N’Keal Harry returned to the New England Patriots’ practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on Tuesday.
And the clock started ticking as the rookie wide receiver did.
The Patriots have the next 21 days to activate Harry from injured reserve. The earliest the Arizona State product can return to play is Nov. 3 against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
That Sunday kickoff is set for 8:20 p.m. ET.
But the preseason opener remains the lone NFL game that Harry, whom New England’s war room selected No. 32 overall in April, has been a part of the kickoff for. It saw him catch a pair of passes for an acrobatic 36 yards over just three snaps versus the Detroit Lions before exiting with an ankle injury.
Harry had previously battled a hamstring issue in training camp. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound target now battles the acclimation process.
“I mean, he’s been able to keep up with everything,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday on his conference call with reporters. “It’s just physically, he needs to be able to show that he can go out there and participate competitively and at the practice level that we’re at. Hopefully that’s where he’ll be, but we’ll make our final evaluations on that before we put him out there.”
The Patriots have since then.
Harry is back at practice after six weeks away, and with a chance to return to play after eight weeks away. What the 21-year-old brings will be needed. Even if it isn’t precisely known what Harry, who concluded his Sun Devils career ranked third in program history in both receptions and receiving yards as only a junior, will bring.
New England’s active depth chart out wide stands with Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and a captain on special teams in Matthew Slater. But Gordon left last Thursday night’s 35-14 win over the New York Giants with a knee injury after playing under a questionable status. As for Dorsett, who has accounted for three touchdowns and 218 yards of offense this fall, he was ruled out for the contest because of a hamstring strain suffered just days prior.
Edelman proceeded to catch nine passes for 113 yards versus the Giants. Also chipping in were undrafted free agents in Meyers and Olszewski with a combined six catches for 88 yards.
Harry will get an opportunity to follow after having been limited to meetings and peripheral work. He’s the first Patriot to be designated to return from injured reserve in 2019. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn as well as fullback James Develin are candidates to join him, having both been placed on IR well after the 4 p.m. ET deadline on Sept. 1 with turf toe and neck issues, respectively.
Under league rules, however, only one will. And the odds are leaning toward the former top draft pick in Wynn.
But Harry is the first.
“N’Keal, he’s a talented kid and he’s got a long way to go,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said earlier this week. “I think the thing with a younger player is always you see some of the skills and talents they have, and you also see a lack of experience just manifests itself in some things that they make mistakes on. But every mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve, and that’s the way we’ve got to think about that with all our players, especially the young guys, is when they make an error, hopefully that’s a good thing moving forward that maybe we don’t make it again.
“N’Keal flashed the things we’ve seen from him. He’s a big guy that can go up and catch the ball. He’s a tough guy to get to the ground when he has the ball in his hands. At the same time, like all young receivers, there’s a lot of nuances to playing that position in our league that are critical to being a good player – releasing at the line of scrimmage, top-of-the-route technique, finishing plays against tight coverage. Those are things that are all going to come with experience and repetition, and it’s exciting to have an opportunity to continue to work with him. Really like the kid. He’s diligent. He works hard. He’s got a good attitude. He’s a good kid, so we’ll see how he can progress moving forward.”
Harry moves forward in New England’s plans on a four-year rookie pact worth just shy of $10.1 million. The organization’s highest-drafted wide receiver since Ohio State’s Terry Glenn in 1996 holds the rights to a $5.53 million signing bonus and a cap number north of $1.83 million in 2019.
Harry will now get an opportunity to hold serve.
The ball is in his court between now and Baltimore.