Is N’keal Harry the Real Deal? By: Kenny Stevens
April 25, 2019 – I’m sitting in traffic coming home from an early showing of Avengers Endgame, I made the decision to pass on watching the first round of the NFL Draft to avoid spoilers of the movie. I’m checking Twitter at traffic lights as I try to keep up with the picks so far. The Patriots are almost on the clock at the end of the round. There’s been a lot of buzz about what they’ll do with that pick and a couple glaring holes stand out on offense especially at tight end. Gronk is celebrating retirement somewhere. Will they trade back to acquire a 2020 first as ammo for a QB next year or will Belichick draft another defensive lineman with pick 32?
I get home just in time to see Goodell walk up to the podium amidst one final chorus of boo. As Goodell announces the Patriots pick I start cheering in my living room, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend who I’d just woken up. With the selection of N’Keal Harry out of Arizona State, Belichick broke a 23-year team drought and selected his first ever WR in the first round. And not just any wide receiver. Harry was my favorite wideout coming into the draft this year and with all the hype early on in the offseason I never thought he’d fall to my Pats. Nate Burleson even described him as the “most complete receiver” in the 2019 Draft. His combination of elite athleticism, route running, production, and amazing highlight reel catches makes him a rare talent.
Since 2000, NFL teams have drafted about 2.2 wide receivers for every tight end. The Patriots however have drafted them at almost half the rate at 1.21 WRs per tight end. New England had not taken a receiver in the first since they selected Terry Glenn, at seventh overall during the Bill Parcells era. Their highest picks since then under Belichick at the position were Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson who both were major busts. Realistically, the Patriots have had only two real “hits” in Julian Edelman and Deion Branch. Aaron Dobson and Malcolm Mitchell get honorable mentions.
Dobson owns the best rookie season of any WR on the Patriots during the Brady era, finishing 2013 with a 37/519/4 stat line in 12 games. N’Keal Harry should have no trouble fitting in to the X receiver role very early on. New England saw success here last year with Josh Gordon who put up 40/720/3 in eleven games, joining the offense midseason and only running on a limited version of the playbook. Harry never missed a game in college so if he stays healthy he can almost certainly put up a better season. If I’m placing bets on it I think Harry ends up around 60 catches this season, if all goes well.
He’s not a traditional speedster and only ran a 4.53 forty at the combine but his success comes from his body control, great hands, contested catch ability and his skills to create yards after the catch. I’ve seen Harry most often compared to Anquan Boldin and Dez Bryant since the draft and that should excite Patriots fans. In addition the odds of success are on his side as he is such a well-rounded prospect. He doesn’t have blazing fast speed off the line, but once the ball is in his hands he has amazing “football speed”. Against UTSA he received a ran a quick curl route, then caught the ball while making the defender miss. He quickly sees he has nowhere to go as four other defenders begin to close in. Harry reverses direction going around the entire backfield to take the ball 32 yards to the house.
In college he achieved a “dominator ranking” (Player Profiler) of 43.9%, which is just short of the 90th percentile of players. He is currently 21 and had a breakout age of 18.7 in college, 95th percentile which is almost unheard of.
While there are many metrics we can look at, there are three that I think are very useful for measuring potential prospect success. The first is breakout age where anything under 20 is seen as incredible. Those players who breakout before the age of 20 in college have almost a 50% hit rate in the NFL. (Hit rate for this study by Rotoviz was 200 PPR points by third season in the NFL) In 2016 Harry, led all freshman receivers in the nation, and he did it as a true freshman.
The dominator ranking which is a fancy way of saying market share of your team’s passing offense, is the second. 20% is the minimum threshold you’d want to see for a DR. Harry crushed this figure, and has proven he can be the focal point of an offense. Since Harry’s three-cone drill times were not released, we’ll look at a different combine number that is especially relevant if Harry plays in the X-role as predicted. In that position you’re not in motion and need to be able to get off the line quickly while fighting through press coverage. The most useful way to predict success with that is through the bench press. Harry showed off the elite athleticism again at the combine, pumping out 27 bench presses tying him with DK Metcalf. That would have ranked 13th among all offensive and defensive lineman, it’s an absurd feat.
Past production and analytics only get us so far though and the big question is how will Harry transition to the field in notoriously complex New England offense. Harry already seems to be clicking in practice with the backup QBs. Granted it’s May, there are no pads or contact but he had five catches and two touchdowns on the third day of OTAs. Brady is once again skipping voluntary OTAs like he did last season which clearly didn’t impact the end result. If you’re worried about him developing a bond with Brady, breathe. Brady, Edelman, and Harry are working out together in private which is a great sign for what Brady sees in the rookie.
The intangibles are as important if not more so, when it comes to success than being just physical gifted. How many athletic speedsters and highly touted QBs never materialized in the NFL? You need to have something a little bit more. Evan Lazar of CLNS Media, sat down with Charlie Fisher the ASU WR coach a few weeks ago and that conversation left us with some great takeaways. “If you want to call it a 50-50 ball with N’Keal it’s probably more like 90-10. Highly competitive, wants to do well, likes to work and wants to be his best at practice. If he doesn’t do it right or thinks he can do it better, he’ll compete to do it better. That’s a trait of all the really good ones,” said Fisher.
Can Harry get on the same page as Brady and pickup that complex offense? “He’s a very bright kid. He has a nice football acumen. From an intelligence standpoint that’s not going to be [an issue], he’s a very bright kid,” said Fisher. “Having been in the Patriots’ system, it’s very complex. It will be a really good challenge for N’Keal…But he has all the learning ability and all the skills to get all that. I think it’s more a matter of getting in the building, getting with their coaches and the day-by-day install; he has all the ability to learn. He can talk football with you, he understands football, but with any young player there’s a learning curve.”
All in all, Harry has the makings of a special football player. All the tape is there. The physical traits are there. The draft capital invested is definitely there. Maybe most importantly, his coaches believe the intelligence and football IQ is there. How he develops and if he can put it all together is up to him. My gut tells me that Harry will end up being the real deal and I think Brady is going to have a lot of success with him.