If A Fresh Start Makes Sense For N’Keal Harry, It Should For The New England Patriots

The prospect of trading N’Keal Harry falls along the same lines as his tenure with the New England Patriots.

It is a wait and see.

But if it’s now time for the 23-year-old wide receiver to move on, as his agent formally requested earlier this week, it’s time for the organization to do the same.

“For the past several months, I have been working in cooperation with the Patriots behind the scenes to put a plan in place to allow N’Keal to thrive in New England,” agent Jamal Tooson said in a statement shared by NFL Media’s Mike Garafolo on Tuesday. “Through two seasons, he has 86 targets, which obviously hasn’t met the expectations the Patriots and N’Keal had when they drafted a dominant downfield threat who was virtually unstoppable at the point of attack in college. Following numerous conversations with the Patriots, I believe it’s time for a fresh start and best for both parties if N’Keal moves on before the start of training camp.”

Arriving in the first round of the 2019 draft out of Arizona State, Harry marked the highest selection the Patriots had made out wide under head coach Bill Belichick. At No. 32 overall, he marked the second player taken at the position behind Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown in a class where South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin as well as A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf from Ole Miss were among those to follow.

Harry had finished third in Sun Devils history in both receptions and receiving yards. In the process, the junior entrant caught a pass in all 37 of his appearances for the program. But Harry would go on to spend half of his rookie season with New England on injured reserve and has since appeared in 21 games to make 14 starts.

He stands with 45 receptions for 414 yards and four touchdowns over that span.

Sidelined for two contests last campaign due to a concussion, Harry played 57% of the offensive snaps. Along the way were brief glimpses. They ranged from an eight-catch, 72-yard performance against the Seattle Seahawks to scores against the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers. Yet from the opener to the finale of New England’s 7-9 season, those brief glimpses did not come together to form a full picture.

New England then reshaped the picture as the new league year opened, investing two-year and three-year deals in veteran wideouts Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to go with top tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. And with the emergence of 2020 receiving leader Jakobi Meyers, who went undrafted the spring prior, Harry projected into a competition for the fourth spot on the 53-man roster’s depth chart this summer.

It is a depth chart that also includes All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski, 2021 seventh-rounder Tre Nixon along with Isaiah Zuber, Kristian Wilkerson, Devin Smith, Devin Ross and Marvin Hall.

“N’Keal understands a key ingredient to production is opportunity,” Tooson’s statement continued. “He will continue to work hard to develop and refine his craft after missing a large portion of his rookie year to injury. His draft-day expectations for his NFL career have not changed. We are confident success is just around the corner for him and will aggressively pursue it.”

Harry’s success rate on contested catches at Arizona State has yet to translate at the NFL level. The same holds true on the likes of screens into the flats and drags over the middle. A lack of route separation has remained despite efforts to generate it through training and scheming.

Open on 25.5% of the throws sent his way against single coverage, Harry ranks 99th out of 100 qualifiers since entering the league, per Pro Football Focus. He was targeted an average depth of 8.4 yards downfield with the Patriots last season while averaging .97 yards per route run and 3.1 yards after the catch per catch.

A different system could potentially provide a different usage for Harry. A late-round pick looms as the most likely trade compensation, however, and it is up to the team that drafted him to weigh the value of a flier versus his current value.

Harry is due base salaries of $1.413 million and $1.872 million over the final years of his rookie contract. An acquiring club would not take on his $1.341 million signing bonus proration. And if placed on waivers instead of traded, New England would lose $1.6 million in cap space and receive a credit in 2022 for any cash Harry garners from another club in 2021, according to Miguel Benzan of PatsCap.

A conclusion nears. Time will tell whether it brings a fresh start.

Training camp begins in Foxborough on July 28.

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