The comparisons have come rushing in since the Patriots drafted N'Keal Harry in the first round of this year's draft. His coach at Arizona State, Herm Edwards, compared Harry to Dez Bryant. An NFL evaluator I spoke with likened his game to that of Josh Gordon.
How about one more?
Making an appearance on The Next Pats Podcast last week, Harry's receiver coach for the Sun Devils, Charlie Fisher, came up with his own.
"Everything's in front of N'Keal," Fisher said. "He's a very gifted player. People say, 'Well, who does he remind you of?' To me, he's a faster version of Anquan Boldin. That's who I always say he reminds me of. I got great respect for Anquan Boldin. He was a football player. That's kind of what N'Keal is."
Calling someone who is about to make large sums of money playing football a "football player" doesn't paint an incredibly vivid picture. But that's about as respectful a title as one can receive from a football lifer like Fisher. It implies toughness, especially at the receiver position, where those who are willing to play a physical style are few and far between.
Boldin was a second-round pick in 2003 of the Cardinals and retired before starting the 2017 season with the Bills. During his career with Arizona, Baltimore, San Francisco and Detroit he established himself as one of the toughest wideouts in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Boldin accumulated 3,495 yards after the catch between 2008 and his retirement, with only Larry Fitzgerald and Wes Welker racking up more yardage.
Harry broke 38 tackles in three years with Arizona State, and his film is loaded with eye-opening moves to power through defenders and weave through space with the ball in his hands. Harry didn't blaze in his pre-draft 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds), but he was bigger than Boldin was as a rookie (6-foot-2 228 pounds compared to 6-1, 216) and faster (Boldin ran a glacial 4.72-second 40).
Their obviously-competitive styles, though, led Fisher to compare his former pupil to Boldin.
"When you put N'Keal in a competitive situation, he's showed up throughout his career," Fisher said. "From the time he got to Arizona State, maybe the most heavily-recruited high school receiver in the country -- certainly one of the top two or three . . . he stayed at home. Any time you stay at home, you've got added pressure playing in your backyard. Obviously he stood up to that, met that test and he's always been really good in big situations."
Fisher added: "He's got playing strength. He's got natural playing strength so he's not only strong, but he has the ability to play strong and he's got that competitive speed. When you see him with the ball in his hands, you see some competitive speed. You don't see a lot of people catch him. Everybody asks, 'How fast is he?' He's got competitive speed with the ball in his hands."
Fisher has coached NFL talents during his years in the college game, including Torry Holt and 2001 No. 9 overall selection Koren Robinson at NC State. But, for our purposes, what makes him as relevant as a position coach can be is his experience coaching Patriots concepts. He spent two years as an assistant at Penn State working under Bill O'Brien and getting to know what makes things hum in New England.
I asked Fisher, knowing the Patriots offense as he does, how he envisions the Patriots utilizing Harry. He immediately pointed to Harry's work in the middle of the field, where Tom Brady typically does his best work.
"You gotta believe, a big guy like that, he can run slants, he can run shallows, unders," Fisher said. "He's a really good dig runner. Very good inside the numbers. He made a ton of big plays for us on dig routes. He can catch the contested ball in the middle of the field.
"There's a lot of guys that just . . . they're not good in the middle of the field. I've oftentimes said this: I'm 59 years old. I could still catch a ball outside the numbers. But it's a little bit different when you catch a ball inside the numbers. There's a lot more noise inside. They're gonna whack you pretty good. He can do all those things.
"The Patriots do such a good job with matchups. Stacks, bunches. He's done a lot of those things. He's only gonna continue to grow in their offense and there will be a learning curve as he has to learn all their terminology and formations, and I know that's pretty in-depth from my background there with coach O'Brien. But those are some of the things he's going to be really good at."
While we identified Harry as a classic "X" in the Patriots system before the draft, Fisher pointed out that he doesn't have to be the type of player who only aligns wide and runs inward-breaking routes. Those will suit him well, but he can be deployed all over New England's offensive formations and run a variety of routes.
"He can go vertically," Fisher said. "He makes most of his plays vertically on contested catches because he's a big guy who builds speed. But when you get him on situations inside, he can run all those crossing routes, and we ran him inside verticals a lot. If he wasn't open down the middle we could back-shoulder him and he made a lot of big plays that way. He's got the ability to do all those things.
"The nice thing is he's versatile. He can play inside or outside. A lot of people think you gotta be a certain size to play slot. No, you really don't. You have to be able to navigate that area and work around people, and he has the feet to be able to get away on a matchup situation."
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