ Patriots % of Patriots receptions
Player Catches, final year of college % of his team's receptions Catches, rookie year w/ Patriots % of Patriots receptions
David Givens 33 30.3% 9 2.4%
Deion Branch 72 30.8% 43 11.5%
Bethel Johnson 40 18.3% 16 5.0%
Chad Jackson 88 36.5% 13 4.0%
Brandon Tate 16 8.7% 0 0.0%
Julian Edelman 1 0.6% 37 9.5%
Taylor Price 56 24.6% 3 0.9%
Josh Boyce 66 27.8% 9 2.4%
Aaron Dobson 57 13.4% 37 9.7%
Malcolm Mitchell 58 29.1% 32 8.7%
N'Keal Harry 73 29.6% ? ?
Averages: 50.9 22.7% 19.9 5.4%
Avg w/o Edelman: 55.9 24.9% 18 5.0%

Since 2000, only Deion Branch has recorded more than 40 catches as a rookie with the Patriots. He’s also the only wideout to make up more than 10 percent of the team’s passing offense in his debut season — and even that was approximately a 60 percent drop-off from his senior year production at Louisville.

If you exclude Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman from the list, the Patriots’ first-year receivers made up approximately one quarter of their college team’s pass production. As rookies, they accounted for only five percent of the Patriots’ aerial offense.

Let’s apply these numbers to Harry, who is the highest-drafted member of the group but not the most productive of the Pats’ college prospects. If he hits that non-Edelman baseline and the Patriots’ offense mostly follows the track laid out in 2018, his rookie numbers will look something like this:

Harry playing like an average Patriots rookie WR 2019 projection: 23 catches, 281 yards, 2 touchdowns

If he performs up to Branch’s high-water mark, his rookie season would turn out something like this:

If Harry can be as good as Deion Branch 2019 projection: 41 catches, 510 yards, 4 touchdowns

Better, but still not enough to transform a needy offense — though that’s only what history shows us and doesn’t specifically take the former Sun Devil’s talents or the Pats’ big needs into effect. Harry could shatter that learning curve by making a quick adjustment, especially playing in a pass-happy scheme like New England’s.

Even though he’ll have the chance to climb the WR depth chart quickly, he’ll also have to compete for targets in an offense that’s known for sharing its wealth. If Harry can’t get open early and often, he’s going to see his big-play opportunities siphoned away by backs like James White and Rex Burkhead, along with whomever emerges from the shambles of the team’s current tight end rotation.

Why Harry can be different

If anyone is built to break through the low ceiling of rookie performances among New England’s wideouts, it’s the physical marvel who did enough on the field to convince Belichick not to trade out of the first round and instead select his first top-32 wide receiver ever.

At 6’4(ish) and 225 pounds, he’ll be the biggest member of the Patriots’ wideout corps. With 4.5-second 40 speed, he’ll likely be the team’s fastest downfield threat — barring a return from Gordon. He did an excellent job of shielding his routes and contested balls from college defensive backs, serving as a safe port for quarterback Manny Wilkins.

There’s a reason several pundits — and Belichick — considered him the most complete wideout prospect of 2019.

While New England has some of the league’s most resourceful pass catchers in its tailback platoon, the rest of the roster is ... grim. Gronkowski’s retirement and Ben Watson’s four-game PED suspension will leave Brady leaning on some combination of Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, and Stephen Anderson at tight end to begin the year. Edelman is 33 years old. 2019 signee Demaryius Thomas will be 32 this season and is coming off a ruptured Achilles. No one knows if Gordon will play in the NFL again.

This leaves plenty of opportunities to serve as Brady’s new favorite target downfield. Harry’s already taken advantage of some of them by earning an invite to offseason catch sessions with the six-time NFL champ.

Edelman’s also noted that Harry’s been quick to pick up the offseason chunk of the playbook without many issues, which is another sign he could break through Branch’s modest bar for New England rookie receivers. He’s already been described as “Gronk-esque” early in training camp, which is one hell of a standard to set for a rookie wideout.

As a prospect, Harry has as much potential as any wide receiver drafted in 2019. He’s a big, physical talent who plays faster on the field than he does on scout’s stopwatches. With Brady and Edelman already vouching for him, he’ll have the inside track at a major role in the New England offense as a rookie.

But the Patriots need him to cast off the training wheels immediately in order to help stabilize a depth chart with more questions than answers. That means current expectations will be high even if historical ones suggest a slow egress into the WR2 role — if he can get there at all (see Price, Dobson, Jackson, etc).

Wayne isn’t being unreasonable when he advises Patriots fans “pump the brakes” on Harry. He’s combining his own experience with past results to make a pretty prudent request. The question now is whether the rookie receiver can live up to his first-round billing — or whether he’ll only play a limited role for a needy team as it starts its championship defense this fall.