Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

The Patriots were desperate for receiver help in 2019.

They held onto Josh Gordon. They selected a wideout in the first round for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach. They signed Antonio Brown. They traded a second-round pick mid-season to add a veteran with a year and a half left on his deal.

Very little stuck.

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With a loaded receiver class in this year's draft, it was a given they'd invest at the position again . . . right? They added four undrafted wideouts, but none went to New England on draft weekend.

Instead, it's clear the Patriots will rely on seeing improvement from that 2019 first-rounder, N'Keal Harry, and from the vet who cost a second-rounder, Mohamed Sanu.

"I'm sure all our young players will improve in year two," Belichick said after the draft. "Got a first-round pick on N'Keal last year, second-round pick on Sanu. That was really off this draft. Obviously have Julian [Edelman] and a number of other young players. I think that will be a very good group.

"There's a lot of different ways and times to build your team. The draft is one of them. As I mentioned, whether it's Sanu or free agents signing like [Damiere] Byrd, whatever the case might be, there's multiple ways to build your roster, and this is one of them."

Here's how the Patriots depth chart at receiver is looking as things stand right now.

LOCK ‘EM IN

This group could end up being six or seven players deep, and yet the number of true locks currently on the roster? Two: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry.

Mohamed Sanu was mentioned by Bill Belichick earlier this offseason as being the team's second-round pick this year since that's what they traded away to land him. But the reality is he's a wideout in his 30s, coming off offseason ankle surgery, making $6.5 million on the salary cap. It'd be a second-round pick wasted if the Patriots ended up releasing Sanu — maybe they could pick up some value for him if they found a trade partner — but they were desperate for receiving help when they acquired him last season. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That pick is now a sunk cost. If there's a younger player on the roster the Patriots feel could provide what Sanu does at a lower price, then it would not come as an overwhelming surprise if the Patriots moved on.

Matthew Slater, if you want to include him in this group, is a lock as a special-teams captain. The 34-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons and will provide the same steady leadership he has for a decade as the team navigates a season without Tom Brady.

ON THE BUBBLE

Let's start with the players from last year's roster who will look to reclaim roles after the Patriots re-tooled the back end of the depth chart this offseason.

Jakobi Meyers showed real chemistry with Jarrett Stidham when the two then-rookies embarked on their first pro preseason together. That could help him carve out a role as a depth piece, but his place on the 53-man roster can't be considered a sure thing.

Same goes for Gunner Olszewski. He made the club as a reserve wideout and the No. 1 punt returner before landing on IR last season.The team added a variety of punt-return options offseason — including second-round pick Kyle Dugger — which adds to the challenge Olszewski faces in making the roster.

Damiere Byrd is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster who could bring a dynamic vertical element to the Patriots passing game if given the opportunity. He received $600,000 guaranteed to sign, according to the Boston Globe, which is more than some of the names you'll see under our "Long Shots" section, but it doesn't exactly guarantee him a roster spot.

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LONG SHOTS

Have to include all four undrafted rookies on this list just by the nature of their arrival to the Patriots.

Isaiah Zuber from Mississippi State pulled in the most guaranteed money among Patriots undrafted wideouts this year with $100,000. Jeff Thomas of Miami might be the most talented of the group, but he went undrafted after running into issues with two separate coaching staffs in college. Sean Riley — who like Zuber and Thomas could end up competing for a punt-return role — is an undersized interior option at 5-foot-8, 178 pounds out of Syracuse.

Auburn's Will Hastings is the player from this group we like as the favorite to make the roster at the moment. He lit up his pro day (one of the few this year that wasn't canceled) with elite-level agility numbers. He also has a built-in rapport with Stidham after their time together as Tigers teammates. Marqise Lee has to be included here after dealing with injury and being robbed of almost two full seasons. He did not play in 2018 and in 2019 he had just three catches in six games played.

Devin Ross and Quincy Adeboyejo, both of whom spent time on the Patriots practice squad last year, should be considered long shots as well.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

Jeff Thomas has talent. He's an NFL-caliber athlete. Listed at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, he was a four-star high school recruit coming out of East St. Louis, Illinois — the No. 2 recruit in the state behind only edge defender A.J. Epenesa — and had offers from Alabama and Ohio State. His speed is instantaneous at the line of scrimmage and when he has the ball in his hands, he's able to hit another gear and pull away from defenders nearby.

His maturity level, meanwhile, has been an issue for him. He was dismissed from the Miami program by Mark Richt, who said at the time, "We have high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to the team for all of the young men who wear our uniform, and we will not waver from those standards." When a new coaching staff took over in 2019, he was welcomed back to the program . . . then suspended in October for two games for violating team rules.

If he can get with the Patriots program and adhere to everything they ask him to do, he has a real shot to make the roster and provide the team with an electric play-maker. But given his history, that's a sizable "if."

X-FACTOR

Marqise Lee told reporters earlier this month that he'd been working with Mick Lombardi as he gets caught up on the Patriots offense, and it sounded as though Lombardi had been handed the receiver coach's gig. There's been no official announcement by the team in terms of Lombardi's title, but if he has the receivers coach job then that's three in three years in New England. (Joe Judge, now head coach of the Giants, replaced Chad O'Shea as Patriots wideouts coach in 2019.)

Someone like Julian Edelman shouldn't be too severely impacted by the transition. But in a room that includes so much youth — including some intriguing undrafted rookies and the team's 2019 first-round pick — it'll be interesting to see how those players develop. Lombardi, son of former Patriots assistant Mike Lombardi, was most recently the assistant quarterbacks coach in New England. That's a title Lombardi held previously with the Jets.

Jason, Devin McCourty put pressure on NFL over uncertain 2020 season

Jason, Devin McCourty put pressure on NFL over uncertain 2020 season

Like many players, Devin and Jason McCourty have lots of questions. And the NFL hasn't given them sufficient answers.

The twin brothers and New England Patriots defensive backs wrote a guest column for Sports Illustrated's "The MMQB" in which they voiced their concerns about the 2020 NFL season amid the coronavirus pandemic and urged the league to address these concerns before training camps begin later this month.

"So many questions with virtually no answers, all three weeks removed from a potential start to training camp," the McCourtys wrote.

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While other professional sports leagues hashed out detailed return-to-play plans prior to restarting their seasons, the NFL has yet to share details of what the 2020 season may look like, all while keeping the same timeline, save for reportedly eliminating two preseason games.

The start of the regular season still is almost two months away, but with players returning to their cities to prepare for training camp, the McCourtys want answers from the league.

"Will we have an option to opt out of the season? Will we be making our full salary? What if there is a COVID outbreak within the league?" the McCourtys wrote. "It's so hard to make a decision of whether we will play or not without knowing what the exact plan is."

The twin brothers, who both have families with young children, also expressed hesitation about signing on to play a season with so many unknowns.

"Will we be able to have meetings in the building? Or will the meetings still be done virtually? Will testing be a few times a week or will it be every day?" they wrote. "As players, how do we decide what is best for us and our families when we don’t know what we’re walking into?"

The NFL and NFL Players Association has formed a joint committee of doctors and trainers to develop protocols that can help players safely prepare for the season. Based on the McCourtys' column, though, it sounds like the league and that joint committee still have plenty of work to do.

"We face a whole lot of unknowns, a whole lot of question marks, and overall are dealing with unsettling feelings about how to handle the two major topics that have hit our entire country hard this year," the McCourtys wrote, referencing COVID-19 and the racial justice movement reinvigorated by the death of George Floyd. 

"The year is only halfway done, so the verdict is still out on whether we can get some answers moving forward."

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NFL Rumors: How Cam Newton, N'Keal Harry's first Patriots workout came together

NFL Rumors: How Cam Newton, N'Keal Harry's first Patriots workout came together

A bit of good luck allowed Cam Newton to throw passes to Mohamed Sanu just days after joining the New England Patriots last month.

But the new Patriots quarterback apparently has been taking matters into his own hands since then.

Newton "initiated" contact with second-year wide receiver N'Keal Harry to set up last week's workouts in Los Angeles, ESPN's Mike Reiss reported Sunday.

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Newton and Harry spent "a couple of days together" working out, per Reiss, the first of which was a two-hour session that included fellow Patriots tight end Devin Asiasi and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

It's a good sign for Harry and the Patriots that Newton is eager to work with the 22-year-old wide receiver, who has mostly been training in Houston and Arizona but gladly traveled out to Southern California to link up with his new QB.

Newton also gave Harry some love on Instagram over the weekend, commenting, "DØĒ•ßØ¥‼️😂 -1ØVĒ🤟🏾" on the wideout's post from a workout in Beverly Hills.

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Relentless‼️

A post shared by N'Keal Harry (@nkealharry) on

Julian Edelman and Sanu are projected to be Newton's top two wide receivers in 2020 -- assuming the QB beats out second-year Jarrett Stidham for the starting job -- but Harry has plenty of upside.

While New England's 2019 first-round draft pick appeared in only seven games during an injury-riddled campaign, Reiss pointed out Harry could develop a similar rapport with Newton as Kelvin Benjamin did in Carolina.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harry and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin have similar frames, although Harry is working to get more agile and run sharper routes this offseason.

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