This past weekend brought news that the Dolphins - now overloaded at wide receiver after signing Cedrick Wilson and trading for Tyreek Hill - dealt DeVante Parker to their division rival Patriots. The move is yet another decision in New England that spells the end of N’Keal Harry’s time with the Patriots, as he is now expected to either be traded or released altogether.
Harry was a former standout receiver at Arizona State whom the Patriots selected with the final pick of the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft. That marked the first time in the Bill Belichick era that the Patriots selected a receiver in the first round. The last receiver the franchise took in the first round was the late Terry Glenn in 1996, who later went on to have a very productive career renaissance in Dallas.
Harry never lived up to expectations in New England, which is why the team is giving up on him. Through three seasons, Harry has appeared in 33 out of a possible 49 games and caught 57 passes for 598 yards and four touchdowns. A year ago, the Patriots spent a lot of money to acquire receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, which prompted Harry to request a trade before playing out the whole season in New England.
So why should the Cowboys have any interest in Harry? Well, for starters, he’s exactly the type of player this team looks for. He’s a former first-round pick who can now be had at a very low cost. To paraphrase Billy Beane from Moneyball, “He sounds like a Cowboy already.” More than that, though, Harry’s disappointing career thus far has largely been due to factors outside of his control.
Harry’s first year in New England ended up being Tom Brady’s last year there. The aging quarterback went on to post his worst figures in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and QBR in over a decade. On top of that, Harry injured his ankle in training camp and was stashed on the injured reserve, missing the first half of the season. That hindered his ability to learn an infamously complex scheme and form any chemistry with his quarterback.
Harry’s second season in New England saw the arrival of Cam Newton to replace Brady. Harry and Newton formed a quick bond, and Harry had a strong start to the season as the team jumped out to a 2-1 start over those three games. Harry caught 15 passes for 145 yards and was a fixture of the offense. Newton then contracted COVID-19 and the Patriots offense was never the same that year, even after Newton’s return.
Heading into this past season, Harry experienced yet another change at the quarterback position. After a strong training camp that saw Harry’s connection with Newton return, the Patriots made a shocking, last-minute decision to cut Newton and start rookie Mac Jones. While it worked out for the team as a whole, Jones and Harry never seemed to find that connection that the receiver had with Newton.
Another issue for Harry was that he just never seemed to be a fit for what the Patriots do on offense. Under the Patriot Way, receivers have thrived in large part because of their crisp route running and ability to move east and west. That’s about as polar an opposite as you could find for Harry coming out of the draft.
At Arizona State, Harry was used much like a prototypical X receiver. At 6’2” and 228 pounds, Harry was at his best on deep routes with jump ball situations. The Sun Devils varied his role in his senior year, with Harry frequently lining up in the slot and flashing several highlight plays on designed screens, where his athleticism outclassed his fellow Pac 12 defenders:
At the NFL level, though, Harry’s average agility and separation issues cast him as a more exclusive X receiver in a vertical offense. The Patriots don’t use that kind of receiver much, if at all. As such, Harry saw a lot of slant and screen routes in his first two years, averaging just 5.8 yards before the catch. He got more burn as a deep threat this past season, averaging 13.3 yards before the catch, but it came with diminished opportunities while playing with a quarterback who rarely took deep shots.
Given Harry’s elite production in college, his strong athletic and physical profile, and how things have unfolded for him thus far, it seems like a change of scenery is the only way to unlock this former first-rounder’s potential. That new scenery should be Dallas, where the Cowboys are in need of receivers after losing Wilson in free agency, trading away Amari Cooper, and potentially not having Michael Gallup to start the season.
Like Gallup and the newly-signed James Washington, Harry would be a deep threat type who could stretch the field vertically and open up more passing lanes for CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz over the middle. Unlike Gallup and Washington, Harry’s massive frame would offer a more secure catch radius, taking some pressure off Dak Prescott to throw a perfect ball every time.
Once again, the reason this move makes the most sense is the cost. Dallas isn’t going to get AJ Brown or DK Metcalf, and hoping for such a deal is wishful thinking. Harry was drafted ahead of both those players in 2019, and it wasn’t a crazy decision at the time.
If the Cowboys can get Harry for a late Day 3 pick, or even sign him to a very cheap deal in the event of his release, they’d be getting a player with elite traits and strong potential for a rare low cost. If it doesn’t work out, then the Cowboys haven’t lost any real value. But if it does, and Harry regains the form that made him a first-round pick, it’ll be a grand slam for a front office in desperate need of one.