It's rare when Bill Belichick doesn't offer a surprise or two when it comes to the draft, and Thursday's first round was no exception. But while the Patriots coach often keeps everyone on their toes with a pick that catches people off guard or a trade of some sort, this time he kept us guessing by going the conventional route.
Wide receiver was one of the team's biggest needs (along with tight end) entering the draft, and picking at 32 offered a prime opportunity to do what he does best by swinging a deal. The surprise came when Belichick stayed put and selected a wide receiver – the first time he's used a first-round pick on that position in his 20 drafts in New England.
Arizona State's N'Keal Harry was the pick, a sturdy 6-2, 228-pound wideout with the ability to fight for the ball in traffic and make plays in the red zone.
"He's been a productive player and has some of the physical attributes that are important to that position," general manager Nick Caserio said after the first round ended just around midnight. "We thought this was the player that made the most sense for us."
Harry was one of the Patriots 30 pre-draft visits in Foxborough and he evidently showed enough for Belichick to pull the trigger on a wideout in the opening round for the first time. Caserio downplayed that aspect of the selection, focusing strictly on the present.
"We're not really concerned about what's happened in the past," Caserio said. "We look at the players that are on the board this year and we stack our board both vertically and horizontally. Relative to the options that we had, that was the choice that we made. The past has no relevance to this year and what's happening."
Wide receiver has not been kind to the Patriots in the draft under Belichick. Aside from Deion Branch, a second-round pick back in 2002, New England has struggled to find wideouts in the early rounds. Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson, Taylor Price and Brandon Tate were all taken in the first three rounds and none panned out. In fairness, the Patriots have found some luck late with seventh-rounders Julian Edelman and David Givens but overall the position has been a rare kryptonite for Belichick.
Harry has the attributes to change that trend. His frame allows him to make contested catches and helps him succeed in the red zone. He can compete outside the numbers, an area the offense sorely lacks, and with the depth chart badly in need of some options, Harry will have the opportunity to play immediately assuming he can pick up the offense.
"One of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air," Caserio said. "The coverage in this league is tight and that means you're going to have to make plays in tight quarters. Receivers have to do it, tight ends have to do it. The windows are smaller and the catches are going to be more contested. That's one of his strengths. They have to maximize whatever strengths they have."
One other positive factor to consider? Harry played for coach Todd Graham for two seasons at Arizona State, and Graham spent time with the Patriots last spring and likely offered some intel on the wideout, although Caserio downplayed that element as well.
"The relationships that you have with coaches, it's part of the equation but it's not necessarily an overriding factor because you're trying to gather information from a multitude of sources," he said. "But when you speak to the coach who is around them on a daily basis, he has some commentary about their growth, their development, maybe where they started, where they are now – they see that a lot more closely because they're around them every day.
"I'd say that's one thing our scouts do is try to talk to people, coaches, other personnel who are around these players so you establish some idea of what you're dealing with. We talked about it last year when we picked Sony [Michel] and Isaiah [Wynn] – the program at Georgia, how Coach [Kirby] Smart runs it, how much respect we have for Coach Smart. Those coaches have been around a lot of good players, so it's part of the equation."
Ultimately Harry's success will come down to how quickly he can acclimate to the Patriots offense, which is something that hasn't always been easy for newcomers – young and old. But Harry unquestionably fills a huge need, possesses the size and athleticism to compete and the mere fact that Trader Bill felt him worthy of staying put at 32 makes it a pick to be excited about.