Patriots Mailbag: Can N'Keal Harry replace Rob Gronkowski as a pass-catcher?

Patriots Mailbag: Can N'Keal Harry replace Rob Gronkowski as a pass-catcher?

The Friday Bag is back, friends. And this week, it's back on Saturday. Every week, I'll be answering your questions be they Patriots-related, NFL-related or otherwise. This week, the focus for many of you was -- no surprise -- N'Keal Harry and what we should be expecting from him. We'll start there.

Different positions, Mike. All of those routes that Rob Gronkowski ran from an in-line alignment won't be options for Harry. And I'm envisioning Harry as more of an outside-the-numbers wideout -- like Josh Gordon -- than a slot player, where Gronkowski often lived. But Harry can certainly run fades and go routes from the outside, just as Gronkowski occasionally did. The deep overs and shallow crossers and slants that Gronk ran will also be options for Harry. I think Harry will have a get-the-ball-in-his-hands element to his game that makes him a different player as well. Quick screens. End-arounds, maybe. He's not necessarily a burner, but he's hard to tackle because of his size, and the Patriots may try to get him involved right at the line of scrimmage if there are some fairly simple plays at their disposal that would be easy for him to pick up. I do think Harry will be a "bail-out" option for Brady when he's under pressure and everyone seems covered. Harry, because of his ability to make contested catches, is one of those receivers who's a good option to target even when he's covered. Gronkowski was the epitome of that kind of pass-catcher so Harry isn't on that level, but that element is in play with Harry on the field.

This is the most interesting question about this game, David. I think the Patriots will show a variety of looks to try to confuse Jackson. I think they'll disguise coverages pre-snap. I think they'll flood the field with athletes to match Jackson's speed, as the Chargers did back in January, maybe giving someone like Terrence Brooks a little extra work as a sure tackler with wheels. I think they'll use heavy personnel at the line of scrimmage to ensure every gap is plugged, the way they did against Colin Kaepernick back in 2012. I go into more detail on all of these plans, here, but that's the rough outline. I think that whatever Bill Belichick draws up, it'll be a multi-faceted plan.

I think that'll be a part of the plan, Scott. The Chargers were forced into going with seven defensive backs in the Wild Card game in part because they were short on healthy linebackers. Worked out for them. Meanwhile, the Patriots have some very athletic linebackers they can turn to this weekend. That might mean Bill Belichick doesn't have to roll out seven DBs, but it wouldn't shock me to see a lot of "sub" personnel packages to match Jackson's speed.

The kicking situation, Wally, is... what it is. Anyone they bring aboard at this point is going to have flaws. They just have to hope that anyone who comes in gets hot and makes the kicks any NFL kicker would be expected to make. If they can make kicks in the elements -- part of the reason why they've brought in kickers with outdoor and Gillette-specific experience -- it feels like that'd be gravy. Not what you're looking for when your most important games of the season are going to be played outdoors in January.

They wouldn't use a roster spot on a player not contributing, and they got to a point with Gordon that they simply didn't want him on the roster. Your thought process isn't a bad one for a team that's rebuilding and looking to add picks. That's not the Patriots. But that's also why I was surprised to see that the Seahawks landed Gordon via waivers; 27 teams passed on that opportunity. It's important to note, though, teams aren't guaranteed a comp pick for losing a player to free agency. The comp pick formula is based on free agents lost and gained, and the level of comp pick depends on the contract that player landed, along with a variety of other factors. Unless Gordon lights it up in Seattle and gets paid a hefty deal this offseason, he'd probably land the Seahawks a relatively low-level compensatory pick.

Let's answer your second question first, Glenn. The Patriots have eight players on their injury report, but none have been ruled out for Sunday, and so the Patriots will be scratching players ahead of kickoff who could play. Gunner Olszewski (on the injury report with ankle and hamstring issues) could end up being one of the odd men out. Bill Belichick noted that N'Keal Harry is working hard in practice in a special-teams role, and the only kicking-game role we saw Harry man consistently this summer was as a punt-returner. If the team needs a roster spot, maybe they'll deactivate Olszewski in order to get Harry in the lineup. As for your second question, you can definitely run out of spread looks. That's part of the advantage of the spread is that defenses have to stretch themselves thin to have every area of the field covered in the passing game. The Cardinals love 10 personnel. They've used it more than any team. On 54 rush attempts out of "10," they average 5.1 yards per carry. 

Good question, Greenie. To me, it'd be between Sanu and Wynn. I think Harry will make an impact, but I think Sanu could become a critical piece to the passing game by year's end whereas Harry's contributions might end up being more sporadic. I'll settle on Wynn as my answer, though. He'll be a tremendous upgrade for the Patriots at one of the most valuable positions on the field. Marshall Newhouse has graded out as Pro Football Focus' 68th tackle as a run-blocker and their 66th pass-blocker. Wynn will give them more in both situations. There's a reason Tom Brady was looking forward to Wynn's return as early as a few weeks ago in a discussion with Jim Gray on Westwood One. Brady knows Wynn can play. He just has to be able to stay on the field.

Pat! I think they'll mix in some man coverages. They've been among the top few man-to-man teams in football in recent seasons. But my assumption is we'll see them play a lot of zone. Jackson's speed and ability to cut loose on any play, in any situation, make it critically important for every member of the defense to be able to react if he gets into the open field. I'd expect to see plenty of Cover 3, as well as Cover 2 and maybe Cover 4 (which the Patriots deployed occasionally in the Super Bowl back in February). And I'd expect them to disguise pre-snap which one they're rolling with. We've already seen them toggle between single-high and two-high safety looks against other young quarterbacks this season. The same should happen this week. One thing I'm fascinated to see: Do the Patriots go with no-safety, Cover-0 style looks against Lamar Jackson? Sounds risky. But instead of sacrificing bodies in coverage to make them true pass-rushers, what if they took those bodies and dropped them into the box to help contain Jackson's running ability? Would the Patriots trust their corners enough deep down the field to run one-on-one with Baltimore receivers? Hollywood Brown's return might make it so that they feel as though a deep safety is necessary. (I would think so.) But if they went the no-safety route to help stop Jackson on the ground, that'd be an interesting adjustment to something they already do week to week.

By Saturday at 4 p.m., Michael. There are only 52 players on the roster at the moment so the Patriots wouldn't have to make a corresponding move to open up a roster spot. 

I think Bill Belichick has actually been very positive about Harry's prospects, all things considered. He said weeks ago that Harry was mentally ready to go to jump into practice and be caught up. On Friday he said he appreciated Harry's work ethic in practice, both on offense and on special teams. Tom Brady, on the other hand, wasn't exactly head-over-heels for the rookie when asked about what Harry might contribute in his first game. (That is, IF Baltimore is Harry's first game.)

That seems like a lot for a Bag, JPR, I'll be honest. But how about we just link to this story I wrote on Dante Scarnecchia earlier this season -- as he was consistently being asked to work new players into the system -- as a reminder of what Scarnecchia expects from his group on game days as well as during the week. 

I said at the time of the trade that, considering the compensation required to acquire each of the two wideouts in question, I would've gone after Sanders. A third and a fourth for him seemed like a good deal compared to giving up a second for Sanu. But the Patriots going after Sanu made sense. He was younger, seemingly healthier (Sanders was listed as having a knee injury ahead of the trade deadline) and bigger. He also has one more year on his contract whereas Sanders would be a rental. Sanu gives the Patriots a sizable target who can run a variety of routes from the interior, who can provide a good catch radius down the seam, and who can block. I don't think his new team is regretting it. Remember, Sanu worked on a short week of practice before his Patriots debut last weekend. Give it a few more weeks and we can revisit. 

Hey, Joe. They won't have to release anyone if Harry is back this weekend because they only have 52 on the roster. When Wynn returns, if Cody Kessler is on the roster I'd assume he'd be a logical choice to go. He's been on and off already this season, and he looks like he's in line to be this year's Ross Ventrone.

It wouldn't surprise me if they did. But given that 27 teams passed on claiming Gordon and his contract, there probably wasn't all that much interest in actually giving up an asset via trade to acquire him. Can't trade him if no one wants to trade for him.

E*Trade Baby. Tough maneuvering around a crowded Trinity Bar (RIP) in a diaper while lugging a keyboard, but had to commit.

A lot of Gordon questions this week. From what I understand, making the move they did was about dependability. He wasn't meeting their standards as far as that goes. With Mohamed Sanu in the fold and N'Keal Harry eligible to return, they weren't as desperate for talent at the position as they had been so they opted to place him on injured reserve, knowing they'd be releasing him. 

Different roles, Chris. LaCosse can block when healthy, whereas Tomlinson was more of a blocking specialist. LaCosse's value is tied to his receiving ability. We haven't seen much of it because he's been injured, but he has the ability to be a big target down the seam for Brady. They signed him on Day 1 of free agency for a reason. If he can stay on the field, we might see a little more from him as to why. 

Something about the ALL CAPS "GO" is making me nervous. Gun to my head? I'll still go with 2004. Team was loaded with talent. It was a different era where coverage wasn't quite as important as it is today so having someone like Ty Law injured at the end of the season didn't do them in. But that front-seven was ridiculous. Rodney Harrison was ridiculous. I reserve the right to change my mind if this Patriots defense gets through this post-bye stretch of the season having made life difficult on Philadelphia, Dallas and Kansas City. 

I asked him this week if that was in the cards for him. He said no. Doesn't mean it didn't happen. For what it's worth, Mohamed Sanu, another quarterback-turned-receiver, also said he wasn't playing the role of Lamar Jackson this week. Can't blame the Patriots there. He has enough on his plate right now as it is. 

I think we'll see them all out there at different points. I'd expect Van Noy to be out there the most from that group. But having Hightower on the edge to be stout against the run would make a lot of sense as well. I'm envisioning Collins as more of an off-the-line player this week, but they're all incredibly versatile and can change gigs from snap to snap. 

Kyle Van Noy is the player who looks like he's earning himself the most money given the way he's played. He's been phenomenal. Factoring in that he's going to get some lucrative offers, I'd expect the Patriots allow him to go find his value and then come back to them to give them an opportunity to match. I think Joe Thuney probably falls into that category as well. I'm sure the Patriots would love to keep him, but he may price himself out given some of the money guards are making around the league. He's one of the best in the business. The player I may go to first to try to get something done would be Devin McCourty. He's critical to the overall operation. He wouldn't necessarily require an incredibly long-term deal. His brother is under contract for one more season. It'd make sense to get the safety and captain to sign on the dotted line quickly. 

I like them, Jim. I like those chances. He has to earn the quarterback's trust first, though. We haven't heard a whole lot in the way of glowing praise from Brady for the rookie just yet. By season's end, Brady loved Malcolm Mitchell. After a rough week of practice at Gillette Stadium before going to the Super Bowl, Brady pulled Mitchell aside and told him they'd need him. He was right. I'm not sure Brady's there yet with Harry. We'll see. Physically, though, there's no question Harry has the talent to contribute. 

Grape jelly all day. I'd bottle that stuff up and use it for lunch. I'm saving money and I still have opposable thumbs? Where do I sign up?!?

Thanks for all the questions this week, everyone. They were phenomenal. Even that last one, Travis. 

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Patriots reveal first photo of Cam Newton in full uniform, new jersey

Patriots reveal first photo of Cam Newton in full uniform, new jersey

New England Patriots fans wondering what Cam Newton would look like in the team's new uniforms no longer have to wait.

The Patriots unveiled headshots of each player earlier last week, and on Tuesday they posted photos of all the players in full uniform. The Patriots, of course, will debut new jerseys during the 2020 NFL season.

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Here's a look at Newton in the Patriots' home blue jersey:

The Patriots also tweeted a link to check out photos of every player in the new jerseys.

Newton signed a one-year contract with the Patriots a little more than a month ago, and if he's able to stay healthy, the former league MVP is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job over Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.

The Patriots are expected to have their first training camp practice Wednesday.

Patriots' Dont'a Hightower used Super Bowl LI to support fiancée during labor

Patriots' Dont'a Hightower used Super Bowl LI to support fiancée during labor

The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history is three and a half years old, but it certainly isn't forgotten.

Just ask Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who brought up New England's miraculous Super Bowl LI victory over the Atlanta Falcons while his fiancée, Morgan Hart, was delivering their baby. Seriously.

Hightower told The Boston Globe's Stan Grossfeld he started chanting "28-3, 28-3" and "Never give up" while Hart entered her 17th hour of labor with their first child last month.

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Apparently the motivational tactic worked, as Hart said Hightower's words helped her push through and deliver their baby boy, Grayson, on July 16.

"It was surreal," Hart told Grossfeld. “It was a long night and a long day, and he kept reminding me, ‘28-3, 28-3,′ meaning you can be behind and come back. Never, never give up."

That's a reference to the deficit New England faced in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI before rallying to win in overtime -- thanks in large part to Hightower's strip sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan early in the fourth quarter.

Hightower still uses the 28-3 reference "all the time," per Grossfeld, but his focus won't be on football in 2020. The 30-year-old linebacker is one of eight Patriots players who have decided to opt out of the 2020 season.

"Not knowing too much about the COVID thing, I don’t want to jeopardize the health of my family," Hightower told Grossfeld. "I understand you can still catch it by going to the grocery store, but I’m not going to put my family’s health at risk for money.

"It’s family first. I want to take all the opportunity that I can to be a great father."

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