Patriots

N’Keal Harry is shedding the ‘bust’ label and forming a bond with Cam Newton

“Doughboy has grown in front of everyone's eyes."

N'Keal Harry. Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Maybe it’s time to start taking N’Keal Harry seriously.

Was it only a week ago that the Patriots sophomore was at the tail end of jokes labeling him yet another bust in the Bill Belichick pantheon of failed wide receiver draft picks? That’ll happen when your lone magic trick of the day is turning a touchdown into a touchback as he did in the season-opening win against the Miami Dolphins.

When people start whispering the name “Chad Jackson” as a comp, let’s just say your dependability in the passing game might be a bit in question.

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Still, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton has been consistent in his preached patience for Harry, aka “Doughboy.” He summed up last week’s snafu as “one mistake,” and said that Harry is “growing up into his best self.”

In that case, let’s consider Sunday night in Seattle a growth spurt.

Harry caught 8 of his 12 targets for 72 total yards in New England’s sizzling, 35-30 loss to the Seahawks. But perhaps his most impressive moment of the night was on a fourth-and-three in the first half, when Harry gained 13 yards and was immediately leveled on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Quandre Diggs. The Seattle safety was ejected for the night. Harry, somehow, hung onto the ball.

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In the final moments of the game, as Newton was orchestrating a dramatic comeback, Harry caught a 12-yard dart that put the Patriots at the one-yard line, the same place from where he fumbled just a week ago. It was one of his three catches for 42 yards on the final drive.

That is, of course, where the drive stalled. But this was still a game that spoke a lot of the Patriots’ character; Newton’s ability to play the comeback role of Tom Brady in only his second game with a new franchise, Julian Edelman (a career-high 179 yards receiving) and the budding connection with a new gunslinger behind center, Devin McCourty’s pick-six off Russell Wilson, and his ensuing, national message of love to teammate James White, who was inactive for the game after losing his father in a car accident earlier in the day.

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Despite the loss, this was a reputation-building trip across the country. Harry happened to jump on board at just the right time.

“I think N’Keal is a tough guy,” Belichick said. “I think our team took a big step in terms of just the competition and the way we battled and competed against Seattle. I was just disappointed that we came up short but the competitive level is high.”

With 13 catches on the young season, Harry already has more than he did all of last year, when he caught only 12 of Brady’s measly 24 targets. It was an injury-filled campaign for the first-round draft pick out of Arizona State, a factor that already put him in the backseat to Brady’s annual refusal to work with young wide receivers.

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By the end of the 2019 campaign, Harry had displayed some highlight-reel catches. But he also had moments like he did against Miami. To assume he would emerge as one of Newton’s best weapons this year would be taking an obstructive leap of faith.

With Newton, though, Harry has been given a quarterback who seems intent on getting the best out of one of his targets, rather than eschewing him for old reliables, as Brady was wont to do. Suddenly, there’s a guy throwing to him that is working to build confidence, a process for which the former QB never had the desire.

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“Doughboy has grown in front of everyone’s eyes,” Newton said. “For him to gain confidence in himself, I think that’s a start. And I think that’s what he’s doing. I think today’s game was a great indication of that and what he could potentially be. Yet through it all, he still has to keep building to become the best version of himself.”

This probably shouldn’t be considered Harry’s “breakout” game by any stretch. He was good, but greatness wasn’t yet in the cards for the wide receiver. Still, the fact that he became a guy that Newton could depend on in two clutch situations Sunday night still spoke volumes about Harry’s progression.

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“We’ve all wanted him to come out and play and he’s been getting better and better each week,” Edelman said. “He’s grown up a lot this year.”

One week ago, most New England Patriot observers were questioning if Harry’s toughness and mental stamina were fit for the NFL. Then, on a night when Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, taken 32 spots behind Harry in the 2019 NFL Draft, burned reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore for a 54-yard touchdown, the situation was ripe for Harry, not to mention Belichick, to have another target on his back. Failure. Weak. Overmatched.

Bust.

Instead, Harry has almost doubled (!) Jackson’s career output in catches (25 to 14 for the 36th overall pick in 2006). Take that, flop brigade.

As far as character-building is concerned, it’s been a whopper of a two weeks for the team that Brady abandoned for his semi-retirement down south. After the Diggs hit, nobody could have faulted Harry for coughing up the ball. The fact that he didn’t quieted a lot of his Week 1 critics.

If Harry is consistently woven into the competitive fabric that appears to be forming in Foxborough, then the Patriots are going to have the rest of the AFC on notice.

But, then again, what else is new?

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