With all the question marks at receiver for the New England Patriots, leave it to coach Bill Belichick to find the most improbable answer: 6-foot-3 former undrafted free agent Maurice Harris, who was held under lock and key for the last three seasons by the Washington Redskins.
Belichick brought out the bolt cutters for training camp after signing Harris to a one-year deal, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has fallen in love with his new receiving weapon faster than Daenerys Targaryen could say “Dracarys.”
A new connection is brewing in the heart of Foxborough, and it’s the kind that could turn heads when the bright lights and game jerseys come on.
The receiver position is so wide open right now for the Patriots that even former quarterback Danny Etling is being considered a viable option.
Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman, Brady’s favorite target, is out for at least three weeks with a broken thumb. Five-time Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas, who was signed by the Patriots to a one-year deal in the offseason, is still playing pitch-and-catch on the sidelines with Brady, while on the PUP list recovering from Achilles surgery.
Then there’s the Josh Gordon suspension, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been more tight-lipped on than an Area 51 guard.
Even with all the hype surrounding standout rookie first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, Harris has looked like the best receiver on the field when competing.
His versatility and ability to absorb information on the fly is a rare, but necessary, combination for any player making the transition to the Patriots’ chameleon-like offense.
Most would assume that a player of Harris’ size would line up on the outside and be utilized predominantly for home run plays, but he has mostly excelled in the slot, eating up chunk plays in traffic, while exhibiting reliable hands and good timing with Brady.
There is nothing flashy about the way he conducts business, either. He isn’t blowing past defenders with outrageous speed or hauling in the impossible circus catches he’s shown he’s capable of making.
It’s more of the smooth route-running and savvy use of inside leverage that has seemingly put him in the right position to consistently make plays, which is something seriously lacking for the banged-up Patriots offense in the post-retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Harris’ knowledge of the playbook is also further along than expected. How many times have we seen longtime veterans join the Patriots, only to be confounded by the playbook to the point where they are completely ineffective?
There’s a graveyard of what-could-have-beens out back at Gillette Stadium.
“He’s learned well,” Belichick said on Monday night, via NESN.com. “He’s played multiple positions. We’ll see how it goes. We still have a long way to go. There are a lot of things that are going to happen here in camp. We’ll see how it all turns out. He’s done a good job.”
Harris, who is already taking first-team snaps for the Patriots, might soon be looked at as the one that got away for the Redskins.
His opportunities were limited in his short tenure in Washington, and although he showed clear signs of ascending in 2018, the receiver-needy Redskins didn’t put much effort into keeping him around.
After only catching four receptions for 62 yards in his second year in the league, he hauled in 28 receptions for 304 yards when his work load increased last season, which was also a transitionary period for the Redskins with Alex Smith stepping in as the new franchise quarterback.
Smith would also suffer a season-ending injury that year and force Harris into playing with a revolving door of quarterbacks like Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson—a depressing and downright frustrating situation for any young receiver
Fast-forward to a year later, and the 26-year-old receiver is playing for the reigning Super Bowl champions and catching passes from the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
That perpetual Patriots machine that seamlessly substitutes parts is adding another unknown player that could potentially turn into a household name by the end of the season—another possible masterstroke move by a six-time Super Bowl-winning team showing no signs of slowing down.
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