FOXBORO — Maybe it's just that he needs more time. Maybe?
Before the season, I called N'Keal Harry the most important non-quarterback for the Patriots offense in 2020. More important than Julian Edelman. More important than left tackle Isaiah Wynn. As he went so would the Patriots offense go, was the argument. He was held without a catch on two targets Sunday and the Patriots offense scored but 12 points.
Sunday's loss to the Broncos shouldn't land squarely on Harry's shoulders, of course, but the team needs more from its first-round pick in 2019. Julian Edelman is not at full strength. Damiere Byrd has been a find, but he appears to be more a complementary receiver than a driving force for an NFL passing game. And since Week 2, when Harry had an eight-catch, 72-yard performance against the Seahawks, he has five receptions on 12 targets in 154 snaps.
What makes Harry's lack of production in Week 6 all the more head-scratching was that he was not physically outmatched on the outside. The Broncos came into the game as the 18th-ranked pass-defense, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. Their starting corners were third-round rookie Michael Ojemudia (6-foot-1, 199 pounds) and six-year vet Bryce Callahan (5-foot-9, 188 pounds). Yet he garnered just two throws in a game when the Patriots were playing from behind, throwing often, and desperate for chunks of yardage wherever they could find them.
Harry was not given an end-around carry. There were no screens sent in his direction. Josh McDaniels opted not to design a touch for the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder. From the looks of it, though, had Harry shown a little more on-the-field awareness, he could've ended up with a pair of touches -- one of which might've changed the outcome.
The first eyebrow-raising moment didn't come when a pass sent his way was tipped and intercepted by Callahan. It came later, on a second-and-15 play late in the fourth quarter. Harry had almost 10 yards of cushion at the line of scrimmage when the Patriots had a screen called for Edelman.
At the snap, Cam Newton looked in Harry's direction -- perhaps in an effort to pick up some free yardage on the outside with all the space provided -- but Harry didn't look back. Newton may have looked that way to move a defender with his eyes, but the pass appeared to get to Edelman a beat later than he was expecting, the Broncos were right on top of him as he made the catch, and he was tackled for a loss.
After the play, Newton gestured in Harry's direction while looking to the sideline. Had Newton been able to hit Harry -- whose frame makes him a threat to break tackles in the open field -- that play might've gone differently. (And Edelman might've been saved from taking another hit.)
Then on the final Patriots' offensive play of the game, it's worth wondering whether Harry and Newton were seeing the game through the same set of eyes. As the Broncos brought pressure on fourth-and-10, Newton launched a throw in Harry's direction that missed wide right. Harry had broken off his route and pivoted inside, whereas it appeared Newton was expecting him to break in the opposite direction.
Given the coverage, with Broncos defenders leveraged to the inside of Patriots receivers, Newton's placement made sense. Though the quarterback took the blame for the result during his interview with WEEI on Monday, he said after the game he saw the Broncos playing inside and he tried to give Harry an opportunity to make a play.
"We didn't execute the way we're supposed to and that's a lot," he said. "That was contingent upon me. I knew I was going to get hit. I just tried to find a spot to give him -- so he could make a play on it. There was a defender on the interior part stealing the field so I still tried to give him an opportunity. That's what it came down to."
Harry clearly didn't see it the same way. Or if he did, he didn't act on what he saw.
The question is whether Harry, who's played in 13 games as a pro to this point, has had enough time to be able to see those types of details to be able to exploit them moving forward. If he needs more time, the Patriots could use any help they can get at the position so maybe giving him more time is the only answer.
If the Patriots coaching staff believes he should be up on those types of nuances at this point, then it may be time to see if others on the roster can see the game the way their quarterback does. Through five games Harry has played 267 snaps, which is second only to Byrd (312) and 32 more than Edelman. Gunner Olszewski (six offensive snaps this season) and Jakobi Meyers (22) did not play offensively on Sunday. Isaiah Zuber, brought up from the practice squad, played five snaps and has 20 total on the season.
None of those other players has the physical skill set Harry does. But Harry's skill set hasn't yielded much in the way of results lately at a position where the Patriots are in dire need.