Curran: Living with the N’Keal Harry experience

Patriots WR N'Keal Harry at training camp, Aug. 26, 2020
The Patriots are hoping for big things from N'Keal Harry in his second season, but the wideout hasn't been able to build much positive momentum in training camp.
AP Photo

FOXBORO — He’s up, he’s down, he’s in, he’s out, he’s making acrobatic catches, he’s clanging easy ones, he’s manhandling defenders, and Mossing corners, he’s on a knee calling for a trainer … NO WAIT! — he’s back out making a diving catch no other wideout on the Patriots roster could get to.

Put on your seatbelt, button your chinstrap and prepare yourself for the wild ride that is the N’Keal Harry Experience.

The 2019 first-round wideout has had an eventful start to his second training camp.

He answered the bell on the first two days of practice last week, catching pretty much everything thrown his way, looking capable and comfortable. And then after Tuesday, he was gone. When he re-emerged for Sunday’s practice, he wasn’t the best version of N’Keal.

He had drops. He looked sluggish. He wasn’t ready to go for a practice-ending drill.

Monday? He was a beast.

Tuesday? Very solid and physically aggressive.

Wednesday? Another good day.

If this was just a “Guy practices fine, misses practices, isn’t as good for a day then is good again” story then who cares, right?

But it’s not. Because we saw part of this movie before last season when Harry was everyone’s summertime crush.

Physically dominant (as advertised) in training camp, he played three snaps in the preseason opener against Detroit. He had two tremendous catches in that tiny span. Then, after the third play, he left the field and didn’t play another preseason snap.

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That ankle injury August 8 came two days after Harry limped from the field with an apparent hamstring during a joint practice.

The next week in Tennessee, Harry was with the team working out on his own and rehabbing. When he was done doing that, he’d amble the sidelines. On an adjoining field, the Patriots starters and Titans starters were taking full-speed reps. It never occurred to Harry, it seemed, those reps might be worth checking out.

He didn’t play again during the preseason. He was placed on IR with the ankle injury on September 2. He returned from IR on November 2, three months after the ankle injury. The team didn’t unveil him until November 17. He caught four passes in his first two games for 30 yards then — at Houston — he was Tom Brady’s intended target on a first-quarter pass. Texans corner Bradley Roby walked through the 6-4, 225-pound Harry, picked Brady off and there was Harry’s 2019 regular-season highlight.

There was much discussion that mean, impatient Tom Brady stunted Harry’s growth in 2019.

Before Harry was activated from IR, Brady was asked about him and said, “He’s missed a lot of football. Just got to try to work at it every day. It’s gonna be up to him to put the effort in. Everyone’s there to help him, but you’ve got to go out there and do it, and earn it and earn the trust of your teammates.”

That tepid review was followed later by greater support but the fact is, Brady didn’t find Harry dependable. And it would be hard to put together an argument why Brady should have felt differently.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Pats can’t keep playing the waiting game with N’Keal Harry | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

And that’s continued so far in 2020. Even Wednesday, in the midst of a solid practice there was this:

Is Harry being unfairly scrutinized? No. This kind of thing comes with the territory whether you’re a first-round pick or a high-profile free agent. Danny Amendola got it in 2013 when his groin exploded in the opener at Buffalo and for most of the next two seasons. Sony Michel’s gotten it for two years.

The extenuating circumstance with Harry is that using a first-round pick on a wide receiver has been anathema to Bill Belichick. He finally spent one and the guy he took is either MIA or making great plays.

Meanwhile, there were a stack of good wideouts selected after Harry including skinny, balding fifth-rounder Hunter Renfrow. The entirety of the football-watching planet figured Renfrow would be a Patriot. They didn’t want him. They didn’t want him or Mecole Hardman, A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel or Terry McLaurin. They wanted N’Keal Harry.


And it’s now time for the 22-year-old Harry to stop giving off the vibe that, sometimes he’s just not that into it.

You never want to be the “it’s always something” kind of guy but so far with Harry? It’s always something.

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Would the Patriots coaching staff be taking note of the regularity with which Harry is either absent, limping or on one knee? Yes.

“Literally as a staff we watch each and every rep of everything,” said linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. “We look at demeanor and body language, individual periods, special teams periods. All of that stuff. We take that stuff seriously, and this is all we have. And we're not the only team in this boat. But we approach it as, ‘Hey, we're evaluating everything.’ So from the meeting rooms all the way to everything on the field.  … We try to make practice as hard as we can to see if these guys really can contribute.”

Mayo said that, as a player, he never realized demeanor was so scrutinized.

“Yeah, it was crazy,” he said. “I've always prided myself on running from drill to drill and all of that stuff. Hopefully they didn't look at film and say, 'Why is Jerod jogging here?' But yeah, it's been crazy just to see it from this perspective that everything is evaluated.”

Sunday, Julian Edelman was asked about Harry. He wasn’t about to give a specific review, but he did emphasize that practice time is vital.

“Once again, that’s a ‘Coach’ question," Edelman answered. "I think training camp is extremely valuable, especially this year, when we have such crazy turnover. So regardless of who it is — any time I don’t get to practice, or anyone doesn’t get to practice, that’s definitely very tough. Because this is where, like we were talking earlier, where you begin to gain trust from your teammates. You show accountability. You show them how dependable you are through being able to take things from the classroom to drills, and the drills to the team drills. Team practice.

"It’s one thing to go out and do something right for yourself. I think another reason why I like to go out and do something right, or work hard at something, is to show my teammates that you’re out here working your tail off for them. Because ultimately it’s 11 guys. It’s the ultimate team sport. Eleven guys have to do something right for 5-6 seconds. And if one guy doesn’t do something right, it could make the play jeopardized. I think it’s tough. But [Harry] was out here today. You can ask Coach on how he’s doing. I think N’Keal’s always working hard. It’s definitely always tough for anyone to go out and miss practice.”

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Where were you at 22? I was spraying lawns on the Cape after a pedestrian run as a college student who graduated with no real plan. I had a lot of room to grow.

Harry does too. It’s way, way, way too early to even head for the silverware drawer, never mind putting a fork in him.

But it’s also way too late put together a PowerPoint demonstrating how much the team needs him this year.

It’s time to stack days.