By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The July Fourth holiday has passed, which means only one thing: It’s football season in New England.
Sure, with a few weeks still left before training camp opens, that’s not technically true. But after an uncharacteristically quiet Patriots offseason, and with an uninspiring Red Sox season playing out on a nightly basis, the collective sports psyche of the region is gearing up toward football season.
And while the Patriots have their usual slew of areas to watch entering 2019, they do have a brand new story line that they’ve never had during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. They’re going to be integrating a rookie first-round receiver into the offense.
Prior to selecting N’Keal Harry out of Arizona State with the 32nd overall pick in April’s draft, Belichick had never taken a receiver in the first round before. Previously, his highest picks at receiver were 36th overall (Chad Jackson), 45th overall (Bethel Johnson), 59th overall (Aaron Dobson) and 65th overall (Deion Branch). Of those four picks from the top two rounds, Branch was the only player whose Patriots career could have been considered a real success.
Jackson, the highest of those picks, caught just 13 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie in 2006. He played in just two games in ’07, getting zero targets, before the Patriots released him prior to the start of the ’08 season. Jackson caught one pass in four games for the Broncos in 2008 but never played an NFL game again.
Suffice it to say, two seasons and 13 receptions was not what Belichick had in mind when drafting the speedster out of Florida. Making matters worse, Belichick actually traded up to draft Jackson at 36th overall; the Packers used the pick they received in return on that trade to select Greg Jennings, who’d go on to record over 8,000 receiving yards and catch 64 career touchdowns.
While Jackson’s inability to rise to the NFL level was the most dramatic illustration, the reality is that identifying effective receivers in the draft has been one of the few weak spots for the Patriots during Belichick’s reign. Belichick has drafted a receiver 16 times from 2002-18, and really, only four of those players have panned out. Two of those success stories came from the very unlikely place of the seventh round.
DEION BRANCH (2nd round, 65th overall, 2002)
43 receptions, 489 yards, 2 TDs in 13 games
Patriots career (first stint):
213 receptions, 2,744 yards, 14 TDs in 43 games
41 receptions, 629 yards, 2 TDs, Super Bowl MVP in 8 playoff games
DAVID GIVENS (7th round, 253rd overall, 2002)
9 receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD in 12 games
258 receptions, 2,214 yards, 12 TDs in 53 games
35 receptions, 324 yards, 7 TDs in 8 playoff games
JULIAN EDELMAN (7th round, 232nd overall, 2009)
37 receptions, 359 yards, 1 TD
6 receptions, 44 yards, 2 TDs in 1 playoff game
499 receptions, 5,390 yards, 77 TDs in 115 games
115 receptions, 1,412 yards, 5 TDs, Super Bowl MVP in 18 playoff games
MALCOLM MITCHELL (4th round, 112th overall, 2016)
32 receptions, 401 yards, 4 TDs in 14 games
7 receptions, 75 yards in 2 playoff games
It’s rather telling that we include Givens’ quiet rookie season and Mitchell’s one-year career in the list of successes at wide receiver in the draft for the Patriots.
And outside of that quartet, there is — for lack of a better term — a whole lot of nothing in terms of receiving contributions. A handful of seventh-round selections — Jeremy Gallon, Jeremy Ebert, Devin Lucien — never panned out. Brandon Tate posted zeros in his rookie year after being taken in the third round in 2009. Aaron Dobson did catch four touchdowns as a rookie in 2013, but never caught another one after that. The same applies for the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins in 2013. Josh Boyce caught nine total passes in the NFL after the Patriots selected him in the fourth round in 2013. Taylor Price was a promising pick at 90th overall in 2010, but he’d catch a grand total of three passes for the Patriots and five passes in his entire NFL career. P.K. Sam, a fifth-round pick in 2004, played just two NFL games. Matthew Slater (fifth round, 2008) has obviously built a dynamic career as a special teams ace, but as a receiver, he’s caught one career pass in a decade on the roster.
Given all of that history, it’s probably wise to exercise caution when forecasting what Harry’s rookie season will look like.
On the other hand … there figures to be a lot of opportunity for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound rookie.
With Rob Gronkowski enjoying his retirement, with Josh Gordon likely facing a suspension of some length, and with Demaryius Thomas working his way back from a torn Achilles, there will be some pass-catching opportunities for Harry early in this upcoming season. Factor in that the Patriots seem to really be sold on everything about Harry, and there’s enough reason to fend off any outstanding pessimism that may naturally be roused when discussing a Patriots rookie receiver.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Harry was a bit of a statistical monster in his last two collegiate seasons. He averaged 14.4 yards per reception and 89.2 yards per game while catching 17 touchdowns in 25 games. That puts him on par with Branch as the most productive collegiate receiver drafted during the Belichick era, which figures to bode well for him.
So, taking all of that into consideration — the Patriots’ history, the current depth chart, the production in college, the physical attributes, etc. — it’s time to put on our forecasting pants and wade into the waters of making a reasonably accurate prediction for Harry’s rookie season.
The worst-case scenario would obviously involve an injury or a much-less-likely case of Harry struggling to pick up the offense and get on the same page with Tom Brady. Anything less than 12 games played and/or less than 20 receptions/400 yards/4 TDs would be considered a failure.
In a moderate case, it would probably be most reasonable to place expectations on Harry to match the rookie seasons of Branch, Edelman and Mitchell. That trio averaged 37 receptions, 416 yards, and two touchdowns as rookies. While those numbers would not blow anyone away if Harry were to match them, and while they certainly wouldn’t help anyone’s fantasy football teams, they are nevertheless the most reasonable expectations one can place on a Patriots draft pick at receiver.
But then, of course, we must remember that Harry is the highest pick at receiver in Belichick’s tenure, and he had roughly double the production of the second-highest receiver pick in that time (Chad Jackson). With the size and strength, with the backyard throwing sessions with Brady, and with the reputation for going up and winning battles for balls, one would not be unreasonable to place slightly higher expectations on Harry. By that measure, we could say that a season with 55 receptions, 650 yards, and four or five touchdowns would and should be considered a major success of a rookie season for Harry. Anything better than that, and it would be fair to say that the 21-year-old will have shattered any and all expectations placed on him by just about everybody.