FOXBORO — Soaring high above the league, unbeaten and unchallenged, the Patriots don’t need any more wind beneath their wings.
But sooner or later, as injuries take their toll and tougher opponents drag them into close games, the Pats will need a lift for their passing game. In first-round rookie receiver N’Keal Harry, who appeared in his first regular-season practice Tuesday, they believe they may have that lift.
“At the end of the day, if he succeeds, this team succeeds. And we all have one goal: we want to win,” wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said of Harry. “And we know that he can help us win.”
Harry has received one of the team’s two available designations to return, tags granted to NFL clubs for players who were placed injured reserve midseason. Harry went on IR immediately after the preseason ended in August, meaning the soonest he can play is Week 9, when he’ll have been inactive for the minimum eight weeks and the Pats will travel to Baltimore. Harry can practice with the team for up to three weeks before he must either be activated or remain on IR for the rest of the year.
As he’s been kept out of practice the last six weeks, the rookie’s actively participated in meetings and workouts. Simultaneously, Harry’s teammates have actively been in his ear saying his time is coming.
“I know I’ve stayed on him,” Dorsett said. “Just talking to him every day about it. Just making sure he’s still in shape mentally, physically, emotionally, making sure he’s ready to play.”
Back in April, the chiseled, 6-foot-3 wideout generated enough faith in his pro potential to earn a first-round selection in the draft. Harry was highly productive at Arizona State with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to close his college career. Such production is historically a positive, predictive sign for receiver prospects.
Another positive sign: Per Bill Belichick, Harry’s been keeping up mentally behind the scenes.
“They need to see the same thing from two different vantage points,” Belichick said, “and that’s really what it comes down to is the quarterback needs to be able to see what a receiver sees, and the receiver needs to see what the quarterback sees and be able to make the right decisions on different routes, against different leverage and coverage.”
Specific to Harry, the two have yet to connect in a game situation.
Two days before his only preseason action during the Pats’ opener at Detroit, Harry suffered a hamstring injury in practice. Then, late in the first quarter of the opener, he was gimpy after securing two passes on as many targets from Brian Hoyer. So the team called a timeout, Harry limped off the field and hasn’t been seen in pads since.
In his return, the Pats need Harry to win downfield as he did that night against the Lions. He moved the chains running his first catch, then he grabbed a difficult back-shoulder throw along the sideline for 25 yards. These were among his best routes in college and can provide a basic foundation for success later in the season.
They’re also the perimeter routes the Patriots have charged Josh Gordon with running since he became their midseason passing spark last year. Initially, they built Gordon up through slants, go routes and hitches. This season, due to injury and a late start, Gordon’s production has slowed despite a wider breadth of responsibility.
Physically, he seems to have lost a half-step. He gained a single yard on the one reverse he’s run. His yard per catch is down almost four yards from a season ago. Harry’s emergence could offset those losses or at least buy Gordon time in his return to 100 percent health.
They’re similar in build, with identically listed weights, a one inch difference in height and comparable strength. Harry excels after the catch and physically dominated in his best practice reps of training camp and the preseason.
Take it from a cornerback who saw him every practice this summer and, like Dorsett, believes in the potential he saw.
“He’s physical. Very physical,” said nickelback Jonathan Jones. “He’s developing. We’ve got our coaches that are continuing to help him grow his game. He’s still young, but he definitely has the potential to come and help us.”
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