Found myself building up to what might be considered a lukewarm take on "Boston Sports Tonight" earlier this week.
The crescendo dragged ... a tad. No surprise then that I was promptly played off the stage, so to speak (probably because I can't hear my producers telling me to "WRAP!" over the sound of my own bloviating), to get to a commercial.
So here we are. Take still holstered.
Thankfully, on the internet, every take has a home. This one comes as a result of a question posed by NBC Sports Boston producer extraordinaire Dave Cherubin: Which non-quarterback is the most important player on the Patriots offense in 2020?
My answer: N'Keal Harry.
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That's right. The guy who missed more than half of last season. The guy who finished his rookie year with 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. The guy whose first full offseason as a professional was mostly wiped out by COVID. That guy.
Calling Harry "most important" doesn't mean "best," mind you. To me it means that if he doesn't take a leap, it'll be difficult for the Patriots passing game to end up among the league's most efficient. If he does, it could.
Julian Edelman, the other receiver for whom there is an argument as "most important," put together a remarkable 2019. At 33 years old, he posted 100 catches for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns.
The Patriots offense, however, was stuck in neutral for long portions of the season despite Edelman's efforts. Not his fault. Tom Brady peppered Edelman with targets in part because his other options weren't yet trusted. The offensive line played with replacements at left tackle (eight games) and center (16), which led to a semi-toothless running game and an increased reliance on quick-hitters through the air. Edelman was the least of that group's problems.
But even in what was arguably his best season, the Patriots offense didn't approach anything close to the levels it achieved, say, two seasons prior when Brady was named MVP and threw for 505 yards in Super Bowl LII.
They were seventh in points thanks in part to opportunistic defense and special teams units. But they were 14th in passing offense DVOA last year, per Football Outsiders, 15th in weighted offensive DVOA, and 23rd in yards per pass attempt. Brady's adjusted completion percentage was 20th among quarterbacks with at least 390 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and his rating on deep attempts ranked 14th (10th among 12 playoff quarterbacks). According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots ranked 17th in explosive play rate.
Edelman was indeed the best non-quarterback in the Patriots' offensive huddle last year, but getting every last drop out of his mortal coil was not enough to push the offense into the NFL's upper reaches of passing-game productivity. Brady needed more help.
The Patriots offense has been at its best — Brady won MVPs in 2017, 2010 and 2007 — when the team had an Edelman-type in the slot as well as another more explosive option sharing the huddle.
In 2007, it was Wes Welker inside and Randy Moss down the field. In 2010, it was Welker and two dynamic rookie tight ends. In 2017, it should've been Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Edelman suffered a season-ending injury in preseason, though, which left slot duties to Danny Amendola. But Amendola filled in capably (61 catches on 86 targets, 10.8 yards per reception), particularly in the postseason. With Gronkowski still near the peak of his powers, the Patriots remained a force.
Compare those years to 2013, for example, when Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and Brady experienced a statistical dip. Edelman had a career year — it was the only other time he notched 100-plus catches (105) — and yet the Patriots still drafted Brady's replacement-to-be the following spring.
Whoever elevates to become a legitimate threat alongside Edelman still won't be the most dependable weapon in Foxboro. Edelman, if healthy, should retain that title. He'll be a third-down monster, one can safely assume, a crutch in key situations.
But most important? That has to be a player who helps draw coverage. It has to be someone who is a chunk play waiting to happen, who has the ability to take a short gain and turn it into a long one. It has to be a player who can complement the slot option while doing things the slot simply can't.
Unfortunately for Josh McDaniels, there aren't many names on the Patriots roster who fit that description at the moment.
Mohamed Sanu has for large stretches of his career been a slot player himself. James White is crucial to the overall operation, but not necessarily a consistently explosive threat. The tight ends — I'd pick Devin Asiasi to be the bigger-play possibility — are rookies and facing an uphill climb to contribute come September after a shortened offseason.
Marcus Cannon's replacement will have an argument as "most important," as will left tackle Isaiah Wynn, given the nature of their jobs. But the value of a very good receiver, generally, trumps that of a very good tackle in the NFL. (Just look at the franchise tag numbers at the two positions to see how those spots are valued by the league at large.)
Harry's rookie season was all but lost when he had to sit out the first eight games on injured reserve. When he returned, he tried to jump aboard a moving treadmill with the game's most accomplished quarterback barking at him to dial-up the incline. Outside of a few flashes that showed what someone with Harry's physical skill set — strong hands for contested catches, a hard-to-bring-down 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame — could accomplish, it was not a resounding success.
But Harry remains a talented player who profiled similarly to Josh Gordon in terms of his height, weight and speed coming out of Arizona State. Harry's traits could have him used like San Francisco's young phenom Deebo Samuel, who was taken four picks after Harry in 2019.
Plus, with a quarterback like Cam Newton, who spent portions of his career in Carolina getting comfortable throwing to big-bodied targets — guys like Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess — Harry should see his fair share of opportunities. Meanwhile, Newton has much less experience throwing to a prolific slot. Jarius Wright led the Panthers with 47 slot targets in Newton's last extended action in 2018. Jericho Cotchery was the primary interior receiver during Newton's MVP campaign in 2015 (43 slot targets). It's unclear just how often he'll rely on Edelman, who saw 101 slot targets a season ago with Brady, according to Pro Football Focus.
This much we know: The Patriots offense will be different under Newton. But it's hard to say upon which of his teammates the offense will hinge. Perhaps the offensive line and running game will be so improved that a very good slot can carry a productive passing offense. Perhaps a big-play receiver won't be as valuable because the big plays will come from Newton's legs.
But odds are the Patriots are going to need a more explosive target in the passing game in order to reach a higher level in 2020. Whoever that is — and it may have to be Harry given the composition of the roster — will be more important than anyone else in the Patriots offense other than the guy delivering him the football.