Unwavering approach leads to big day for Patriots rookie N'Keal Harry

Unwavering approach leads to big day for Patriots rookie N'Keal Harry

CINCINNATI — There was no visible hesitation before snaps. There was no uncertainty after snaps. And there were snaps. Lots of 'em. 

N'Keal Harry saw 40 plays in his team's 34-13 win over the Bengals on Sunday, dwarfing the two snaps he saw one week prior in a loss to the Chiefs. He recorded two catches for 15 yards and a touchdown to go along with two carries for 22 yards. But looking as comfortable as he did, the numbers accompanying his name in the box score belied his performance. 

"Kind of getting the groove a little bit," Harry said after. "Starting to get more confident out there game by game, play by play."

In previous games, there were moments when Harry looked like a rookie. He hesitated breaking huddles and doubled back to Tom Brady for specific instructions. He hesitated at the line of scrimmage against the Chiefs last week when he was put in motion. On scramble-drill plays in Philadelphia last month, he looked unsure of where he was supposed to be. 

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On Sunday he played fast. And he did so as the Patriots used him in a variety of alignments. Before seeing the Bengals, over 80 percent of Harry's snaps came aligned out wide. About the same number of plays came with Harry aligned to the left of Patriots formations. He'd never taken a hand-off. He'd been put in motion exactly once.

On Sunday, he lined up in the slot. He lined up out wide. He lined up on the line of scrimmage and off. He took two end-around missile-motion handoffs. He motioned to sell fakes on handoffs up the middle. He ran go-routes outside the numbers and corner routes from inside. His touchdown reception came on a scramble-drill play where he had to understand the timing of the play was off, turn around, and sprint along the back end line to make himself available.

It looked like a trust-builder. 

"On those type of plays, you just have to find a way to get open," Harry said. "Whatever it takes. Glad I could do that. Thank God I could do that."

"He's fighting," Brady said. "He's been working hard for weeks to learn. He's a very hard-working guy. It's fun to see him make those plays."

Harry's best play might've actually been one that didn't count. It came during a third-and-three situation, when he cruised up the sideline and made a leaping grab up and over a defender, laying out for a 33-yard gain. It was erased after a false start penalty called on Julian Edelman. 

Maybe it was that play that gave him a shot of confidence. Or maybe it was his near-touchdown last week. Or maybe it was simply the regular day-to-day work he put in back in Foxboro leading up to the game — with coaches Joe Judge and Troy Brown, out at practice, maybe some work in the "virtual room" — that allowed him to hit another gear in his fifth game as a pro.

"I take the same approach every day," Harry said. "I really take pride in being a hard worker and being a workhorse. I just take that approach and just seize the day every day I can."

Harry's teammates saw a different player on the field Sunday, too. Edelman said Harry is "coming around, making some plays, playing faster."

"Knowing what to do," Edelman explained, is what improves game speed. "Being confident with going into a test. Knowing all the little things so you can let your athleticism come in and play. I would say that's playing fast."

At this point, the Patriots can ill afford to get less from their rookie. He's no longer a luxury item fresh off the injured reserve list that had him miss the first half of his first season. 

Edelman (41 snaps) is hurt, and he looked it in Cincinnati, catching just two passes for nine yards. Mohamed Sanu (56 snaps, more than any Patriots receiver) simply hasn't produced. He's dealt with an ankle injury, but playing a full-time workload against the Bengals yielded only two catches for 13 yards on eight targets. With two of his veteran targets having down days, Brady finished with 128 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-29 passing.

The Patriots needed Harry. Harry needed a game to get on track after he was all but benched a week ago. This felt like the one.

"It was good just getting out there, just starting to get my groove back out there," Harry said. "Felt good."

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Who were Tom Brady's all-time favorite Patriots targets? What the numbers say

Who were Tom Brady's all-time favorite Patriots targets? What the numbers say

Tom Brady completed a lot of passes in a New England Patriots uniform -- 6,337, to be exact.

Brady was diplomatic in his distribution, too: He threw at least one touchdown pass to 77 different targets during his 20-year tenure with the Patriots, which ended when he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.

But the six-time Super Bowl champion certainly had his favorites. And as it turns out, the most prolific pass-catcher of Brady's Patriots era by sheer volume is on the current roster.

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Boston Sports Info (@BostonSportsInf on Twitter) compiled a list of Brady's 10 most-coveted targets based on total receptions. At the top of the list: wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Edelman has the benefit of experience: He spent 10 years catching passes from Brady, more than any other player on this list. But the 33-year-old still averaged 68.9 receptions per season with Brady after beginning his career as a converted quarterback drafted in the seventh round.

As for Brady's most prolific pass-catchers based on their career averages in New England rather than total numbers? Here's our unofficial top five:

1. Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski's stats are absolutely mind-boggling: A Patriots-leading 8,949 receiving yards in the regular- and postseason with 90 touchdowns over nine seasons.

2. Wes Welker
Welker was nearly as prolific in a shorter amount of time: He averaged 112 catches per regular season alone during his six-year stint with Brady from 2007 to 2012.

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3. Julian Edelman
Edelman has three 1,000-yard seasons under his belt with Brady and has caught at least 74 passes from the GOAT in five of the last six seasons.

4. Troy Brown
Brown was Brady's Welker and Edelman before either player came to prominence, winning three Super Bowls with TB12 in the early 2000s while amassing 101 receptions in 2001.

5. Randy Moss
Moss only spent three seasons in Foxboro, which makes it even more remarkable that he cracked the overall top 10. The Hall of Fame wideout hauled in an NFL-leading 23 of Brady's 50 touchdown passes during the Patriots' historic 2007 season.

Brady has a strong set of weapons in Tampa Bay with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. But none of those players will come close to cracking the "Brady 10."

Tom Brady partnering with Wheels Up to provide 10 million meals to Feed America amid COVID-19

Tom Brady partnering with Wheels Up to provide 10 million meals to Feed America amid COVID-19

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is the latest NFL player to make a huge impact in supporting COVID-19 relief efforts.

The six-time Super Bowl champion revealed Thursday on Twitter that he's partnering with Wheels Up to help provide 10 million meals to Feed America.

Brady's former team, the New England Patriots, also is doing its part to help people impacted by the coronavirus. Patriots owner Robert Kraft had the team's plane fly to China to pick up a shipment of 1.2 million N95 protective masks and bring them back to the United States. The plane reportedly is expected to arrive back at Logan Airport on Thursday.

Kraft also is helping the New York community with a shipment of protective masks.

Last week, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, announced a $5 million donation to the state of Louisiana for COVID-19 relief. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, recently donated one million meals to the Seattle community.

Many other players from the NFL and different sports leagues have been very generous in helping all of us get through this difficult time.