The N’Keal Harry Fan Club Defense (Part One)

At the beginning of the season, membership in the N’Keal Harry fan club was fairly sparse. In fact, it seemed like the New England chapter of the fan club would have to dissolve when Harry asked for a trade. Then the preseason happened and membership grew… but Harry injured his shoulder at the end of the preseason and membership declined as he went on the short-term IR. Things got worse for Harry as Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholar took over Harry’s role as Mac Jones’ favorite target while he recovered from his injury. Yet, in his first game back, he played 25% of the snaps and caught his lone target; just another impactless performance from the 2018 First Round “bust.”

But he did play 25% of the snaps. And he did get a target. Maybe New England Patriots coaches were planning a bigger role for him than most thought or even desired? In the Patriots squeaker win against the Houston Texans, he played 34% of the snaps… and only caught one of his two targets. Another clunker. In the Week 6 heartbreaker to Dallas, he played even more (39%), but was never targeted. If you asked most New England fans–and pundits–what the N’Keal Harry experience was like, they would point to that game. Utter banality.

But N’Keal Harry plays for the New England Patriots. This is not some coaching staff that gives a damn about where somebody was drafted. It is what makes Bill Belichick and the Patriots so successful; playing time is merit-based. If you are good enough or are smart enough to just do your job, you will play. That is all that matters to the Patriots. So why would this bust keep seeing playing time?

The N’Keal Harry Fan Club Gets a Jolt… Before the Injury Bug Bites Again

Harry tried answering that question the next week when he–yet again–played 39% of the snaps against the Jets. Although most did not pay attention because it was a blowout, Harry made one of the better catches of the year. Ironically, he also showed how his specialty–making contested, 50/50 catches–does not mesh well with the Patriots’ “ball security” offense.

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That catch is the exact reason why the Patriots drafted Harry. The Arizona State product lit up college football with his ridiculous ability to snag contested passes. However, Tom Brady tends to shy away from jump balls unless your name is Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, or Mike Evans. Brady has the guys he trusts, and the guys who are open. The problem was Harry was not the best route runner coming out of college and never earned Brady’s trust, so Brady never threw him the ball. Then Cam Newton–not exactly somebody shy about chucking up prayers–still did not let Harry make plays.

So the N’Keal Harry fan club had to sit and watch as a combination of poor route running, bad fits, and bad quarterback play turned the promising prospect into a bust.

But Harry kept grinding and the Patriots coaches kept putting him into the game. After that 28-yarder from Hoyer in Week 7, Harry made catches on both of his targets in the Week 8 season-changing victory against the Chargers. And those catches showed both why Harry got drafted (contested catch over the middle) and his improved route-running (on the comeback).

But since this is the N’Keal Harry Experience, the Fan Club had to sit and watch along with Harry who missed the Week 9 game due to injury.

The “Bust” Keeps Getting Playing Time

In Week 10 against the Browns, N’Keal Harry played the most snaps of the season, getting on the field for 52% of the game. Most would argue, “that’s a blowout against the Browns, it does not count.” But it sure counted on the Patriots’ (eventual) game-winning touchdown run when he took care of Myles Garrett, one of the best defensive linemen in football.

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Sealing a touchdown-paving block on one of the best defensive linemen in football is not exactly “bust” type behavior. But something else interesting happened on that play; analyst Charles David made it a point to highlight Harry’s touchdown-sealing block. In response, many Patriots fans finally started to see Harry as a valuable part of the offense. When Harry added another Hoyer special, it was just an extra cherry on top to his performance.

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Watch that catch again. Not only is the catch another great catch, but watch the sideline. Watch the coaches. They all erupt when Harry makes the catch. At this point in the season, the entire Patriots roster is completely behind the guy who requested a trade back in July.

Although not much was needed in Week 11 against the Falcons, Harry caught both of his targets for a total of 14 yards while playing 41% of the snaps before posting his second-lowest snap count (27%) in a targetless win against the Titans.

So, somehow, Harry was trending both up and down. And then the N’Keal Harry Fan Club (and detractors) got a game for the ages.

For that, please read Part Two.