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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Patriots QB Cam Newton given this jersey number with his new team

Patriots QB Cam Newton given this jersey number with his new team

The New England Patriots made the signing of quarterback Cam Newton official on Wednesday, and while it might be weird for some NFL fans to see the former MVP in a red, white and blue jersey this coming season, there is one part of his gameday look that will remain the same.

Newton will again wear the No. 1 jersey, according to the team's official roster page. This is the same number he wore during the first nine seasons of his career with the Carolina Panthers. 

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You might be surprised to learn that Newton will be just the fourth player in Patriots history to wear the No. 1 jersey and the first to do it since 1987, per Pro Football Reference's data. The other three players to wear No. 1 for the Patriots are former kickers Tony Franklin, Eric Schubert and John Smith. And, of course, the Pat Patriot mascot also wears No. 1.

Whether Newton ends up being the Patriots' No. 1 quarterback for Week 1 of the 2020 regular season remains to be seen. He's the favorite to win the starting job following Tom Brady's departure in March, but 2019 fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham and veteran Brian Hoyer also are on the depth chart and should provide competition for Newton. 

Next Pats Podcast: How can Pats maximize Harry's talent? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Next Pats Podcast: How can Patriots utilize N'Keal Harry more in 2020?

Next Pats Podcast: How can Patriots utilize N'Keal Harry more in 2020?

N'Keal Harry had his rookie season derailed by injuries, but that has done little to lessen expectations ahead of his second NFL campaign.

The New England Patriots wide receiver has obvious talent. The team selected him in the first round (32nd overall) of the 2018 draft after a successful college career at Arizona State, and when Harry did get onto the field with the Patriots, he showed flashes of his impressive skills.

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One of the challenges for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this coming season is finding ways to get Harry more involved in the offense and maximizing his abilities. 

How can the Patriots accomplish that goal? Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo joined the latest episode of the Next Pats Podcast to break down his expectations for Harry and ways the Patriots can use him.

"I think he'll get better as the years go on. I think what has to happen is people need to change their expectations sometimes for receivers, especially first-round wide receivers," Palazzolo told our Patriots insider Phil Perry. "We're talking about a position where there's three starters, and not every receiver is going to be Julio Jones, and not every starter is going to be as good as Julian Edelman -- a guy you can depend on to get open in crunch time and third down.

"When we evaluated Harry coming out (of college), his skill set reminded us a lot of Demaryius Thomas, who, when you look at his best work, he was catching the ball and running well after the catch, as well as making contested catches. Harry did struggle separating, which is kind of an important point for receivers. He struggled getting open. I think if the expectations are, right or wrong, here's a guy we can scheme some stuff up for -- that back-shoulder touchdown he had from Tom Brady, that's the type of stuff, the vertical route tree, contested catches, using his big body. That's the type of stuff you can expect from him, but you probably don't want to feed him 150 targets and say go be the No. 1 wide receiver. I think Harry is more of a complimentary piece."

Next Pats Podcast: How can Pats maximize Harry's talent? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

One way to put pressure on defenses and use Harry's strength and athleticism is giving him the ball on running plays. We've seen plenty of wideouts run gadget plays to take advantage of mismatches, and Harry could be used in a similar role for New England.

"If the Patriots do get creative with N'Keal Harry to get the ball in his hands, you could hand it off to him, you could put him out there, he'll have a cornerback matched up with him. And then the defense will have to figure out its run fits -- how do I get enough guys in the box to stop this guy?" Palazzolo said. "So whether it's the jet sweep game, whether it's just legitimately putting him in the backfield as a running back, I think there is a world where N'Keal Harry could be maximized and give you that advantage over defenses."

For the entire Harry conversation between Perry and Palazzolo, check out the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below: