FOXBOROUGH — Negotiating his way through the defense and catching the ball was the easy part for Clay Harbor. Negotiating his way through the Gatorade buckets and other practice paraphernalia? Now that was a little trickier.
Luckily for him, the Patriots tight end has a track and field background. So, after snagging a Jimmy Garoppolo pass Monday morning, he was able to leap and shuffle his way through the equipment without incident.
“It felt good, you know?” said a smiling Harbor, who came off the physically unable to perform list Sunday but fully participated in practice for the first time Monday. “I did some hurdles back in high school so I was just getting back into my old high school days, but it felt good.”
Asked how good a hurdler he was, Harbor said, “I was OK. It wasn’t my best event, but I still tried.’’
With twin tight end terrors Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett making head-turning plays seemingly every five minutes during camp, it’s been easy to lose track of Harbor, who was recovering from what he termed a “minor setback.’’
Harbor wasn’t willing to say what the “setback” was or when it occurred, but he was a regular participant in OTAs and minicamp after signing as an unrestricted free agent in March. What’s important now, he said, is that he’s ready to go.
“I feel good,’’ said Harbor, who had previous stops in Philadelphia and Jacksonville. “I feel like I’m 100 percent and ready to play and ready for these preseason games and practices and [ready to] try to win each day individually and just go from there.’’
Though he wasn’t able to join in the activities, the 29-year-old Harbor was a constant presence at practice and said he kept mentally sharp by watching and absorbing.
“It’s my seventh year, and I’ve had a few minor nicks, but I know how to keep myself prepared,’’ he said. “I feel like I didn’t fall behind that much.’’
As eager as he was to return, Harbor, who signed a two-year deal to come to New England, said he never felt frustrated during the rehabilitation process.
“As a competitor, you want to be out there and be with your teammates,’’ he said. “Obviously it’s a competition and there’s only so many spots on the roster and you want to get out there and show the coaches what you can do and have them gain confidence in you, let them see you do it on the field, not just in the classroom, and that’s a big part of it.
“Yes, you do want to get back fast, but you know you can’t hurry it up because you’re only going to hurt yourself and the team if you do that.’’
While it might seem that the Patriots are set at tight end with Gronkowski and Bennett, Harbor offers a different skill set. While Gronkowski and Bennett have the size (both in the range of 6 feet 6 inches, 270 pounds) to dominate as in-line blockers and receivers, Harbor is more a tight end/fullback hybrid. The 6-3, 240-pounder out of Southwest Missouri State is more mobile, athletic, and speedier.
Harbor said no matter the role, he’ll be ready for the challenge.
“I feel like I can lead block, I can do different things to help the team win,’’ said Harbor, who scored his only touchdown last season in the Jaguars’ 51-17 loss to the Patriots in Week 3. “I think we have a lot of great players. A.J. Derby, Steven Scheu, Bryce Williams, obviously [fullback] James Develin. Our whole room is just a mismatch problem waiting to happen.’’
The tight end room is also a place where two of the team’s biggest personalities reside. Gronkowski and Bennett have a commanding presence on the field and in the classroom.
“We’re so competitive, but it’s such a good group,” said Harbor. “We laugh together, we have fun. A real tight-knit group.
“Obviously [Gronkowski and Bennett] are two funny guys with big, eccentric personalities and just great guys to be around. A lot of fun. I enjoy it. I enjoy coming to meetings. You never know what’s going to happen in a tight end meeting. It’s always fun.’’
Though he has a different skill set and more subdued personality than his more well-known tight end brethren, Harbor said he has found his niche in the group.
“I would say I’m definitely more of the soft-spoken guy, but I’ll throw in a joke here or there,’’ he said. “I can’t let them dominate the whole joke arena.’’
Now that he’s back on the field, he doesn’t have to let them dominate the play in the football arena, either.