Footwork key in N'Keal Harry's plan to play faster for Patriots

A rookie season that began with such promise ended in disappointment for New England Patriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry. Preseason injuries cost him half the 2019 campaign, and when the former Arizona State star returned to the field, he couldn't seem to get on the same page with Tom Brady. Of course, that doesn't make him the exception among Pats rookie wideouts during Brady's nearly two decades at quarterback for the team, but as a first-rounder, more was expected of Harry and very little was delivered.

Harry had major issues creating separation from NFL defensive backs and finished the season with just 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns in seven games. In fact, in a receiving corps that, outside of Julian Edelman, struggled to create space, the rookie was dead last in the group with an average of just 2.2 separation yards, per Next Gen Stats.

To his credit, Harry seemed to recognize his shortcomings. He's engaging in an intense offseason program in Houston, where he's working with a man known as The Footwork King, Rischad Whitfield, who has shared clips from their workouts on social media.

"I told N'Keal, I go, 'N'Keal, man, look. We're in the NFL, man. Xavien Howard, (Darius) Slay, (Richard) Sherman. It doesn't matter how big you are. You can't bully these defensive backs, man -- they got a family to feed, too,' " Whitfield recently told me during a phone conversation. " 'It's not about strength. You need to be quick. You have to win at the line of scrimmage. You got to use your feet. Move the defensive back with your feet, N'Keal, and finish them off with your hands.' "

Whitfield has built up quite the roster of NFL clients, including Odell Beckham Jr., Deebo Samuel, Mecole Hardman and Le'Veon Bell. Harry joined the group after Patriots teammate Mohamed Sanu -- who's recovering from offseason ankle surgery -- called Whitfield to give a positive recommendation for Harry. Whitfield noticed right away that Harry was playing too low, which led to an interesting conversation with the 22-year-old.

"N'Keal told me, he goes, 'All my life, I've been told to stay low, stay low, stay low.' But the lower you get, the heavier you get," said Whitfield, who was a kinesiology major at the University of Houston. "That's a science. Anybody can do a squat right now with no barbell on their back, have a little squat and then jump. The lower they get, the heavier they get. They can't move. I'm breaking him out of that mold."

With the lack of separation generated by Harry this past season in mind, the receiver has been taking part in position-specific drills that are focused on movement with a purpose. There is a concentration on Harry playing higher, getting twitchier and gaining more functional strength as opposed to weight-room strength.

"I told N'Keal, 'N'Keal, when you're playing, it's one-on-one out there, you versus the defensive back. Somebody's going to get stuck in the quicksand ...' " Whitfield said. " 'If he (the defensive back) gets on top of you, that means your feet are in quicksand.' But he gets really wide, so I'm keeping him working with his base narrow and a little bit higher, just like a boxer.

"This is the the prime example I give him: You can't box with no footwork. You got to bob and weave and move out of the way. They're nimble. They're light. I got to get him to that, because he'll get wide. He'll stomp. He'll move his feet, but it's so heavy that it's not going anywhere. He's not moving the defensive back vertical. With guys like Odell and them who are just, you see everything is really, really tight, just moving the defensive back like they're just skating on turf."

At his size -- Harry is listed by New England at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds -- he may never move like Beckham, but if he can unlock quicker feet, with a terrific catch radius and his ability as a red-zone target, Harry can be, in Whitfield's mind, "that first-round draft pick that the Patriots are expecting him to be."

Harry has been active on social media this offseason, most recently posting a tweet that stated, "Through the storm I shall prevail. #Year2Loading." He knows what's been said, and if Harry can answer his critics, the second-year pro will need to give The Footwork King an assist. But, admittedly, there is still a ways to go.

"I tell people all the time, I'm like, I'm that blacksmith. I take N'Keal's skills and I put them in a fire," said Whitfield. "Take them out of the fire, I beat the impurities off for him, and then I give them back to N'Keal, so they can be lethal weapons on the field. So that's what I'm doing with him. We're almost there with him."

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter @MikeGiardi.

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