To learn a few facts about the Patriots’ two newest receivers is to be reminded that even the players fighting for NFL roster spots were often the best athletes at their high schools and colleges, top recruits, and members of families with football bloodlines.
Maurice Harris and Bruce Ellington aren’t household names and will have to fight to make the team in September, but they’ve both been around a lot of football success in their own lives and through family members. Harris is the cousin of Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, and Ellington is the brother of Buccaneers running back Andre Ellington.
Harris played at the University of California Berkeley, where he was teammates with Allen and another cousin, quarterback Zach Maynard. Harris’s wife Kayla is also the sister of Packers tight end Richard Rodgers.
“She’s on the fence sometimes about who to root for, but she cheers for us both,” Harris told redskins.com last year.
Harris also was a Cal teammate and close friend with former Patriots receiver Chris Harper.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Redskins in 2016 after a career year as a senior with 40 receptions, 558 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns. Harris played in 28 games in three seasons for Washington, catching 40 passes for 432 yards and one touchdown.
That touchdown was not one to be missed. One of Harris’s best attributes as a receiver is his ability to make spectacular catches, and his one-handed, by-the-fingertips diving grab against the Vikings in 2017 falls into that category.
In 2013 at Cal, Harris made a one-handed touchdown catch on a pass from Jared Goff in a game against Portland State that was athletic enough to earn a nickname – “The Grab” – and billing as ESPN’s top play of that weekend.
Patriots fans should expect to be wowed by some of that ability in training camp. Harris has great hands and at 6 feet 3 inches instantly becomes the tallest active receiver on the Patriots roster. What prevented him from carving out a substantial role with the Redskins, who declined to tender him as a restricted free agent, was inconsistency and a lack of physicality after the catch, two things he’ll have to work on.
Ellington played both football and basketball at South Carolina. He’d been both the South Carolina Coaches Association basketball player of the year and a finalist for South Carolina’s “Mr. Football” in 2009 as a high school senior. He was beaten out for the “Mr. Football” award by running back Marcus Lattimore, who also went on to play in college at South Carolina and was eventually drafted by the 49ers but retired before playing his first NFL game because of injuries. The “Mr. Football” winner the year before was none other than Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Ellington was a four-star recruit in both sports but played only basketball in his first year at South Carolina. He then joined the football team and was a dual-sport athlete for the rest of his college days. He averaged 11.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal per game on the hardwood and left after his junior year with 106 receptions for 1,586 yards and 16 touchdowns for the football team.
He was drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round in 2014.
Ellington spent the first two years of his NFL career in San Francisco, where he played sparingly on offense but was a productive kick and punt returner. He spent 2016 on injured reserve after tearing his hamstring in the preseason on a punt return and was waived the following summer.
The usual treatment for a torn hamstring is surgery, but doctors told Ellington that the resulting scar tissue would make him prone to reinjury. Instead, he had a rare surgery to remove his semitendinosus, one of the three hamstring muscles that work to flex the knee and extend the hip. Former Texans receiver Andre Johnson had the same procedure during his career, which encouraged Ellington to go through with it.
Hamstring problems have continued to trouble him, though. He finished the 2017 season in Houston and the 2018 season in Detroit on injured reserve.
The main question for the Patriots will be how much his body is still capable of and whether he can stay on the field. It’s a big question, evidenced by the low guarantee of $25,000 he was given to sign. Before going on IR, Ellington did have 29 catches for 330 yards and 2 touchdowns in 11 games in 2017 and 31 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in 2018.
Despite the surgeries and his 5-9 stature, he gave this assurance to MLive last year about his remaining explosiveness: “I can still dunk.”