By virtue of being the New England Patriots‘ first-round draft pick, wide receiver N’Keal Harry is expected to be an impact player for the 2019 season.
The No. 32 selection overall, Harry, 21, appears to fit exactly what the Patriots need in their offense. At 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, he has the size to beat press coverage, take hits in the middle of the field, and fight defensive backs for the ball. Clocked at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine, Harry also has the speed to provide a deep threat for quarterback Tom Brady.
Yet rookies haven’t often succeeded in the New England offense. Any NFL playbook can appear overwhelming to a first-year player, but the Patriots’ edition is far more complex than what a college prospect dealt with in college. Even calling a play in the huddle can be an adjustment if a player is accustomed to looking at the sideline for a signal or sign.
More Than a Curl Route
As Nick Underhill explains for The Athletic, even running a simple curl route in New England’s offense isn’t as simple as it might seem to football fans.
See, the thing is, a curl is no longer a curl – at least not how many players entering the league once thought about it. In college, most quarterbacks aren’t going to throw the ball until the wide receiver shakes the defender and appears open. In the NFL, in a good passing offense, that isn’t how things work. The ball needs to arrive as the player is turning, so, someone like Drew Brees will read his receiver’s body language and throw the ball as he starts to turn. In New England, the ball is just coming. You’re expected to be at a specific spot on the field at a specific time. When someone doesn’t deliver as expected, everything falls apart.
Not understanding the level of precision and foresight required, Harry had a few mishaps during spring minicamp practices. Indicating the importance of making sure Harry becomes familiar with the offense and runs plays properly, quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spent extra time outside practice and drills to work with the rookie.
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Underhill spoke to a few former Patriots receivers like Chad Jackson, P.K. Sam, and Chad Johnson to recall how difficult the transition was from college to the pros or from another NFL offense to the New England system.
“I think that’s the hardest part for a young guy, is when you ran a curl route a million times in college, and the coach slapped you on the back and said, ‘Good job,'” Sam explained. “You go to them, and you run it like you run it, and they’re jumping on you saying cuss words you probably never heard of.”
Jackson also mentioned his difficulty with “hot” routes, making adjustments at the snap to a blitz or unexpected coverage from a defense. Reading the defense pre-snap, remembering what options a receiver is expected to follow, and knowing where he’s supposed to go in particular situations can also be significant adjustments.
In the nearly 20 years of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the Patriots have drafted 15 receivers. Only three or four of those picks developed into players who could make a contribution. That gives Harry some formidable odds to work against. But the expectations are clear for him as a first-round pick, a status few of his predecessors enjoyed.
Circle of Trust
Harry is benefiting from patience and tutelage now, but those who have been in his position previously warn that those benefits only last so long. Brady has been running this offense for 20 years now and is exact in what he wants and expects from his receivers. Failure to learn and adapt to the expectation of perfection can boot a pass-catcher right out of Brady’s circle of trust.
“Some people say Brady’s an asshole, and he can be at times – everybody can be an asshole at times,” Jackson told Underhill. “The guy wants perfection. He wants everything done right. I’m sure he makes his mistakes too, but it’s not like everybody else.”
There is plenty more worth reading in Underhill’s piece if you have a subscription to The Athletic, including the struggles even a veteran receiver had in getting acclimated to the Patriots offense and Brady’s demanding standards.
Welcome to the NFL, N’Keal Harry. More specifically, welcome to Foxborough. Getting on Brady’s good side brings plenty of benefits. But getting on his bad side means a short stint. Rent before buying until the quarterback’s trust has been earned.
As if there isn’t already enough pressure on an NFL rookie, right? Both Harry and the Patriots hope they’re a good fit for one another. The receivers who didn’t catch on with New England admit that they may have had an easier time had they been drafted or signed by a different organization.
But Harry is apparently being given every opportunity to succeed. Coaches and teammates are doing all they can to help him. The rest is up to the rookie himself.