No matter if it’s Tom Brady or Cam Newton at quarterback, Julian Edelman has been the engine of the Patriots offense for at least the last two years.
In 2019, Edelman’s 153 targets were fourth-most in the NFL. This year, his 179 yards against the Seahawks in Week 2 set a career high and almost led the Patriots to a dramatic comeback win.
But Edelman was mostly a solo act in 2019 as the Patriots sputtered in the playoffs. For them to thrive in 2020, they need to find Edelman a running mate.
The answer may have come in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss in Seattle. With the Patriots needing 81 yards for a touchdown and just 1:42 on the clock, the first play of the drive went to N’Keal Harry for 13 yards. The third play went to Harry for 17. And with nine seconds left, Newton hit Harry down to the 1-yard line to set up the winner-take-all play.
Three catches for 42 yards with the game on the line.
“It means that he trusts me in the critical situation," Harry said. "That’s all I can ask for as a receiver. It’s my job to help him gain confidence, not only throughout the game but throughout the season. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Harry came to New England last year amid great fanfare — the first receiver ever drafted in the first round by Bill Belichick in 20 years. And like most young receivers in the system, Harry got off to a slow start. He missed the first nine games of the season while on injured reserve with a foot injury, then caught just 12 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in a limited role.
“There’s no substitute for repetitions,” Harry said. “I just feel, as a rookie, it was just a lot harder for me to try to grasp the offense, missing half of the season, and then just getting thrown in there like that.”
But Harry, affectionately nicknamed “Doughboy” by Newton, is showing signs of developing into the reliable weapon the Patriots need him to be. Newton has not been afraid to look Harry’s way, targeting him 18 times this year, tied with Edelman for the team lead. Harry is averaging only 8.5 yards per catch, with 13 grabs for 111 yards, but his clutch plays Sunday were a positive sign for his development. He finished the game with eight catches for 72 yards, both career highs.
“Doughboy has grown in front of everyone’s eyes,” Newton said. “For him to gain confidence in himself, I think that’s the start. And I think that’s what he’s doing.
"I think [Sunday’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.”
Harry certainly isn’t perfect yet. In the Week 1 win over the Dolphins, he fumbled the ball through the end zone when diving for the pylon. He also got knocked backward on a play by a much smaller defensive back, which isn’t supposed to happen to a 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound receiver.
But the Patriots are a little thin in the passing game and need Harry to develop into a reliable No. 2 option behind Edelman. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they have been overwhelmingly positive when it comes to talking about Harry, ostensibly trying to build his confidence.
“I’ve been super proud of N’Keal,” Edelman said Friday on WEEI. “It’s night and day from last year of how he is. He has a year under his belt. He’s confident in certain abilities.
"That’s when things start to get well, is when you start getting comfortable, and then your athletic ability can take its place, when the game slows down because you’re mentally into it.
"It’s awesome he’s been doing what he’s been doing. We’re going to need him to keep on doing that.”
When Newton was asked on WEEI this past week if he wanted the Patriots to get him another receiver, he immediately defended his teammates.
“Man, I’ll say this: The answers are in that locker room," Newton said. “Simple and plain.”
Belichick noted that the Patriots are able to do more with Harry this year. Since he joined the offense midstream last year, Harry mostly played one position, and rarely went into motion.
“N’Keal has continued to work hard," Belichick said. "His role has expanded from what it was his rookie season. He’s now lined up in different positions and is able to add some variety to his route tree and the roles on the team that he can perform.
"I’m sure if he continues to be productive that those opportunities will increase.”
Six of Harry’s eight catches Sunday came from the slot, where he is getting more opportunities.
Harry said he has a much better understanding of the big picture this year instead of just his specific role, though he certainly missed out on valuable reps this offseason.
“Knowing the whole scheme of the play, instead of just knowing my position,” he said. “I feel like in this offense, coaches can use you more the more you know. So I really took that to heart this offseason and training camp and moving into the regular season. I’m going to continue to do so.”