New England Patriots rookie N’Keal Harry had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as a receiver at Arizona State before he was drafted in the first round in April. Steven Senne/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Soaring high above the league, unbeaten and unchallenged, the New England Patriots don’t need any more wind beneath their wings.

But sooner or later, as injuries take their toll and tougher opponents drag them into close games, the Patriots will need a lift for their passing game. In first-round rookie receiver N’Keal Harry, who appeared in his first regular-season practices this week, they believe they may have that lift.

“At the end of the day, if he succeeds, this team succeeds. And we all have one goal: We want to win,” wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said of Harry. “And we know that he can help us win.”

Harry has received one of the team’s two designations to return, tags granted to NFL clubs for players who were placed on injured reserve. Harry went on IR immediately after the preseason ended in August, meaning the soonest he can play is Week 9, when the Patriots will travel to Baltimore. Harry can practice with the team for up to three weeks before being activated or staying on IR for the rest of the year.

While he wasn’t allowed to practice with the team the first six weeks of the season, the rookie actively participated in meetings and workouts. Harry’s teammates have actively been telling him his time is coming.

“I know I’ve stayed on him,” Dorsett said. “Just talking to him every day about it. Just making sure he’s still in shape mentally, physically, emotionally, making sure he’s ready to play.”

Back in April, the chiseled, 6-foot-3 wideout generated enough faith in his pro potential to earn a first-round selection in the draft. Harry was highly productive at Arizona State with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to close his college career.

Another positive sign: According to Coach Bill Belichick, Harry’s been keeping up mentally behind the scenes.

“They need to see the same thing from two different vantage points,” Belichick said, “and that’s really what it comes down to is the quarterback needs to be able to see what a receiver sees, and the receiver needs to see what the quarterback sees and be able to make the right decisions on different routes, against different leverage and coverage.”

Specific to Harry, he and Brady have yet to connect in a game situation.

Two days before his only preseason action during the Patriots’ exhibition opener at Detroit, Harry suffered a hamstring injury in practice. Then, late in the first quarter against the Lions, he was gimpy after securing two passes on as many targets from Brian Hoyer. So the team called a timeout, Harry limped off the field, and he hasn’t been seen in pads since.

In his return, the Patriots need Harry to make big plays downfield, as he did that night against the Lions. He moved the chains running after his first catch, then grabbed a difficult back-shoulder throw along the sideline for 25 yards. These were among his best routes in college and can provide a basic foundation for success this season.

They’re also the perimeter routes where the Patriots have used Josh Gordon since he became their midseason passing spark last year. Initially, they built Gordon up through slants, go routes and hitches. This season, because of injury and a late start, Gordon’s production has slowed.

Physically, Gordon seems to have lost a half-step. His yards per catch average is down almost four yards from a season ago. Harry’s emergence could offset those losses, or at least buy Gordon time in his return to 100 percent health.

They’re similar in build, with identically listed weights, a 1-inch difference in height and comparable strength. Harry excels after the catch and physically dominated in his best practice reps of training camp.

Take it from a cornerback who saw him every practice this summer and, like Dorsett, believes in the potential he saw.

“He’s physical. Very physical,” said nickelback Jonathan Jones. “He’s developing. We’ve got our coaches that are continuing to help him grow his game. He’s still young, but he definitely has the potential to come and help us.”


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