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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Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

In Tom Brady’s fever dream, he walks down a long, antiseptic hallway filled with artificial light. This week. This week. This week we get it right. A mantra on repeat in Brady’s mind.

Smooth, soothing elevator music plays. Is it N’Sync?

A door is at the end of the hall. He pushes it open. It’s like a high school chem lab. Every seat at every table is full. Everyone is in full uniform. Brady recognizes none of them from the back of the room. They are all hunched forward, writing, their backs turned to him.

Bill Belichick stands at the front of the class. He’s dressed differently. A hooded cloak. A long white beard. A scythe leans against the wall behind him.

“So, like I said, we’re gonna play to our strengths …” Belichick is saying. He spots Brady. Belichick’s voice tapers. His face spreads into a grin. But it doesn’t stop. It keeps stretching wider. 

“I’m late?” Brady says, his voice a mixture of anger and disbelief. “Why am I late? What time is it?!”

“No, Tom, just finishing up here, not late. Right on time. I was just saying we’re looking to get the ball to Jake Bailey this week. Get it to Jake and let him do his thing…”

Bailey is at a lab table to Belichick’s right.

“Hi Tom!” he says, waving like a lunatic. “I’m here to help!”

In his left hand, he holds an hourglass. He flicks at it absently with his right index finger. Flick. Flick. Flick. Sand falls down.

Panic rises in Brady’s throat. How could he have gotten the time wrong? Is everything already done, really?

“We’re looking to get it to the punter? That’s the plan? What can I do, though? I can do things.” Brady asks, eyes darting around the room. He can't remember ever feeling so exposed.

“You know what, I think we’re all set for now, Tom,” Belichick replies, his grin somehow broadening so that his eyes begin to bulge slightly.

One player sits up straight, pivots rigidly and looks at Brady with dead eyes. It’s Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” he says.

Every other player sits bolt upright. They slowly turn in unison to face Brady. They are all Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” they say robotically. Then they smile and all the Ryan Izzos give a big thumbs-up.

“This shit ain’t real,” Brady mutters. Turning for the door he spins into a body that’s blocking it.

“This is serious as a HEART ATTACK!!!!” Marshall Newhouse says and throws his head back. All the Ryan Izzos laugh.

Pushing past Newhouse with surprising ease, Brady is now in a different hall. There’s a door with a small picture taped to it. He looks at the picture. A goat. With a cane. And a top hat. His cane points at a door. Squinting, Brady sees that, on the door in the picture, there is also a picture. Of a goat. With a cane. And a top hat. That is pointing at a door.

The door opens on its own. Slowly. It’s Brady’s locker room. Same as it’s been since 2002. But at his locker, there’s a scrum of people. They are holding cameras and tape recorders. They are interviewing someone at HIS locker. The MOTHERSCRATCHER!

“Hey!!!” yells Brady. No one turns.

Brady rushes over and grabs a shoulder. Rohan Davey turns to face Brady. Then Matt Guttierez. And Matt Cassel. And Kevin O’Connell. Ryan Mallett. Jimmy. Jacoby. Jarrett. Damon Huard. Michael Bishop. John Friesz. Drew Bledsoe. They all look at Brady with detachment then turn back to the figure at Brady’s locker.

Wedging himself through Brady sees someone in a full-body cast. Only the head is visible. The face looks familiar. Brady can’t place it.

“Hi Tom!” the head suddenly cries. “I’m Tua!!!! We’re gonna work together!”

The music. Brady hears it again. It’s louder now. Deafening. “Bye, bye, bye!” It is N’Sync.

**********

Tom Brady’s purgatory season of 2019 activates the imagination so if you’re still with me, I appreciate you.

Facts are facts, Tom Brady is New England’s Achilles and his NFL Odyssey has never failed to fascinate. 

Now – in season 20 – quarterbacking a team that stylistically resembles the 2001 team that won the first of six Super Bowls, it’s hard to overlook the ironic symbolism.

The joy that coursed through that season radiated from Brady. He was the sun around which the team revolved. This season, he’s a dark star of despondency, morose about the direction of the offense and his inability to do anything but stay out of the way. 

On too many Sundays, it feels like the thrill is gone for the greatest quarterback of all-time.

His team keeps stacking wins and is 9-1 and atop the AFC. But his job right now is to not eff anything up. In less than two years he’s gone from being revving the engine of a Formula One car to pushing a bike with training wheels around a parking lot.

He’s Jimmy Page playing with a garage band, Picasso with crayons, Steve Jobs with an abacus.

Brady’s on record saying he’ll keep playing until he sucks. Maybe sucking won’t be an inability to throw hard, far and accurately and avoid a pass rush.

Maybe sucking will be being unable to play like he’s capable because of circumstances beyond his control. Maybe sucking will be an inability to suck it up and deal with what’s around him because, he figures, should he really have to at this point?

And that’s where the real conflict exists.

The most selfless and accomplished professional athlete of his generation, the guy who’s probably taken about $50 million less than he could have in salary over the course of his career, the quarterback who’s buttoned his lip and succeeded with a succession of merely OK players around him, the player who dealt with Bill Belichick’s verbal slings and arrows and attempts to replace him so that he could try and win the all-important “next one”?

Are some going to see him bummed out after a win on the road that moved his team to 9-1 and say he’s being a bad teammate? Are some going to accuse the player that authored perhaps the most memorable comeback in team sports history of running up the white flag?

Some could. Some will. Some are.

Are others going to see the whole picture in full relief and realize Despondent Tom has been marinating for a while? Through attempts to replace him. Through lowball contract offers that took advantage of his aversion to conflict. Through the lopping off of talented offensive pieces and the half-assed or lamebrained efforts to replace them.

Others could. Others will. Others are.

The Eeyore act isn’t a hit in Foxboro.

It’s understood that he’s used to a certain level of performance. And nobody believes this offense is about to transform into a unit that will approach Brady’s accustomed level. But the moping creates a firestorm and – even if Brady was publicly sounding the alarm about the offense as far back as training camp – now is not the time for “I told you so …” Even if he did tell us so.

The Patriots offense will improve over the final six games. Isaiah Wynn will help. N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are still new additions. Tight end Matt LaCosse is working his way in. It’s not going to get “good” relative to what we’re used to but it will be better.

Brady’s got valid reasons to be pissed off about how his contracts have been handled, how the offense has been constructed, the team’s reluctance to believe he’s got enough in the tank to play until 45. Things pile up over two decades. It might seem like he’s mad after Jakobi Meyers runs a bad route but that anger may really have its root in a mistake he saw Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms make 13, seven or four years ago.

After all he’s done, if Brady wants to continue kicking rocks in press conferences about what the Patriots can’t do, that’s his prerogative. For me, it won’t undo a millisecond of the Tom Brady Experience or change my belief he’s been the ultimate teammate and still is.

But do you know what it sounds like the longer it goes? A death rattle.

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Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

The New England Patriots were victorious on Sunday vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, but something still clearly didn't sit well with Tom Brady.

The Patriots quarterback was visibly frustrated in his postgame press conference, and it's easy to understand why. Brady completed only 26 of 47 passes and he failed to find the end zone in what was another lackluster performance from the New England offense as a whole.

In his Monday appearance on Westwood One with Jim Gray, Brady discussed his frustration with the offense's ongoing struggles.

"It's just part of how our season's gone," Brady told Gray. "I think there's a lot of things we talk about internally. Things that we see that we need to do to continue to try to improve ... we're going to have to just execute better than we did and better than we have.

"We're 9-1, our defense is playing great, our special teams unit is playing great and they're keeping us in every game. Offensively, I've said we've got to take advantage when we have opportunities in [a] short field and we had a few of those yesterday. Those are the ones that probably frustrate me the most."

Gray asked Brady whether this team -- with an offense that can't seem to find its rhythm -- has what it takes to make it through the playoffs and win Super Bowl title No. 7.

"That's the question that probably everyone wants to know and tries to predict, but nobody knows at this point," Brady answered. "There's only one team that's going to be able to reach the ultimate goal. Out team's in a decent position, so we're not going to know until we're in that position.

"Like I said, we're 9-1. We've got to play great complementary football. There's certainly things that we need to do better offensively. Again, it's not what I think, or what I predict, or what somebody on TV can predict or what they think, or what their parents say, or what their kids say. It's really about the mental toughness of our team to show up and try to improve."

While Brady's play hasn't exactly been spectacular as of late, the 42-year-old QB hasn't gotten a ton of help around him. The offensive line has seen its fair share of struggles through the first 10 games and there's been plenty of turnover at the wide receiver position.

The way Brady sees it, his offense simply has yet to show its full potential.

"Look, everyone thinks, you know, they analyze every game and they know everything that's going on. We talk about ignoring the noise," Brady said. "There's a lot of noise and when you play great, you're the best team in the world. When you play bad, you're the worst team in the world, you can't beat anyone. And that's just riding the rollercoaster of emotions.

"We have a lot of good players on our team and we're trying to excel, we're trying to play at a very high level. I don't think we've reached our potential yet and I'll be excited when we do."

There's no doubting the struggling Patriots offense is a concern heading into Week 12, but Brady makes it a point to look at the positive side of things with his team boasting a 9-1 record on the year.

"I don't think any team's really a finished product. As critical as we can be of our team at times, we're still in a good position," he said. "We're 9-1 and that's a good place to be this time of year. It's not perfect ... but we've got an opportunity that we're going to try and take advantage of.

"I'm going to try and play the best I possibly can. I'm going to try to motivate my teammates as best as I possibly can, and we're going to try to go out there and put our best performance on the field Sunday against Dallas."

Brady and the Pats offense will look to get on the right track when they host the Cowboys on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET.

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