N'Keal Harry is in a tough spot. The first-round pick of the Patriots in 2019 is two seasons into his pro career and he still has yet to carve out a well-defined role for himself on Bill Belichick's roster.
Additionally, the Patriots added a bevy of pass-catchers this offseason who could make Harry's quest for more responsibility in the offense all the more difficult. This isn’t how it was supposed to go for a player who was the second receiver taken in a loaded draft class at that position.
The question now is whether or not there’s anything Harry can do in training camp to guarantee himself a spot on the roster.
Let’s first take a look at what the Patriots have elsewhere at the receiver position. Free agent acquisitions Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will be on the roster. Last year‘s leading receiver on the team, Jakobi Meyers, looks poised to earn a roster spot so long as he continues to develop. Meanwhile, Gunner Olszewski is coming off an All-Pro season as a return man, and that gig alone should lock up a spot for him as well.
If one were to remove draft status from the equation, there would be two clear-cut paths to the roster for Harry this summer: grab a top-three spot on the receiver depth chart or find a role on special teams.
Is the kicking game going to be his saving grace? Unlikely since through two seasons he hasn’t yet shown that it could be.
Over the last decade of Bill Belichick‘s tenure in New England, there are plenty of instances in which there has been enough work to go around for four receivers to be on the active game-day roster. Oftentimes, though, the fourth spot is reserved for someone who can chip in on special teams like Cordarrelle Patterson or Danny Amendola. If Olszewski is that special-teamer-who-can-function-as-an-offensive-role-player spot, then Harry’s path to the roster could be muddied.
As recently as last year, the Patriots kept a fourth wideout with little “teams” value when they carried Meyers along with Harry, Julian Edelman and Damiere Byrd in addition to Olszewski. So maybe Harry could slot in as the No. 4 option, bump Olszewski to the No. 5 spot, and make the club that way.
Harry’s best chance to make the roster, though, is probably to beat out Meyers. Even though Belichick has kept four non-specialists in the past at receiver, this year may be different than most. Looking back at 2010, 2011 and 2012 -- when multi-tight end sets were a key part of New England’s offensive attack -- those seasons were lighter on receiver contributions for obvious reasons. Only so many footballs to go around. More “12 personnel” packages with two tight ends and two receivers means fewer “11 personnel” packages with three wideouts.
The additions of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, even though they don’t play receiver, don’t help Harry’s odds of ending up with the Patriots come September.
There is always the threat of injury looming over every roster before camp. All it would take is one to completely change the outlook at the position for Harry.
And there is a chance that Belichick would rather keep his first-round receiver over an extra quarterback or an extra developmental offensive lineman or an extra defensive back with some special teams potential.
But the free-agent receivers added were signed with specific jobs in mind. Meyers has shown he can contribute. Olszewski has his role to fill. Now, with what looks like a tight-end heavy offense ready to go, and without much special teams experience to lean on, Harry could be the odd man out if his training camp performance doesn’t demand he be kept on as one of the team’s three best receivers on the depth chart.
Prediction: Harry will flash in camp and in preseason. Should he remain healthy, he’d be a logical trade option for a team hoping a change of scenery will do him some good.