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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