Patriots

Tom Brady says he loves Patriots rookie N'Keal Harry's 'edge' and 'tenacity'

Tom Brady says he loves Patriots rookie N'Keal Harry's 'edge' and 'tenacity'

FOXBORO — Members of the media have heard very little from N'Keal Harry since he was placed on injured reserve at the start of the season. He expressed hope that he'd be able to play prior to his team's Week 9 game in Baltimore two weeks ago. Other than that ... silence. 

From his teammates, though, we've been provided a little more detail as to how things are going with the first-round rookie from Arizona State. 

“I think he continues to get better," Devin McCourty told WEEI's Dale & Keefe program last week. "One of the things he does a really good job of is playing hard in practice. He at times, he pisses off the DBs because he works his butt off — out there blocking, out there getting open. I think that is the good thing about seeing him out there running around.

"It’s hard. When you’re a young guy and you’re a rookie and you miss that much time, you come out there and it’s everything in your game you have to work on. I think as an older guy, that has been exciting to see him there every day after practice just getting work in. He’s doing his best to try and get back out there.”

To hear that Harry is pissing off others on the practice field isn't all that surprising. He's an emotional practice player. That's something we saw all the way back in June. It's something his college coaches appreciated about him when he was with the Sun Devils. 

"N'Keal's very competitive," Arizona State receivers coach Charlie Fisher told The Next Pats Podcast earlier this offseason. "He looks to do good. He gets pissed if he doesn't do it good in practice. Like all great players, he wants to do it good. He takes great pride in trying to do whatever it is your trying to teach him, and he tries to do a good job with it."

On Wednesday — joining WEEI's Christian Fauria during Fauria's 25 consecutive hours on air to raise money and awareness for the American Diabetes Foundation — Tom Brady spoke to Harry's effort on the practice field. While Brady was reluctant to sing Harry's praises ahead of the Ravens game, which he explained, he was willing to laud Harry's "edge" on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

“I think with our team, what I think we’ve done over the years is we’ve not projected expectations for people that put them in an unfair position that people are expecting things that, you know, are not in my control,” Brady said. “If you want to ask someone like N’Keal how he feels he’s doing, you should ask him. To ask me, and then put unfair expectations on a younger player, I don’t think that is helpful at all. It is really up to each individual player. 

"It's not just N’Keal because I like N’Keal a lot. Everybody’s role is earned and I think that's the mark of the Patriots and that's part of the culture — you have to come out here and you have to earn a spot and earn a role. You do that through practice, earning the trust of your teammates and your coaches that you can be talented when the moments are their biggest."

Brady added: "Unfortunately for N’Keal, he got hurt early in training camp. He didn’t have the development when other guys were practicing for over two months. He’s working hard. He’s extremely hard-working. He wants to do it. He’s got a great edge about him. I really love that. I really love his tenacity and he’s learning every day, and he’s working hard to get better. I think that is all you can ask of a younger player.”

The Patriots could ask for more from Harry on Sunday, when he'll have an opportunity to be in uniform for his first game as a pro. Will the Patriots activate him, though? 

If part of the reason Harry was inactive in Baltimore was because of the game plan — Josh McDaniels wanted to use the hurry-up, which experienced players might have an easier time executing — then perhaps he'll have a reduced (or non-existent) role in Philadelphia if that's the plan once again. The Patriots were relatively effective with their fast-paced offense that day despite falling short on the scoreboard. 

But activating Harry would give the Patriots a big-bodied red-zone target — something they could use as they're throwing in the red zone more often lately yet still only succeeding on half of their red zone attempts for the year. Harry might also help the team's No. 27 ranking when it comes to success rate on goal-to-go passing scenarios. 

The Eagles secondary is also generally a juicy matchup for opposing receivers. Their corner group has struggled at different points this season and they're 25th in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt to receivers (8.9). 

Seems like it could be a good time to allow Harry to take that practice demeanor his teammates have noticed out to the game field. 

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Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

During Thursday night's game against the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made history. He broke Michael Vick's record for the most quarterback rushing yards in a season on an early-game run against the Jets defense.

In the wake of this historic moment, another historically-good quarterback took time to comment on Jackson's speed and running ability. But not in the way that many would think.

That's right, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady challenged Jackson to a race on Twitter.

Okay, so maybe it's not really a race. Or a challenge of any sort. Brady is just making fun of his own lacking speed while praising Jackson for his effort this season.

Still, the image of Jackson trying to race Brady on natural grass while on rollerblades is hilarious. But frankly, it's no guarantee that Brady would win that one given Jackson's unbelievable athletic ability.

That said, Jackson didn't seem to like his chances in the race, as captured postgame by ESPN.

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

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How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

FOXBORO -- N'Keal Harry didn't get on the field much last week. He played two snaps, to be exact. But on one of them, he flashed the skill set that made him a first-round pick in the spring. 

Bouncing off three potential tacklers, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wideout kept his balance, stopped himself from going out of bounds and laid out to break the plane of the goal line with the football. Of course, he was ruled out of bounds. But he wasn't. And what he did after catching Tom Brady's shallow flip caught offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' eye. 

"Certainly, he made a great individual effort," McDaniels said this week. "Broke a tackle and then had good balance there to finish the play and give us an opportunity to score. He’s a big guy. He’s not easy to get to the ground. Certainly, when you have players like that, it comes back to how can you get him the football in those situations, understanding that there’s a level of diminishing returns if you try to keep doing the same things over and over again? 

"Meaning there’s only so many times you can hand a player that’s not a running back the ball. There’s only so many times you can throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Whatever those are – slants, unders, etc. – those plays are all productive plays when you have a guy that can do something with it. 

"We know [Harry's] big and not easy to tackle, and like I said, I need to do a better job of finding ways to get him in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things."

We highlighted earlier this week how the Patriots have struggled in the red zone this season, but their passing game has been bogged down for weeks -- regardless of where they are on the field. Brady has cracked 300 yards passing just once since Week 6. His yards per attempt number hasn't cracked 7.0 (his career average is 7.5) since Week 8. 

Perhaps trying to get Harry more involved could provide the team a boost. He's looked unsure of his assignment at times when breaking the huddle this season -- he hesitated before going into motion on his would-be touchdown catch-and-run play -- but his physical skill set is hard to ignore for an offense experiencing the difficulties this one is. 

Here are a few ways Harry might be able to help if he sees more than a couple of snaps this coming weekend against the Bengals...

GET HIM IN SPACE

McDaniels understands as well as anyone that one of Harry's strengths coming out of college was what he was able to do in the short passing game. Arizona State would throw him screens or quick hitches against off coverage, he'd turn, break a tackle, reverse field and turn it into an explosive gain. Happened multiple times. 

In the NFL, press coverage is more prevalent. And broken tackles are harder to come by than they were in the Pac 12. But Harry still has above-average size and upper-body strength (he was in the 99th percentile among combine receivers in the bench press), and clearly has the ability to shake off tackles from smaller defensive backs. 

The Patriots have tried to use Harry in space at times this season, but not often. He'd run what looked like six under routes prior to his catch against the Chiefs. He hadn't been used in motion until that play. And he has only been used out of one bunch formation. 

They tried to get him in space on a high-low crosser over the middle where a pick from tight end Matt LaCosse gave Harry a bit of an opening. The target sent the rookie's way went incomplete. They've run him on four corner routes from stack alignments -- with another receiver almost directly behind him off the line -- designed to create traffic and manufacture separation. 

They've only run Harry on one screen to this point, and it came in his first game. 

More receiver screens like this one could be beneficial since it's a high-percentage attempt that allows Harry's physicality to take over as soon as he has the ball in his hands. This play might've gone for more with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. 

Even jet sweeps -- or missile-motion plays, as they're sometimes referred to in New England -- might make sense to get the ball in Harry's hands. As McDaniels said, there's only so many times you can do that, but Harry hasn't done it yet. There's timing that needs to be right on those types of snaps, but earlier this week, when asked about the preciseness of the timing on a play like that one, Bill Belichick made it sound like it didn't require an advanced degree in the Erhardt-Perkins system to be able to execute those. 

"There’s an element of timing," Belichick said, "just like there is on mostly every other play. So, you work on it. Try to have the timing right for that play and that’s an important part of it, but again, I think most every team in the league runs that play, or some version of it. So, it’s certainly doable."

HIT 'EM WHERE THEY AIN'T

The Patriots have for years been fond of saying that offensively they want to force defenses to defend "every blade of grass." 

That didn't happen last week in Kansas City. Time and again, the Chiefs were willing to double-team Julian Edelman with their free safety, leaving the middle of the field exposed. Apparently, there was not a player outside of Edelman that the Chiefs feared would beat them long. 

If they were, they had a funny way of showing it. 

The Patriots hit the Chiefs for a pair of long gains when the Chiefs dropped their safety on Edelman and played one-on-one across the board everywhere else, but both gains were the result of defensive pass interference penalties. 

Brady didn't always find the receiver exposing the weak spot in Chiefs coverages when they chose to play without a deep safety. But just as the Chiefs seemed to have no fear in being beaten by Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers or Mohamed Sanu, Brady seemed to have little interest in trying those players on long attempts outside of the deep shots that resulted in flags.

If the Chiefs plan for the Patriots is one that's adopted by other defenses late in the year, then they can expect opposing coordinators to continue to dare them to win deep by taking away Edelman, going one-on-one across the board otherwise, and pressuring Brady with five. 

To hurt that particular scheme, the Patriots need someone who's a threat to win down the middle of the field. Maybe that'll be Sanu, but he's dealing with an ankle injury that appears to be limiting him, and he's not thought of as a down-the-field receiver to begin with. 

Harry would make sense as that hit-'em-where-they-ain't option. He's not necessarily a threat to blow by his defender in coverage -- he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- but he's still a threat to defeat one-on-one coverage by out-leaping his man for the ball and making contested catches. He was one of the best, if not the best, contested-catch receivers in this year's draft class and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio touted Harry's ability in that regard soon after he was drafted.

Of the 70 routes Harry has run this year, he's handled what looked like a dozen go routes as well as four posts and a post-corner. All of those are plays that could result in jump-balls for Harry in one-on-one coverage. 

They might not be high-percentage shots, but they might be necessary to soften up defenses because the Chiefs showed that they could slow down the Patriots by leaving the deep part of the field under-manned defensively . . . and it's a copycat league. A couple of long completions to Harry could do wonders to open up the rest of the Patriots passing game. 

PLAY TO STRENGTHS

Without knowing Patriots play-calls or route adjustments on certain snaps, it's hard to know exactly how many of Harry's routes could've ended up as back-shoulder fade targets. In theory, any vertical route up the sideline -- Harry has aligned outside on 81 percent of his routes this year -- could turn into a back-shoulder throw. 

But he has just two back-shoulder targets this season in 70 routes run. Both came against the Cowboys, and one resulted in his first career touchdown. Though he let his only other back-shoulder target slide through his hands in the rain that day, he still seems like a viable target on those types of contested passes the same way Josh Gordon was early on in his Patriots tenure in 2018. 

Harry showed time and again impressive body control and athleticism on back-shoulder attempts this summer well before toe-tapping in the end zone for his first score as a pro. 

Belichick used to say of retired Patriots center Dan Koppen, "His strength is his strength." The same appears to be true for Harry at the receiver position. Both with the ball in his hands or as a jump-ball specialist, Harry's frame is a weapon.

For an offense that could use all the help it can get with its 27th-ranked red-zone offense, dialing up Harry in that fashion seems logical.

Of course Brady will need time in the pocket in order to find Harry, whether it's on a lob near the goal line or deep down the middle of the field to attack a vacated area -- something the 42-year-old quarterback hasn't been afforded much of lately. 

But if the Patriots can protect, and if they feel comfortable trusting Harry to execute his assignments, then there are ways he can help provide a spark. They're at the point now where they need to exhaust all options. 

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

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