Answering Questions About the N’Keal Harry Pick

Since 2000, every franchise had selected a wide receiver in the first round—except the New England Patriots. That streak ended Thursday night, when New England tabbed Arizona State wideout N’Keal Harry with the 32nd selection. The Patriots’ spotty track record choosing receivers, along with concerns about elements of Harry’s game, raises some interesting questions. In attempting to answer those questions, however, we can find plenty of reasons for optimism.

Do the Patriots stink at drafting WR?

On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. They’ve used 16 picks at the position under Bill Belichick, but only developed three starters: Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002, and Julian Edelman in 2009. Matthew Slater (2008) has been a terrific special teamer, and Malcolm Mitchell (2016) gave them big contributions in a Super Bowl run before injuries cut his career short. That’s not a long list of successes, especially in recent years, and there’s a succession of day two failures to point to: Bethel Johnson (2003), Chad Jackson (2006), Brandon Tate (2009), Taylor Price (2010), and Aaron Dobson (2013).

Below the surface, the reality is more nuanced. The Patriots have spent little draft capital on wideouts. They are the only team not to use a first-rounder on a wide receiver since 2000. When you adjust for where they did pick players, they come up just short of average, with their seventh-round success buoying the day two failures:

Recent studies by Evan Lazar and Dave Mathis have shown similar results with slightly different methods. In each analysis, the Patriots WR draft record hovers around average—not terrific, but a far cry from the public perception.

Moreover, the Patriots have had little difficulty identifying pass catchers at other positions. Shane Vereen (2nd round, 2011) and James White (4th round, 2014) are two of the best receiving backs of the past decade, while Rob Gronkowski (2nd round, 2010) and Aaron Hernandez (4th round, 2010) were star receiving tight ends. It doesn’t make sense that the Patriots would struggle to identify quality wide receivers while excelling at evaluating pass-catchers at other positions. That disparity lends credence to the idea that their relative lack of success at WR is more random than anything.

Yeah, but still, what about those 2nds?

Small sample size or not, the high picks at wide receiver have not panned out. Evan Lazar’s theory is that the Patriots “they tend to whiff on prospects that were high-end combine testers but did not have excellent college production.” That squares with my view. Nearly all of their day two picks have been track stars who didn’t play up to their speed and potential:

This reflects a philosophy around draft picks in this range. In Michael Holley’s book War Room, Belichick explained:

In the second round, a lot of times you find players with first-round talent but not first round performance or production … [I]f you want that kind of upside, you want that kind of potential, then that’s where you’ve got to take it, because it’s not going to be there in the third round, generally speaking.

Belichick notes that this dynamic gives the second round a “bust factor”; if players didn’t perform to their talents in college, why would we expect them to do so against NFL competition?

Harry is a very different kind of prospect. While he tested well at the Combine overall, his 40 time was a pedestrian 4.53. But he put up 2,889 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns in just three seasons with the Sun Devils. He’s a darling of fantasy metrics, with a 95th-percentile breakout age and an 88th-percentile dominator rating. There are questions about Harry’s game, but college production is not one of them; he has some of the best statistics in the class.

What are Harry’s limitations?

One we’ve already mentioned: Harry’s long speed is just average. He makes plenty of big plays, but he is not the kind of blazing deep threat that will demand safety coverage over the top. Unlike the legion of shifty slot receivers who have populated Foxboro over the past two decades, he does not separate particularly well. And he struggles with press coverage, frequently just stuttering his feet at the line of scrimmage and not attacking downfield:

That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of like about Harry’s game. Aside from his production, Harry brings unusual size, at nearly 6’3” and 225 pounds. He plays just as big as he measures, causing problems for defensive backs with his blocking and runs after the catch. His 27 bench press reps at the Combine were more than any tight end put up, testifying to his physical strength. His bulk and power doesn’t mean he’s earthbound, however; he was 90th percentile in the vertical jump and 70th percentile in the broad jump. His toughness, leaping ability, and hands—which I rated the best in the draft class—make him a monster in contested catch situations:

Harry provides a lot of enticing traits, along with some weaknesses and areas he will need to refine. Arizona State moved him everywhere, both outside and in the slot, featuring him heavily in the offense. It’s an outstanding question where Harry fits best in the NFL. He has the prototypical size for an outside or “X” receiver, but his speed and separation limitations as well as his prowess with ball in his hands suggest a player who fills the “big slot” role. I like the big slot fit best, and I’m not alone: Matt Harmon and Matt Waldman see Harry similarly. Fans hoping for Randy Moss redux will be disappointed; Harry doesn’t have the skill set of a classic X receiver.

Do the Patriots need an X WR?

On the surface, that X spot seems like the biggest need, with newly-signed Demaryius Thomas recovering from an Achilles injury and Josh Gordon almost certain to begin the year suspended for recreational drug use. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Edelman has the slot locked down, but none of the other receivers—speedster Phillip Dorsett and new acquisitions Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington—look like ideal outside options. When we dig closer, there are reasons to think the modern game, and New England’s creativity with motion, formation, and personnel, de-emphasizes the classic requirements of the X position.

First, it’s worth looking at what we mean by an X receiver and what role that player generally fills. Six players on offense are filled by the quarterback and five offensive linemen. Traditionally, teams run “21 personnel,” with a fullback and halfback lining up behind the quarterback and a tight end lined up next to one of the offensive tackles. That leaves two wide receivers on the field. Since NFL rules mandate that offenses put seven players on the line of scrimmage, and the tight end and five linemen comprise six of those seven, one of the receivers also has to be up on the line. That player is the X receiver, or split end, who lines up by himself up on the line away from the tight end. The Z receiver, or flanker, aligns on the same side as the tight end, and because the TE is up on the line, he can be behind it.

Being behind the line helps a player avoid press coverage. If a player is up on the line, a defense can put a cornerback right in his face to jam him immediately. That’s tougher to do with the extra space flankers have. Moreover, one player behind the line of scrimmage can be in motion, and teams often choose the flanker for this duty, adding to the difficulty of disrupting his initial release. In this kind of traditional formation, beating press coverage is vital for the X receiver; he’s going to face a lot more of it than a Z receiver will.

As spread concepts enter the NFL, however, the lines between the receiving positions blur. The most popular personnel grouping is 11 personnel, which has three receivers on the field. Teams will often align their tight end or even their running back away from the formation, creating empty backfield looks, trips formations, and other looks that multiply the number of options an offense has. The X receiver no longer has to be alone, beating a press receiver in a mano-y-mano contest on the outside.

I don’t have charting data for the whole season, but I looked at two games to get an idea of how often the Patriots were using an X receiver alone to one side. Of the 70 offensive plays in Super Bowl LIII, only 22 featured a classic X, and in eight of those he was in a “nasty” split, closer to the line of scrimmage than usual. Since Gordon was unavailable for that game, I also went back to a regular season contest at the Miami Dolphins. In Miami, of 81 offensive snaps, the Patriots used a classic X on 30, with nine of those in “nasty” split.

Clearly, the Patriots don’t depend on asking a solo outside man to beat coverage on his own. They mix up their formation and personnel frequently, giving a bevy of combinations and looks:

  • Slot receiver aligned inside of the X up on the line, two slot receivers in a “trips” look
  • Flanker aligned outside of a slot receiver lined up on the line
  • Bunch or stack with one or two slots / flankers lined up very close to the receiver up on the line
  • Tight end of fullback lined up as X instead of a receiver

One of my favorite plays from the Patriots’ 2018 season shows how these options can help free an offensive player from press coverage. On 3rd-and-6, a down-and-distance where press man coverage is common, the Patriots line up with an empty backfield. Running back White (#28) is in motion as flanker on the far left, with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (#84) in the slot up on the line of scrimmage. Miami cornerback Xavien Howard (#25) lines up in press technique on Patterson.

At the snap, White runs towards Howard, bumping him off his coverage and freeing Patterson’s wheel route up the left sideline. Because the contact happens within a yard of the line of scrimmage, White is not flagged for offensive pass interference. Patterson could not be more open, Tom Brady lofts an easy ball to him downfield, and the big receiver veers his way to the end zone for a 55-yard score.

Patterson faced press here, but he didn’t have to beat it himself. With creative route concepts, spacing, formation, and personnel groupings, the Patriots can limit how much press Harry needs to face. Moreover, a few plays like this on film will give defenses pause before they put cornerbacks in press alignment. Maybe Harry isn’t a classic X, but maybe he doesn’t need to be.

What if Harry can’t pick up the offense?

The Patriots have a reputation for a complicated offense, with plenty of examples of not only rookie failures but veteran flops. Adding to the risk level here, the Patriots do not currently have a wide receivers coach after long-tenured Chad O’Shea took the offensive coordinator job with the Miami Dolphins. Brady, Brian Hoyer, Josh McDaniels, and the receiving veterans will have to work hard to help the newcomers get situated.

But in my view, the notion that receivers struggle because they can’t “pick up the offense” is overblown. None of the rookies who flamed out in New England latched on elsewhere and made contributions. That’s true of the veterans, too. Players like Chad Johnson, Joey Galloway, Reggie Wayne were at the end of the line. Youngsters Price, Dobson, Jackson, and Johnson did not thrive given opportunities with other teams. The adjustments and conversions the Patriots do are common throughout the NFL; with apologies to Frank Sinatra, if a receiver can’t make it here, he most likely can’t make it anywhere.

What are the Patriots doing offensively?

The forward-thinking Patriots shocked a lot of the football media by selecting Sony Michel with the 31st pick of the 2018 draft, at a time when analytics-minded folks increasingly believe that running backs don’t matter. They invested even further in running backs by selecting Alabama halfback Damien Harris in the third round in this draft. One common thread that links Michel and Harris is that they both rank among the best pass-protecting backs in their classes. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round pick from the 2018 draft, is another excellent blocker. Harry also fits that mold; I ranked him as one of the best blockers in the 2019 receiver class in my WR Superlatives column.

Belichick likes to zig when other teams zag, so as many teams move to faster, lighter players, he’s going the other direction, assembling heavier teams that play “bully ball” around the line of scrimmage on both sides. Second-round pick Joejuan Williams possesses rare size for a cornerback and physically dominates at the line of scrimmage. After Harris, the Patriots selected offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt, making 11 OL New England has taken since 2014. They figure to field an all-homegrown OL in 2019, and one of the game’s best.

As the rest of the NFL shifts to lighter players who can move in space, the Patriots have assembled a squad that can move those lighter players around. Harry fits into that. He can bully defensive backs while blocking, while fighting for 50/50 balls, and with the ball in his hands. Harry isn’t a perfect prospect, but the team can scheme around his limitations as he develops, and his strengths mesh perfectly with the direction the offense is going. It makes perfect sense that the Patriots made him the first first-round receiver of the Belichick era.

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