Politely asking what the Patriots are doing with N'Keal Harry

Politely asking what the Patriots are doing with N'Keal Harry

Bill Belichick doesn't just know more about football than the rest of us, he thinks about it more than the rest of us.

So the smartest guy in the sport doesn't just arrive at unpopular conclusions without a reason. Deep down, somewhere there's a reason he didn't play Malcolm Butler on defense in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. On a far less dire scale, he probably has some reason as to why the Patriots weren't in a big rush to work N'Keal Harry into the Patriots' offense after he came off IR.

We can take our guesses. Maybe sitting him before the bye would have him better-conditioned for his NFL debut than he would have been last week. Maybe he's just not up to speed with the playbook despite having all season to study it. Maybe the quarterback would rather stick with a smaller number of veterans as he tries to get his own production up.

Here's the counter to all of those: If the goal is to eventually have this guy making significant contributions in the postseason, shouldn't there be a priority to have him getting game reps as soon as possible? And if the quarterback isn't psyched about Harry for some reason, don't you go Costanza and give him the "You're not in the mood? Well you get in the mood!" speech?

These will be questions worth shouting if Harry still isn't on the gameday roster against the Eagles after the bye, but they're at least worth pondering now. This has been a turbulent season for the Pats' receiver group and they've got a potential star -- that's what we all said when they drafted him, no take-backsies -- that either the quarterback, the team or both weren't in any rush to use.  

There's zigging when other teams zag, but there probably isn't a competitive advantage for the Patriots keeping a first-round receiver off the field.

My colleague Phil Perry has mentioned in recent weeks that where the Patriots pivoted in the second half of last season to more of a running offense, the change made this season might be more to a pass-heavy attack like the one they showed against the Ravens. Should that be the case -- which it definitely should, because Trent Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen aren't coming to rescue the run game -- that should mean Harry gets his snaps. Then will come the question of what Tom Brady does with him.

We've heard the quotes and they haven't been glowing. He said the following of the passing game needing this bye week during his WEEI appearance: "We'll need [more going forward] from Mo, we'll need it from Jules, we'll need it from Phillip [Dorsett], the tight ends, the backs, the line and everything."

When asked about Harry, Brady responded, "Again, coach makes those decisions, so I just go out there and try to play."

Is that Brady saying the kid stinks or that he doesn't want to work with him? Of course not, but when the QB's holding back on singing any praises of a player being kept off the field, you're left to wonder what's happening.

It was around this time of year that Malcolm Mitchell started to get more targets as a rookie back in 2016. He had his first five-target game on Nov. 20 of that season and continued to hold Brady's attention through his six-catch, 70-yard performance in the Super Bowl. So it's not like Brady flat-out refuses to throw to rookies; he just clearly has a preference for older players at the position, a bias that would be to the detriment of everybody if he isn't keen on Harry catching on.

Again, it's one game as a healthy scratch, but Antonio Brown is long gone. Demaryius Thomas is longer gone. Mohamed Sanu wasn't as much of an addition as he first appeared; he was part of a one-in, one-out that saw Josh Gordon's time in New England end. Gosh bless Phillip Dorsett, but if he's one of your primary receivers, your group ain't good. And Jakobi Meyers is either not ready or too young for Brady to take him seriously (which shouldn't be a thing).

With the offense still being a work in progress, it's comforting to imagine Brady being protected by actual NFL left tackle Isaiah Wynn and throwing to three high-end NFL receivers in Edelman, Sanu and Harry. The clock is ticking, though. The longer the Patriots take in getting their first-round pick acclimated, the less realistic than vision becomes.

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Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

The New England Patriots have spent much of the last 20 years at the summit of the NFL -- the most successful franchise of this century. Over that same time, the Cleveland Browns have been one of the league's worst teams, with only a single postseason appearance since 2000.

Could these teams begin to switch places in 2020?

Last season was supposed to be the Browns' return to the spotlight, and the playoffs. Expectations were high for quarterback Baker Mayfield, star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and an up-and-coming defense. Instead, Cleveland got off to a horrible start in 2019, losing six of their first eight games, including a Week 7 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. 

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Despite all that unfolded in Cleveland last season, many experts are still high on the Browns' chances in 2020. In fact, one of them is even willing to predict the Patriots will be worse than the Browns.

“When you look at those two teams and the difference in the trajectory of what we feel they’ll be, I believe that the Browns will be a better football team than the New England Patriots this year," ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark said on the "Get Up" morning show earlier this week. 

"I believe that the Browns young quarterback (Baker Mayfield) will play better than the young quarterback in New England. And when you put all of these things together, that leaves Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the outside of the playoff picture and (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns in.”

Oddsmakers don't agree with Clark. 

The Browns are underdogs to reach the playoffs with +137 odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook, while the Patriots are expected to make the postseason at -177 odds.

It's also hard to trust the Browns until they show the mental toughness required to play football into January. Bad penalties, suspensions, poor coaching and other avoidable mistakes have plagued the Browns for many years, and last season was no different.

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Another factor working against the Browns is their division. The AFC North is not a joke.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 last year and should again be a top Super Bowl contender. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a playoff team for much of the last two decades, and they'll be aided by the healthy return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019 due to injury. The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst team in the division, but selecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft has renewed hope in Cincy.

It's not inconceivable for the Browns to be better than the Patriots in 2020. The Patriots will have plenty of challenges, too, most notably adjusting to a new starting quarterback. New England's schedule also is among the toughest in the league, and the defense lost several key players in free agency.

Still, it's hard to bet against a Belichick team, especially when the other team in the conversation is the Browns. The smart money in this debate is with the Patriots.

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

NFL teams have not been able to conduct normal offseason workouts, rookie camps and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but players are still finding ways to stay in shape and prepare for the 2020 season.

That includes New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who recently worked out with former NFL defensive back Dre Bly, who's currently the cornerbacks coach for the University of North Carolina football team.

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Check out some footage of Gilmore's workout in the tweet below:

Gilmore arguably is the Patriots' best player following quarterback Tom Brady's departure in free agency. In Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of the top 50 players gonig into the 2020 season, Gilmore was the only Patriot to make the list.

The veteran cornerback is coming off back-to-back seasons of first team All-Pro selections, and in February he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award winner for the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots saw a lot of veteran players from their defense leave as free agents this offseason. Luckily for New England, its secondary remains one of the best groups in the league, and Gilmore's presence as the sport's premier shutdown cornerback is the primary reason for that.