The pressure and expectations resting on Patriots WR N’Keal Harry’s young shoulders in 2020 and beyond is absolutely enormous.
It’s kind of unfair what happened to N’Keal Harry.
In 18 years on the job, New England Patriots head coach and general manager Bill Belichick had never used a first-round pick on a wide receiver. Not once.
And then, in April 2019, he decided to buck that trend forever by selecting Harry with the final pick of the first round in that year’s NFL Draft.
While understandably no one needs to feel sorry for Harry — he’s making millions of dollars playing a game he loves in front of millions of fans — it’s still fair to suggest he’s under an enormous amount of pressure due to the history he made (without his consent too, by the way).
Harry never asked to be Belichick’s first first-round wideout draft pick. Who knows if it’s even an honor he’s proud of? He could be (and he should be), but it also wouldn’t be surprising if secretly he kind of just wished he’d been a first-round draft pick without the added label of being historic.
Harry’s career arc will forever be more scrutinized because of that historical component of his drafting.
For all the success Belichick and the Patriots have had over the past two decades, drafting wide receivers usually hasn’t been a strong suit. Most of the big names you associate with New England at the position — Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Josh Gordon, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, David Patten — all came via trade or free agency.
Home-grown talent — guys like Julian Edelman, David Givens, Troy Brown, Deion Branch — were largely all late-round draft picks … or in other words, fliers. Of that group listed above, only Branch was taken above the seventh round (he was a second-round pick).
The vast majority of the receivers Belichick has drafted just in the last 10 years, for example, haven’t panned out at all. It’s a forgettable list that includes names like Taylor Price, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Malcolm Mitchell, Devin Lucien, and Braxton Berrios.
As such, Harry carries a great burden with him in 2020 and beyond. Whereas other receivers on the roster are essentially playing with house money as formerly undrafted players (Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings, etc.), Harry is expected to be a major contributor this season simply because of his high draft stock.
Hopefully, he’ll be up to the challenge. He missed the first half of his rookie season to injury, and even when he did return, he often failed to gain separation and get open.
Best-case scenario projection for 2020
Harry has been making headlines this summer for his work on improving his route-running and footwork. In a best-case scenario projection, all that extra effort being put in pays off in spades once the season begins.
The expectation is that Harry will be at minimum the Patriots’ WR3 this year. There’s a chance he could even compete with Mohamed Sanu to be the WR2 alongside Julian Edelman. In an ideal world, Harry and Sanu are split out wide with Edelman in the slot during three-receiver sets.
The rosiest projection would result in Harry leading all Patriots receivers in yards this season. It’s certainly possible given his talent and work ethic, combined with Sanu’s injury history and Edelman’s advancing age.
Worst-case scenario projection for 2020
A repeat of 2019. Either Harry misses major time due to injury or he’s ineffective when he’s on the field. He didn’t have as much time last year to build up a rapport with Jarrett Stidham during the preseason — not like Meyers did, for example.
If Harry is still struggling to separate from the top corners in the league in 2020, it could spell major trouble for his future — not just with New England, but in the NFL in general. Especially after all the work he’s been putting in toward improving this aspect of his game, he’d better see some results this year.