In his prime, Rob Gronkowski was arguably the most dominant tight end in NFL history. His connection with Tom Brady made the Patriots offense unstoppable. Whenever he was sidelined with injuries, the Patriots offense sputtered. It seemed like whenever Gronkowski was out, New England fell apart in the playoffs. Multiple AFC title game losses can be connected to a missing Gronkowski. Their Super Bowl XLVI loss against the New York Giants could be partly contributed to the fact that Gronk had a messed up ankle and was hobbled the entire game. Brady managed to rattle off nine consecutive wins en route to his fifth Lombardi sans Gronkowski in 2016, but that is the exception to the rule. N’Keal Harry might be able to change that.
This season, despite the 8-1 record, has been a struggle for the Patriots offense. They rank just 11th in the league in DVOA, a far cry from the dominance of years past. While there are other factors, the lack of a legitimate tight end has been killer. Ryan Izzo, Matt LaCosse, and 100-year-old Benjamin Watson are not exactly the best options. The Patriots desperately need someone to fill that role, and the first-round pick Harry might just be what the doctor ordered.
N’Keal Harry Could Be the Player to Replace Gronk
A Physical Specimen
N’Keal Harry is a wide receiver, drafted 32nd overall from Arizona State in last year’s draft. However, he is not a stereotypical wide receiver. He stands at a towering 6’4″, and weighs 225 pounds. Eric Ebron, the stud tight end for the Lions, is also 6’4″ and only weighs 20 more pounds. Harry is a massive receiver, and could possibly fill the wide receiver/tight end hybrid role that Gronkowski played in for so many years. He will not be as effective, but he has the potential to be a fantastic talent.
The biggest hole in Harry’s game is his failure to get separation downfield. This is a pretty big concern for the next level, as getting open is a pretty important skill for a receiver to have. As a tight end, however, this lack of skill can be disguised. Tight ends are generally covered by linebackers, who are not as adept at coverage. If Harry could develop some semblance of blocking skill, some major mismatches could be created in the passing game. After all, his 27 bench press reps at the combine illustrate that he is a fairly strong human being.
A Perfect Fit
Out of N’Keal Harry’s skills, his contested catch ability is one of his strongest. Per PFF, he had a 94.2 grade in middle of the field catches, best in the NFL. His big body frame and catching prowess make him a great middle of the field threat. He would not be a conventional tight end, but the results would be similar. His best skill, however, is what makes him a fantastic fit for the Patriots offense.
Harry is dominant with the ball in his hands, or after the catch. Brady excels at giving his receivers the opportunity to produce after the catch, especially in the intermediate range of throws. If he can consistently get the ball around 10 yards downfield with some space, he could become deadly. Defenses this season have been able to focus on other aspects of the Patriots offense due to not worrying about a middle of the field threat. With Harry making his debut this Sunday, this will no longer be the case. He doesn’t necessarily have to be converted to a tight end to maximize his value, but he can be utilized in similar ways to Gronk and dominate the middle of the field.
The N’Keal Harry Effect
The Patriots are currently in control of the AFC’s first seed. However, they must outpace Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens the rest of the way to retain their standing. Since Baltimore defeated them, they have the tiebreaker. If the Patriots and Ravens end the season with the same record, the Ravens will have the better seed. It would be preferable to not have to go back to Baltimore, and rather take on Jackson and his unconventional play-style in the comforts of Gillette Stadium. To do this, the Patriots will probably have to at win at least 13 games, maybe more.
Assuming they win their last three games against the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and Cincinnati Bengals, they will have to go 2-2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, and Kansas City Chiefs. To be comfortably in the one seed, they will probably have to go 3-1 against those teams. The Eagles and Cowboys shouldn’t be as difficult, but the Texans and Chiefs are. The Patriots defense has struggled mightily against Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the past. Despite that, they are 4-0 against those two. Why? Tom Brady and the offense scored nearly 36 points per game in those match-ups. This season, the Patriots offense has not shown that they can out-duel another good offensive performance. The addition of N’Keal Harry could change this. The Patriots can not rely on their defense to win any more games. The offense needs to step up. If they can, Brady could be headed towards his unprecedented 7th Super Bowl Ring.