N’Keal Harry Departure Leaves A Clear Hole On Roster; Who Fills It?

July 20, 2022
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Last night, several league reporters announced that former first-round pick N’Keal Harry, a tantalizing draft prospect that amounted to nearly nothing for the Patriots, was traded to the Chicago Bears in exchange for a 7th-round pick.

The outstanding metrics from this trade were already discussed in a separate article on this site, so let’s look forward in time and see how this move will affect the team in the long run.

A Closed Door Leaves Another Door Wide Open

While the Patriots did trim down their wide receiver depth in this move – which they have plenty of, to begin with – the team, by no means, got any worse; in fact, some could argue that the team got better by subtracting Harry from the picture.

Along with improving the team, the transaction also provides a fresh opportunity for any players that remained behind Harry on the depth chart. These players include Tre Nixon, a minicamp standout; Kristian Wilkerson, an impactful contributor against the Jaguars in Week 17 who deserves some more snaps; and Lil’ Jordan Humphrey, a new signing to the team who is the most similar to Harry in terms of frame, but still is yet to break out in a meaningful way.

Quick Note

Before we dive in, I want to clarify what I view as N’Keal Harry’s (former) role within the organization.

I viewed Harry as someone who alternated between the X and the Z while occasionally contributing to Special Teams. Despite not succeeding in it, Harry could also serve as a “big slot” when needed and potentially be a red zone force. However, Harry only took 43% of the snaps available, so his hypothetical replacement will not be a massive contributor from the get-go. In essence, the player who will be “replacing” Harry will be a backup who gets promoted to a slightly more prominent role on the team.

Tre Nixon; Star In The Making Or One-Camp Wonder?

By the time June minicamp rolled around, Patriots fans were excited to see the team get back in action and connect before Training Camp came in August. Although the minicamp ended up being quick and brief, it was evident that a new potential star was emerging from the roster. That star was none other than Tre Nixon.

Tre Nixon at practice (via Chowder and Champions)

The No. 1 standout through two days of #Patriots minicamp has been WR Tre Nixon, a 2021 seventh-round pick out of UCF. He’s aligning in the slot and has made three impressive downfield catches in two days. He’s emerged as a favorite target of QB Mac Jones.

@DougKyed on Tre Nixon’s minicamp performance (via Twitter)

In football, almost everything revolves around the QB. Playbooks, teams, and drills are all changed and altered due to the abilities of a QB. Being the “favorite target” of Mac Jones, an essential component of the Patriots, is no small accomplishment. Having the QB notice your off-season work ethic is also no small accomplishment.

Mac Jones said he and Tre Nixon often would drive to the facility together last year. Also said Nixon was at every offseason throwing session. “He’s a grinder.” Nixon was the breakout star of minicamp. Caught all 10 of his targets, including three nice deep balls from Jones.

Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) on the Tre Nixon and Mac Jones connection (via Twitter)

Nixon’s “grinder” mentality, and his relationship with Mac Jones, may be why he secures a meaningful spot on the team. Inked in May of 2021, Nixon’s four-year contract is also an integral part to consider. If Nixon were to miss out on Harry’s spot this year, he has several other tries to get it before his contract expires. But, on the other hand, if he does get the spot and continues to utilize his relentless mentality, he might be on track for a bountiful extension.

Unlike Harry, Nixon is a little bit too small for the X spot, which likely means that he would have to alternate between the slot and the Z to remain effective.

Kristian Wilkerson; Due For A Big Leap Or A Big Flop?

In a bold move to bench N’Keal Harry against the Jaguars in Week 17, Bill Belichick decided to bring on an unfamiliar name to Patriots fans: Kristian Wilkerson. Wilkerson had only seen seven snaps in the last 15 weeks, causing his sudden presence in the game to confuse fans and players alike.

With the confusion still constant as the game started, Wilkerson quickly showed why he deserved to be on the gridiron with the first team, amassing his first NFL reception within the first three minutes of the game on a quick hitch-route. Then, after obtaining another reception – make that two in the quarter – Wilkerson also caught his first career touchdown, a nice flip from Mac Jones on a long crossing route.

After a highly productive first half by his standards, Wilkerson showed no signs of stopping, picking up yet another touchdown just 4 minutes into the 2nd half on a lob pass from Mac.

Most Patriots fans sarcastically remember the Jaguars game as the Wilkerson masterclass. Still, some are sold on Wilkerson getting much more playing time-based on that game alone. I think Wilkerson needs to show a bit more before getting called up.

Wilkerson may see an increased number of snaps, but I don’t think he’s quite ready to fill in for a higher role on the team yet. Standing at 6’1 and 214 pounds, Wilkerson’s size may be a huge upside to his game, with run blocking and short-routes his specialty, but he hasn’t shown to be the explosive option the Patriots are looking for. However, I have no doubts that he will improve with time and proper coaching.

Lil’ Jordan Humphrey; Mysterious Yet Intriguing

The Patriots signed former Saints WR Lil’ Jordan Humphrey nearly a month ago to a low-risk one-year deal. In his three-year tenure with the Saints, Harry went from receiving 19% of the available offensive snaps in 2019 to being offered 35% in 2021 (source: Pro Football Reference). If this statistic indicates, Humphrey proved to be an increasingly trustworthy player for the Saints, which is exactly what the Patriots need on their roster.

Last year Humphrey had 13 receptions, 349 yards, and two touchdowns. Compare that to Harry’s 12 receptions, 184 yards, and 0 touchdowns, and you can quickly tell that Lil’Jordan is a statistical upgrade from N’Keal Harry. Oddly enough, Harry and Humphrey also have the same height and weight, with the two parties standing at 6’4, 225 pounds.

Humphrey was more of a “big slot” receiver last year, but he could easily transition to an X or Z receiver due to his grueling physicality and size. He’s shown that he can use his body to his advantage.

A transition outside of the slot and into an X or Z role may take some time for Humphrey, but he is no stranger to adjusting. Coaches moved him from running back to the wide receiver in his Texas days based on his frame. Humphrey had to spend some time on the reserves and made memorable appearances on Special Teams due to the change.

Humphrey looks like a red zone specialist, but that was also the thought about N’Keal Harry, and that didn’t work out well. So at best, I can see Humphrey collecting 300-500 yards as a plug-and-play receiver, possibly coming into the game in an injury or a jump-ball situation.

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