Trading for N’Keal Harry isn’t going to fix the Chicago Bears’ lack of proven talent at wide receiver, but the former first-round pick by the New England Patriots can give Justin Fields a skillset he doesn’t currently have on the outside.
No one is pretending Harry will be a dynamic playmaker in Chicago. General manager Ryan Poles gave up a future seventh-round pick, as close to “nothing” as you can possibly trade for a player in the NFL. The newest wide receiver is not guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster this season and isn’t even a lock to make it to the first preseason game.
But Harry can provide the Bears a style of wide receiver not currently on the depth chart. He has plenty of flaws that doomed his first-round expectations in New England, but the main skill that has translated from his time at Arizona State is his ability to make contested catches.
No one will confuse Harry for Calvin Johnson, but the 24-year-old has shown a propensity to hold onto accurate passes with defenders draped all over him.
Over the last two seasons, Harry has caught 60 percent of his contested targets, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a smaller sample size, but he has a higher contested catch rate than the likes of Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase and pretty much every top wide receiver not named Mike Evans.
He also has a knack for the back-shoulder fade, another direct translation from his production in college.
The cast of unproven receivers behind Darnell Mooney in Chicago doesn’t include a player who can make these kinds of physical catches against tight coverage. The wide receiver room is largely built on speed with athletes like Byron Pringle and rookie Velus Jones. Equanimeous St. Brown has length like Harry but remains more of a vertical threat and doesn’t offer as much strength at the catch point.
The problem with Harry is that he’s forced to make so many contested catches because he struggles to separate as a route runner. Of his 21 targets last season, 8 of them were contested by a coverage defender, according to PFF’s charting. Yes, the quarterback and the throw accuracy play a role, but only four wide receivers in the NFL had a higher percentage of their targets marked as contested by PFF.
Until he improves his route running and separation, Harry won’t be an every-down receiver in Chicago. But he could find his way onto the field in other ways. He brings some prowess as a run blocker, something the new Bears regime has emphasized for their wide receivers.
PFF gave Harry the third-best run blocking grade of any wide receiver last season. He’s not afraid to get physical with even the biggest defensive linemen.
Harry will have every opportunity to carve out a role for himself in an open wide receiver competition at Bears training camp. He and Chicago look like a good fit for each other, and this represents one of his last opportunities to rebuild his career on a rebuilding team.
Editor’s Note: For more on the N’Keal Harry trade, listen to Lorin’s analysis of where the new wide receiver fits into the Bears depth chart, on the Locked on Bears podcast: