NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots head into voluntary offseason workouts with a roster of 64 names.
Three of whom are listed as tight ends.
The select group is indeed headlined by two-time All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, who is on the road to recovery from ACL and MCL tears suffered in December. Second in command is 25-year-old utility man Michael Hoomanawanui, who’s back with the team on a two-year deal after making 10 starts in 2013. And rounding out the list is 6’2”, 245-pound flex target D.J. Williams, who was signed, cut and re-signed to play two Patriots games last season.
It’s a group that carries a bit of everything – a prolific seam-stretching “Y”, a versatile blocker-slash-special-teamer, and an “F” receiver on his third team in two seasons. It’s also a group surrounded by question marks, given Gronkowski’s prognosis and fact that his understudies have combined for 46 receptions in 78 regular-season games.
But it is a group head coach Bill Belichick and Co. stuck with through the height of free agency, even after veteran Owen Daniels visited, even after 2013 No. 3 option Matthew Mulligan departed for the Chicago Bears.
As the 2014 NFL draft draws near, however, the group should soon look different. New England has been widely forecasted to bolster the tight end position. And for what it’s worth, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz, Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore, Fresno State’s Marcel Jensen, California’s Richard Rodgers and Virginia Tech’s D.J. Coles have all had their names linked.
Yet while all signs point towards the Patriots adding a fourth, a fifth or even a sixth name to the tight end depth chart this May, there’s an outside possibility that an in-house name could also join them.
Second-year wide receiver Mark Harrison.
It was an idea that seemed to gain steam late last season, long after the Rutgers product went undrafted when he fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot, long after he failed his physical with the Chicago Bears, and long after he was placed on the non-football injury list by the Patriots.
And when ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss revealed that at least one other NFL team viewed Harrison as more of a “Move” tight end than a receiver during the pre-draft process, it seemed all the more conceivable.
But the sample size remains a small one.
Harrison saw his rookie year come to an end before it began. He donned a hat and sweats – sometimes shorts – for the duration of training camp.
As the regular season got underway, he never officially returned practice before the Week 9 deadline.
Because of that, there was no point of reference when it came to the 23-year-old’s development. There was no information to glean when it came to the Stratford, Conn., native’s fit in Foxborough.
All there was to reflect on was his physical potential.
As a powerfully built, 6’3”, 230-pound pass-catcher with 35-inch arms, there’s reason to believe Harrison has plenty of it. If you account for his 4.46 40-yard dash time, 6.99 three-cone, 17 bench reps, 38.5-inch vertical leap and 129-inch broad jump at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, then you’re almost assured of it.
In many ways, though, a year on ice has only heightened expectations for what he could be.
He could be a viable wideout on a roster that carried a total of seven rookie and first-year players in some capacity last season. He could be a hybrid tight end in an offense that used Hoomanawanui in the slot and fullback James Develin out wide.
He could be both. He could be neither.
Yet whatever the Patriots envision Harrison becoming, his acclimation will come with a learning curve.
Adapting to New England’s playbook methodology and variable-laden option routes are tests that not all wide receivers pass. Being in the huddle, understanding and applying those in-game decisions are invaluable, not to mention vital, in earning the trust of the quarterback.
It’s an area where Harrison has had to work hard to keep up, attempting to absorb all the nuances from positional meetings, film study and practice observation. Nevertheless, it’s something he hasn’t had the benefit of experiencing at full-speed, playing without thinking.
Consequently, the offseason program, which opened on April 21, will be all the more critical for him.
It is another opportunity for him to leave a first impression.
With that the case, it may be premature to project his future with the team. Then again, the reality is that Harrison cracking the 53-man roster as a wideout may be a tall order when the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce could be on the bubble. On the other hand, adapting to a new role at tight end may also be trial by fire, even with only two healthy players occupying the position.
Tight ends spend years refining their footwork, leverage and hand technique, all while expanding their responsibilities inline, offline and everywhere in between. Even then, there is no guarantee that those years of work will translate in an offensive scheme or a job.
Granted, if Harrison was converted to “Move” tight end, he wouldn’t be asked to block like Kyle Brady; he would presumably see his share of snaps out wide. Still, he would be asked to run-block defensive ends and linebackers on occasion. He would have to be willing to play physical at a location where the bodies are bigger and the ball moves faster.
To his credit, Harrison looked willing to shield defensive backs during his time in Piscataway, N.J.
That could carry over in his route-running.
If Harrison were to make the transition, he would have to shed stifling jams behind at the line of scrimmage in addition to the slot and outside the numbers. Since college defenses often approached him with press-bail and off-coverage looks which allowed him a head start, this could be difficult once the lights come on.
Even so, that can’t be held exclusively against him; it’s a contrast the majority of receiving prospects face as they head to the next level. And if others under the “Move” title serve as any trend, he would be in the cards for running more skinny post, drag, flat, comeback, and tunnel-screen patterns as well.
Courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com, those routes don’t stem all that far from the tree he ran with the Scarlet Knights.
Harrison cut his teeth on skinny post, flat, comeback and tunnel-screen patterns, while also running slants, stops and fades. Each had a purpose, whether it was exploiting his size to track the ball downfield, or maximizing his burst to evade defenders post-catch in the open field.
Although he wasn’t always sure-handed in extending through the catch point or through traffic, he displayed the toughness to box out and work back to the pass at the sideline. And although he wasn’t the most precise, flexible, fluid or elusive runner with the ball in his hands, he displayed the get-up speed and balance to run past tackles or absorb them.
Those features of his game could bode well for him, wherever he aligns in the future, when or if he plays a down in 2014.
As of now, all of those moving parts remain unassembled. There are no guarantees; Harrison hasn’t played a football game since Dec. 28, 2012.
Much has evolved around the landscape since then.
Yet perhaps so has he.
Tags: Mark Harrison