Patriots

N'Keal Harry gives Tom Brady a bail-out option due to contested-catch prowess

N'Keal Harry gives Tom Brady a bail-out option due to contested-catch prowess

FOXBORO -- The Patriots picked up a bail-out option for Tom Brady in the first round Thursday. 

N'Keal Harry's calling card is his ability to make contested catches. Go ahead and Google him if you haven't already. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Arizona State product's tape is loaded with receptions he made despite being blanketed by good coverage. Jump balls in the end zone. One-handed catches deep down the middle of the field. 

To call them "50-50" balls may not be giving him enough credit.

But Harry lasted as long as he did in the draft due in part to the fact that he's not an outside-the-numbers burner. (Oklahoma's Marquise Brown, who was among the fastest players in college football last season, was the first receiver drafted this year. He went off the board at No. 25 to Baltimore.) Harry clocked a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at this year's combine, putting him in the 45th percentile among receivers who ran at the NFL Scouting Combine over the past two decades.

Yet his strength to fight off handsy defensive backs at the catch point (27 bench reps of 225 pounds, 99th percentile) and his eye-popping leaping ability (38.5-inch vertical, 84th percentile) have made him a contested-catch fiend.

I asked Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio late Thursday night if Harry's ability to make plays in contested situations made him a more valuable commodity in the eyes of the Patriots despite the fact that he doesn't have elite speed.

"I would say that one of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air," Caserio said. "I'd say the coverage in this league is tight, regardless of the type of player or receiver that you are. The coverage is tight. You're going to have to make some plays in some tight quarters. Receivers have to do it. Tight ends have to do it. I mean, James White, I know he plays running back, but he's involved in the passing game, [he has to do it]. 

"The windows are smaller, the catches are going to be more contested. If a player has the ability to do that, that's maybe one of his strengths. It was one of Rob [Gronkowski]'s strengths. He can make contested catches. Everybody has something that they do well . . . They have to maximize the attributes that they have."

The Patriots could certainly use someone with Harry's attributes. 

As Caserio mentioned, making contested catches was one of Gronkowski's many strengths. It was a strength of Josh Gordon's last year as well. How badly will the Patriots miss that dimension as long as Gronkowski remains retired and Gordon remains suspended? In the age of Next Gen Stats, we can actually quantify how often those types of plays were made.

Using tracking data, Next Gen Stats looks at how far passes travel through the air, how far passes are thrown down the field, how much separation a receiver has created, and how closely a receiver is situated to the sideline on a catch to come up with a metric called "improbable completions."

Brady had 17 improbable completions in 2018 that were judged to have a 40 percent or worse chance of being executed. That's a minuscule percentage of Brady's overall completions last season (he completed 460 passes in the regular season and postseason combined), but they were, on average, big-hitters. He averaged 22.9 yards per improbable completion last year (390 yards total), making those plays potential game-changers.

Any guesses at which 2018 Patriots pass-catching tandem accounted for about half of Brady's improbable completions? 

Gronkowski and Gordon had four improbable completions each in 2018 for 229 total yards (28.6 yards per catch). They included a 21-yard touchdown to Gronkowski in Week 1, a 34-yard touchdown to Gordon in Week 5, and Gronkowski's game-clinching 29-yard grab late in Super Bowl LIII.

Trusted as White and Julian Edelman may be, they don't provide Brady with the same type of bail-out ability that Gronkowski and Gordon did. And with those two bigger bodies not currently in the picture, Harry fills a void. According to Pro Football Focus, he reeled in 53.2 percent of his contested targets at Arizona State, which was the second-highest percentage among receivers in this year's draft class. (West Virginia's Gary Jennings was first at 54 percent.) 

The Patriots have more contested catch options available to them on Day 2 of the draft if they want to double-down on that skill set to help replace Gronkowski and Gordon's production on contested situations. There are a number of big-bodied receivers still on the board, including Ole Miss' AJ Brown (51.3 contested targets completed), Stanford's JJ Arcega Whiteside (49.4 percent) and Iowa State's Hakeem Butler (45.2 percent). Tight end Josh Oliver, meanwhile, looks like a "Prototypical Patriot" physically and had more contested catches (16) than any player at his position last season, per PFF.

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Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

The Green Bay Packers are preparing for a battle the San Francisco 49ers on the NFL's championship Sunday. The two will square off in the NFC Championship for the right to advance to the Super Bowl.

While Aaron Rodgers and his teammates are doing what they can to be ready for the game, they still aren't exactly sure what to expect from the 49ers.

And Rodgers credited Bill Belichick's influence for that.

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Rodgers explained in a post-practice interview that not knowing what to expect from opposing defenses is something that has been popularized over the course of the past five years. And he called the defense's ability to change up week to week "the Belichick effect".

"I think that’s the NFL in the last five years, especially, it’s kind of the Belichick effect where teams are more reluctant to really try and scheme up opponents instead of relying on their base defense," Rodgers said to reporters.

"There’s less and less teams like the Lovie Smith Bears defenses over the years that say ‘Hey, screw it, we’re going to play four-man front, play Tampa-2 the entire game and make you go the whole field, and strip the ball and tackle securely and stop the run with a six-man, seven-man front.’

"There’s more teams that are scheming specifically up for teams. I think the tough part is it might be different than you saw on film. The drawback from that is a lot of these teams are used to playing coverages they’re not used to playing, they’re not super-comfortable playing, they don’t have a lot of reps in and that can cause some confusion at times."

Rodgers hit the nail on the head as the NFL's best defenses have become more versatile and game plan-dependent in recent seasons. Having multiple defensive looks is essential to success in the modern NFL and Belichick's ability to adjust week in and week out played a big role in kicking off the trend.

Though the Patriots won't have a chance to out scheme anyone on the defensive side of the ball until next season, they can be thankful that they have a forward-thinking coach at the helm. His ability to adjust on defense as well as Josh McDaniels' ability to change the Patriots offense look to match their best weapons have helped to make the team difficult to figure out.

And that's a big part of the reason that they have been able to make multiple deep postseason runs in recent seasons.

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Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

The Green Bay Packers earned an impressive 13-3 record in the regular season, but they haven't always looked like an elite team.

The NFC North champs ranked 15th in points scored, 18th in yards gained and 18th in yards allowed. These numbers don't exactly jump off the page. The Packers also lacked a signature win, and with a chance to make a statement versus the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, Green Bay was dominated in a 38-7 loss.

However, if veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads his team to an NFC Championship Game victory on the road against the 49ers on Sunday, the Packers will become the first team since the 2001 New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl after being outgained in the regular season (h/t to NFL Media's Mike Giardi).

The Packers defense gave up 5,642 total yards, while their offense racked up 5,528 total yards, resulting in a difference of minus-114 yards through 16 regular-season games.

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This trend continued in last weekend's NFC Divisional Round matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers escaped with a 28-23 win at Lambeau Field, but the Seahawks outgained them by 31 yards. It also was the Packers' 10th game of the season decided by one score, and Green Bay owns a 9-1 mark in those matchups.

How have the Packers won so many games despite being outgained on a consistent basis? Well, it sure helps to have a quarterback as talented as Rodgers.

The future Hall of Famer sealed the Packers' victory last week with two clutch third-down conversions late in the fourth quarter. It wasn't an all-time performance from Rodgers, but when it's winning time, he usually steps up and makes a huge play. 

Rodgers' playoff experience and ability to come through in the clutch give the Packers an important advantage at the quarterback position entering Sunday's NFC title game. Oddsmakers, however, have still pegged the 49ers as an overwhelming betting favorite.