By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick broke character in April and drafted a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL draft for the first time ever. This was exciting.
That wide receiver made his NFL preseason debut by making a pair of professional catches in Detroit. That was doubly exciting.
But then that wide receiver limped back to the huddle, and then to the sideline. He was not seen again for the rest of the preseason, which led to him being placed on injured reserve on the Monday morning of Week 1 of the regular season.
This was not exciting in the least.
Now, instead of seeing how well and how quickly the 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver can fit in to Tom Brady’s offense, N’Keal Harry will be reduced to a mere spectator for at least the first half of the season. Harry will be eligible to return from IR after six weeks to practice, and he’ll be eligible to return to the active roster for games after eight weeks. That’s all provided that whatever injury he’s currently dealing with ends up clearing up in an expeditious fashion.
To be sure, placing a top pick on IR just before the season begins is never a tremendous positive for any team. It would be preferable to get a full 16 games — and then some — out of a first-round pick, no matter the position.
Still, there are some silver linings to be found it this particular roster move.
1. Demaryius Thomas’ return
The immediate impact of Harry’s slide to IR was the re-signing of veteran receiver Demaryius Thomas, who flashed (albeit against backups) in the Patriots’ preseason finale.
Coming off a torn Achilles suffered last December, it’s still an unknown whether Thomas has the speed and burst to beat top cornerbacks in the NFL. But at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Thomas still has some special skills when it comes to pass catching. His presence on the field — along with Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman — is sure to create matchup problems for defenses.
2. Jakobi Meyers Softens The Blow
For as much hype as there was surrounding Harry, he was not the Patriots’ most impressive rookie receiver throughout the summer. That title belonged to Jakobi Meyers, the undrafted rookie out of N.C. State who caught 19 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ first three preseason games. Those performances all came after Meyers shined on the practice field throughout training camp.
Granted, the Patriots probably wouldn’t mind having both Harry and Meyers to be used throughout the whole season, but in some way, only having one rookie receiver to integrate into the offense may lead to a somewhat smoother transition for all involved parties to begin the year.
3. Late Start Might Not Hurt
Speaking of rookie receivers getting integrated into the Patriots’ offense, the list of players who have fully succeeded in that endeavor is quite short. It looks like:
End of list.
(Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins’ rookie campaigns were technically successful, but that was largely due to a lack of options in 2013. Dobson caught just 37 passes on 72 targets.)
Branch caught 43 passes for 489 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, way back in 2002.
Mitchell Mitchell caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns in the 2016 regular season, before catching six passes for 70 yards in the Super Bowl LI victory over the Falcons.
While Mitchell’s rookie production has been hailed as the most success found by a Patriots rookie receiver since Branch, it’s worth noting that most of that production came in the second half of the season. From the start of the 2016 season through mid-November, Mitchell had just seven receptions (on 15 targets) for 95 yards with no touchdowns. Over his final six games, Mitchell caught 25 passes (on 33 targets) for 306 yards and four touchdowns. After missing most of the preseason with an injury, Mitchell spent the first half of the year trying to play catch-up. It took half the season for him to make up that ground.
In the case of Harry, the eight weeks away from the field will give him plenty of time to get to work in the classroom to get a full understanding of the offense, without the added pressure to perform each week. Think of it as a soft landing in the NFL for a player who has some high expectations to fill.
Plus, as has been made clear over the years, the Patriots tend to value football played in November and December (and January and February) more than they value the football played in September.
4. MORE GUNNER
After the preseason finale, there’s not a man, woman or child alive who doesn’t want to see more of Gunner Olszewski on a football field. That includes Bill Belichick, who just couldn’t stand to see the rookie sensation sent packing. Now we might actually get to see Gunner in a real NFL football game. That is exciting.