FOXBOROUGH — Rookie wide receiver Chris Harper is trying to do everything he can to make a good impression with the Patriots. But he already can say he has a former NFL standout in his corner.
Keyshawn Johnson is one of Harper's mentors. The Northridge, Calif., native played for Johnson's seven-on-seven team "1925 All-Stars" while he was in high school and considers him a "huge influence."
"I talk to him every once in a while, and he gives me advice and we keep in contact," Harper said. "When I'm back home I talk to him. And he just inspires me as a receiver because of all his accomplishments and all the things that he's done in the league."
Harper said that Johnson's most important advice to him is to work hard and seize every opportunity. That advice perhaps has been no more appropriate than in the past week when the injury bug bit New England's group of receivers.
Julian Edelman left practice early last Tuesday and hasn't returned since. Coach Bill Belichick said Thursday that Edelman is day to day.
Brian Tyms hasn't practiced since he also left last Tuesday's session early with an apparent arm injury. Aaron Dobson has been missing the last three practices. On top of that, Brandon LaFell and Matthew Slater are on the active/physically unable to perform list.
All that means more reps — more opportunity — for Harper (although the team didn't practice Sunday). Meanwhile, he's just letting the chips fall where they may.
"I can't afford to think about anybody else," Harper said. "All I can do is speak for myself and work as hard as I can to try and earn a spot on this team."
The 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound Harper already has shown that he can snag the ball. In a seven-on-seven session Friday, he dived to catch a pass from Tom Brady in the back of the end zone. Harper also caught a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo on the sideline during full-team work.
Belichick said that, like all the rookies, Harper is getting better.
"He's worked hard, he's done a good job for us," Belichick said. "And, we'll see how it goes."
In college at California, Harper had 163 receptions for 2,030 yards and 13 touchdowns. He made the decision to leave school early, after three seasons, to enter the NFL Draft.
"I think I was ready for the NFL," Harper said.
He had a steep climb to get there. Harper wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, and his NFL.com draft profile had him projected as a seventh-round pick or priority free agent. As it turned out, Harper had to settle for the free agency route.
Following the draft, Harper said there were a lot of teams interested in him. He liked the fact that undrafted receivers have had success with the Patriots before.
"That's part of the reason why I decided to come here," Harper said. "It was a good position for me."
Before coming to New England, Danny Amendola made a name for himself as an undrafted receiver with the Rams. Like Amendola, Harper is also hoping to turn heads as a returner on special teams.
He returned 19 punts for 122 yards at Cal. Harper knows special teams could be a foot in the door. And, during training camp, he has put his quickness and elusiveness as a returner on display.
"I think it's really important to be on special teams here because, you know, even if you don't make it on the team as a receiver, you can make it on special teams," Harper said. "And then down the road you can work your way into it depending on the circumstances that happen."
Besides Johnson, Harper said he's talked to Keenan Allen, another former Cal receiver who skipped his senior year. They were teammates in 2012 before the Chargers drafted Allen in 2013. Harper would seemingly hope to be able to follow in Allen's footsteps — through two seasons, Allen has 148 receptions for 1,829 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Harper is eager for his shot.
"This is the most hungry I've been in my life," he said. "This is a great opportunity, and being able to play for the Patriots is a great opportunity and I just want to be able to seize that and be a part of this team."