I’m not sure any team in the NFL has had a worse eight months, roster wise, than the New England Patriots.
First and foremost, they watched their long-time dynasty quarterback Tom Brady sign elsewhere. Then came the player opt-outs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Important players like Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, and Marcus Cannon all decided they weren’t going to play this season due to uncertain circumstances. The team did add quarterback Cam Newton during the summer, so they made up for the quarterback loss in some way when that happened, but it just doesn’t seem like the Patriots are as guaranteed of a success story as we’re used to.
One of the areas of the team that is a big question mark going into 2020 is the receiver room. The team still has their reliable slot receiver Julian Edelman, but outside of him, they’re betting on some “unproven” guys to hit.
If you look at the Patriots’ snap counts from 2019, focusing on the passing weapons outside of running backs, Edelman saw more than 1,000 snaps as the top target, but after him, New England will be replacing their second, third, fourth, and fifth-most used passing weapons. That’s a lot.
The two most popular names people are throwing out there as potential big-time contributors for 2020 are second-year receivers N’Keal Harry and Jacobi Meyers.
Harry and Meyers both came to the Patriots by way of the 2019 NFL Draft. Well, sort of. Harry was the Patriots’ first pick in the draft at the end of the first round—and was the first time in Bill Belichick’s Patriots tenure he’d picked a receiver in the first round—and Meyers was signed after the draft as an undrafted free agent. In the end, it was Meyers who recorded more snaps in the 2019 season than Harry did, but a big reason for that was Harry’s lack of availability due to injury.
Let’s first look at Harry’s situation to see how much the Patriots might be able to count on him.
Harry’s NFL career did not get off to the start many hoped it would, as he missed the first nine games of the season due to an ankle injury he suffered in training camp last year. In the final seven games of the season, Harry started in five, recorded 12 catches for 105 receiving yards and caught two touchdown passes—not exactly lighting the world on fire in a rookie season. But unfortunately, when you look at more precise analytics, it gets even less flattering.
Out of 143 eligible receivers graded by Next Gen Stats, Harry ranked last in average separation on all of his pass routes at an average of 2.21 yards. The lack of separation likely played a big role in Harry only catching 45.2 percent of his targets, which ranked 194th out of 210 pass-catchers who were in similar usage qualifications.
This wasn’t a new development, either, as lack of separation was something TDN's Joe Marino mentioned specifically in Harry’s final scouting report before the 2019 NFL Draft.
“Lacks the physical tools to be a top separator,” Marino said. “Has build up speed that slowly eats away cushion. Stiffness in upper body and torso mitigate his ability to truly snap his body around when making cuts/breaks. Took advantage of manufactured touches in college. Upright route runner overall. Breaks through contact at top of routes. Not a true route salesman but makes good adjustments on the fly.”
When it comes to making up for that lack of separation, Harry does have some concentration drops from his days at ASU, but he also has some truly spectacular catches—his rating in Madden for this should be in the 90s. There are a handful of plays throughout his 2019 season where Harry makes your eyes get wide. For a player who doesn’t do much for his quarterback in terms of creating a throwing lane, he makes up for it by reeling in catches like the one above. His ball skills are capped off with strong hands and an often-used wide catch radius.
Harry’s best role is going to be as an “X” receiver. He’s 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, and can really play through contact. Bringing in tough passes through tight windows in the red zone or even just at the sideline is a skill, and Harry does have the framework to make that his bread and butter.
Even if the separation isn’t ideal, the Patriots need an outside wide receiver. Harry will have the chance to play that role for them. The yards might not be as high as it will be for other players, but the touchdowns could be close to double digits. That’s a big piece of the puzzle they need to solve, as Harry was just one of three receivers to catch more than one touchdown in 2019.
So what about the other guy? What about Meyers?
Meyers was a former high school quarterback who converted to wide receiver during his first season at N.C. State. He started as a scout team player during his redshirt year, then worked his way into the receiver rotation until in his final season he caught 92 passes for more than 1,000 yards.
Meyers is a natural athlete who really made a name for himself during the preseason last year where he led all receivers in the league with 253 receiving yards. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Meyers is much more suited to play a “Z” type role for the Patriots, likely interchanging with Edelman on the outside or in the slot.
The play above was one of my favorites from Meyers during the regular season. It showed how comfortable and effective Meyers can be handling close coverage, playing from the inside close to the line of scrimmage, creating separation on multi-break routes, and what I liked most, how he doesn’t always go down at first contact and has a knack for gaining yards after the catch.
For a guy who floats around 200 pounds, Meyers is a tough task to take down. He shows great balance once he becomes a ball-carrier, and that natural athleticism from his dual-threat quarterback days comes out right away. I really like him as a quick-hit player who can motion behind the line of scrimmage, and as a guy who is comfortable finding soft zones and playing through clutter in the middle.
The Patriots will have to find some reliable targets that they didn’t lean on last year. Edelman will still be the staple, even with a new quarterback, but Newton will have to get consistent production out of both Harry and Meyers in order to continue the Patriots dynasty of dominating the AFC East. If the Patriots put Harry and Meyers in those kinds of roles, they’ll be setting themselves up as best they can.
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