Patriots

Will N'Keal Harry's contested-catch prowess translate to the NFL?

Will N'Keal Harry's contested-catch prowess translate to the NFL?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we take a look at Patriots first-round pick N'Keal Harry, the skill set that helped him light up the Pac-12, and whether or not that'll translate at the next level.

Tom Brady, for all the superlatives he's earned, isn't the most daring of quarterbacks. He's always cognizant of just how devastating an interception can be to his team's chances of winning, but he's been so careful at times that even he will occasionally admit he needs to take more risks.

“Maybe part of my problem as I’ve gotten older is I want to make so few mistakes,” he told WEEI last season. “Maybe there’s not as much aggressiveness as I would like because with aggressiveness comes more risk. We have, like, a 95 percent chance of winning when we don’t turn the ball over and I think that’s always in the back of my mind, being a little less fearful with the ball and a little more aggressive."

Still, Brady finished last season as one of the most risk-averse quarterbacks in football in 2018. Per NextGen Stats, he was the No. 27 passer (among quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts) when it came to their "aggressiveness" percentage metric, which tracks the number of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. 

Brady has the ability to thrive when he rolls the dice, though. According to Pro Football Focus, he's graded out as among the five best quarterbacks in football over the last three years when attempting "tight-window" throws.

The question now? How often will Brady be willing to gamble, particularly with two of his best tight-window receivers -- Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon -- currently out of the mix? 

The answer could depend on how well the rapport between Brady and first-round pick N'Keal Harry develops through training camp.

Harry's calling card at Arizona State was his ability to make contested catches. His highlight reel is littered with jump balls in the end zone and leaping catches -- sometimes one-handed -- deep down the middle of the field. His strength to fight off handsy defensive backs at the catch point (27 bench reps of 225 pounds, 99th percentile) and his eye-popping vertical (38.5-inches, 84th percentile) certainly help him in that regard.

"I would say that one of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said after the first night of the draft. 

"I'd say the coverage in this league is tight, regardless of the type of player or receiver that you are. The coverage is tight. You're going to have to make some plays in some tight quarters. Receivers have to do it. Tight ends have to do it. I mean, James White, I know he plays running back, but he's involved in the passing game, [he has to do it]. 

"The windows are smaller, the catches are going to be more contested. If a player has the ability to do that, that's maybe one of his strengths. It was one of Rob's strengths. He can make contested catches. Everybody has something that they do well . . . They have to maximize the attributes that they have."

According to Pro Football Focus, Harry reeled in 53.2 percent of his contested targets at Arizona State, which was the second-highest percentage among receivers in this year's draft class. (West Virginia's Gary Jennings was first at 54 percent.) Harry's 17 contested catches last season tied him for second (along with Patriots undrafted free-agent addition Jakobi Meyers) among draft-eligible receivers last year.

How often Brady gives Harry the opportunity to make those types of plays will be fascinating over the course of the next month or so. Brady traditionally hasn't leaned on rookie wideouts as one of his go-to options, but the Patriots have never taken a receiver in the first round during Brady's career. And one would think that camp is the perfect time for Brady to figure out when he can trust Harry to make a play on a 50-50 ball and when it might be best to lob one out of bounds. 

Harry's not thought of as a burner; he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine. But if recent history is any indication, wideouts with contested-catch ability, even if they don't have track-star speed, can succeed in the NFL. 

DeAndre Hopkins is probably the league's best example of that phenomenon. He's not in the conversation for fastest wideout (4.57 40 in 2013), but he is in the conversation as one of the best receivers in the game because of his ability to use his body and play the ball in the air. He caught 58.1 percent of his contested targets last season, good enough for fifth in the league. 

Michael Thomas of the Saints (4.57 40 in 2016) showed "the ability to go up and win the ball" at Ohio State, according to Pro Football Focus' scouting report from three years ago. It's served him well as he's developed into one of the top pass-catchers in the game. He ranked eighth in the league last season by catching 56.7 percent of his contested targets.

Mike Williams of the Chargers (ninth, 56.5 percent) and Chris Godwin of the Bucs (10th, 52.0 percent) are among the best in the NFL at making plays in tight windows as well, and their scouting reports coming out of college were similar to those written up on Harry. 

NFL.com on Harry: "Wins jump balls with well-timed leaps and frame to shield the finish...Downhill speed fails to threaten most cornerbacks."

PFF on Williams: "May not create enough separation to fit with every quarterback style. Needs aggressive passer to allow him to win at the catch point in contested situations."

PFF on Godwin: "Catches the ball in traffic, using his frame to box out defensive backs...Does not consistently separate against man coverage."

Does that mean that as a rookie Harry will match the production of players like Williams, Godwin or any other established NFL wideout? Not at all. He acknowledged he has a long way to go saying back in May, "I haven't done anything in the NFL yet. It's my job to put in the work and perform and live up to expectations."

But it's clear with Gronkowski retired (for now) and Gordon's availability up in the air that the Patriots went after tight-window artists to help Brady, picking up Harry, Meyers and Demaryius Thomas (third among receivers at converting contested catches in 2017).

Harry, of course, will draw more attention on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium next week than any of the new acquisitions in Bill Belichick's receiver room. Can he get off of press coverage when the pads come on? Can he win jump balls against bigger and more athletic defenders than the ones he saw in college? 

What happens in camp will be far from the final word on Harry's evaluation, but how well his skills translate this summer may give us a window into just how involved he'll be come the fall.  

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10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

NASHVILLE – The product popped last week when the Patriots played the Lions in their preseason opener. This week in Nashville? Kinda messy.

The explanation for that is simple. Very few of the team’s best players took part on either side of the ball.

Among those on the DNP-CD list were: Tom Brady, Phillip Dorsett, Stephon Gilmore, Sony Michel, James White, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrew, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy.

“A lot of the guys that practiced a lot (during the week) didn’t play tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “Guys that didn’t practice as much played a lot tonight so I think we had a really good evaluation of everybody.”

What was our evaluation? Come with! We’ll show you!
The Patriots left tackle position is going to be in unbelievably capable hands with ISAIAH WYNN. Playing in a game for the first time since blowing his Achilles last preseason, Wynn was a wall in pass protection, showed great feet in getting blocks at the first level and then looking for work further downfield and seems to just lock defenders up.  

I asked Wynn, “How did you feel you did out there?”

“Good,” he said. Then, as if remembering he better sound too satisfied, he added a beat later, “I still have plenty of things to work on though.”

The pace of the game was – at times – excruciating. It was a little bit of everything. An early PI challenge by the Titans (they lost as rookie Joejuan Williams was found to be on the right side of the law on a third-down pass breakup). A couple of injuries to Patriots (Derek Rivers hurt his knee and, sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a while for him. Again. Shilique Calhoun got dinged but appeared fine in the locker room). But more than anything else, it was the penalties. The Patriots had 12 called on them and the Titans had 10. That is attributable to less-experienced players on the field in some cases but the most significant penalty sequence of the night came late in the first half. First, tight end Lance Kendricks placed a Titan in a headlock when he was pass-protecting for Jarrett Stidham. The holding call resulted in a safety. Next, after the free kick, the Patriots had 12 men on the field defensively.

Speaking of defense, there’s a real collaboration going down on the Patriots sidelines. It appeared Steve Belichick called defensive plays in the first half and Jerod Mayo called them in the second half. Also, Patrick Chung – in uniform but not playing – was active in helping coach the secondary on a down-to-down basis, signaling in plays and seeming to help make calls.

Getting back to that free kick I mentioned? Jake Bailey, the Stanford rookie took it. And he hit it almost to Pluto, about 65 yards in the air. On Bailey’s only punt of the night, he hung it 54 yards and there was no return. Ryan Allen, God bless him, he’s not going down without a fight. He had a punt of 57 yards and dropped one of his two inside the 20. Bailey was the holder on field goals and PATs and Stephen Gostkowski missed his only attempt, a 40-yarder.

In two preseason games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 12 of the 14 passes sent his way for 151 yards and two touchdowns. And the balls he’s catching aren’t short little slants and outs. They are crossers in traffic and downfield passes as well. After watching him during practice and in two games, it’s clear he’s the real thing and he deserves to be a starter. Honestly, when N’Keal Harry returns from whatever’s ailing him and Josh Gordon joins the team and begins practicing, I’m going to be really interested to see if they can exceed what Meyers is doing. And not just exceed it for a time. Do it every day the way he has. It’s a fascinating story. During the game, longtime NFL personnel man Jim Nagy, who runs the Senior Bowl, stated plainly on Twitter that Meyers was “the best contested ball catcher in last year’s draft.” 

A great week of practice by Braxton Berrios was followed up by a modest game. He was targeted once and that pass was picked by Logan Ryan. The throw from Brian Hoyer didn’t have a lot of zing on it but Berrios was kind of floating upfield on his route as well which made it easy for Logan Ryan to undercut him for the pick.

Rookie running back Damien Harris worked his ass off with four catches for 23 yards and 14 carries for 80. He’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of runner who’ll make spectacular moves but his meat-and-potatoes style is a nice fit. Reminds me a little bit of Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

I had no idea the Patriots had a player named Calvin Munson. But when No. 48 showed up on about eight straight plays defensively with pursuit, pressure or brilliant form tackling at linebacker I made sure to check. He was everywhere. And, mind you, that was against the Titans first offense.

How important to the team is Matt Slater? Both times the Patriots had a player spend an extended period on the field with an injury, Slater was the person who went out with the medical staff to – I’m assuming – lend some support to the player. Whether he was assigned that job or just took it on himself, I don’t know but nothing happens without the OK of Bill Belichick. He’s not going to sign off on guys just walking on the field whenever they want if someone is hurt. This is a role for Slater. Between this assignment and seeing Chung as almost a player-coach, it’s cool to see how empowering Belichick can be as a boss with some of his players.

Through two preseason games, Jarrett Stidham has performed exactly as advertised. He makes some incredible throws – a back-shoulder touchdown to shortish receiver Damoun Patterson was like a drone strike – and he gets a little skittish and can make some sketchy decisions. He had two near-picks that could have been taken the distance the other way.

Those throws and decisions can definitely be coached out of him if he’s willing. But the touch and accuracy? That’s a gift. I also liked his instincts on a pair of scrambles that picked up first downs. The issue he’ll deal with – as Jimmy Garoppolo did – is that the starters are better than the scrubs and if you find yourself on the field with them, they move faster and hit harder so spin-o-rama escape moves that work in August can put a quarterback in a sling in October.

The Patriots are off Sunday but back at it again on Monday and Tuesday getting ready for their first home game of the preseason. There are no more open practices this season so that party is over.

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Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Despite playing a sport that typically values third-down efficiency over empathy, Matthew Slater has no problem speaking up to be the voice of compassion inside the Patriots locker room.

Josh Gordon's reinstatement by the NFL on Friday is a complicated issue. How was it determined that Gordon is well enough to play? Is football what's best for him? How will the Patriots provide him with support when he returns?

But Slater broke it down more simply following his team's preseason win over the Titans in Nashville: When it comes to Gordon, football isn't what's most important right now.

"We are excited,” Slater said of Gordon's return. “I’ll say this: Football is number two. We want to see him first and foremost doing well as an individual, doing well as a man, and we want to support him however we can. We’re just going to take this one day at a time, which is all any of us can do. And we’ll see what tomorrow brings and then we’ll let the day after that worry about it when it comes around."

Gordon was a big-play threat any time he was on the field for the Patriots last season. He played in 11 games and led the NFL in yards per reception (18.0). He was suspended late in the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and though his NFL rights have remained with the Patriots -- they signed his restricted free-agent tender this offseason -- he hasn't been with the team for months.

Bill Belichick pointed that out in a statement released Saturday.

“For the past eight months, Josh’s situation has been entirely a league matter," Belichick's statement said. "When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team."

Slater emphasized the point that he and others will welcome Gordon with open arms.

“I think having support is always a good thing, no matter who you are, no matter what life has brought your way," Slater said. "I think support is good, and hopefully he finds that he has support here. I think that’s really all I can say about it now. What’s good, what’s not good remains to be seen.”

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