New England Patriots: Is Chris Harper this year’s Malcolm Butler?


By this point, everybody should know the story of Malcolm Butler. An undrafted rookie free-agent out of the University of West Alabama, Butler signed with the New England Patriots and ended up making the 53-man roster with an impressive training camp and preseason.

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Then, in the biggest stage at the biggest moment, Butler intercepted Russell Wilson‘s pass at the goal line with 20 seconds remaining to essentially win his team the Super Bowl. This isn’t something all that new to the Patriots – Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft while Julian Edelman wasn’t selected until the seventh round in 2009. The question is, who’s the next one?

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The answer may be Chris Harper, a wide receiver who played three seasons at the University of California. Harper had a big year in 2013 – he finished with 70 catches for 852 yards and five touchdown receptions, including a ridiculous 14 catch, 231 yard performance against Washington State. He wasn’t as effective last season, however, as his reception total dropped to 52, although he still managed to find the end zone six times.

In two preseason games, Harper has been one of the bright spots for the Patriots. He caught seven passes for 48 yards in a 22-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers last week and followed that up with five catches for 69 yards last night against the New Orleans Saints, including a 24 yard touchdown reception at the end of the first half. Harper also showed his versatility in the kicking game, returning a kickoff for 30 yards and a punt for 28 yards.

Harper faces stiff competition, as the Patriots have some depth at the receiver position. Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell are locks, and the Patriots may not be ready to give up on third-year player Aaron Dobson. Brian Tyms was impressive in spurts last season while newcomer Brandon Gibson has had a solid camp and appears to have some chemistry with Brady. Add in special team star Matthew Slater, who qualifies as a receiver, and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of room for Harper.

Injuries are the great equalizer, however, and the Patriots’ receiving core has been bitten hard by the injury bug. Both Edelman and LaFell are banged up, and there’s a chance LaFell may not be ready to start the season. Dobson and Tyms are also having difficulties getting on the field, and Gibson left last night’s game against the Saints with an injury.

According to ESPN reporter Mike Reiss, he was walking with a limp in the locker room after the game. This has opened up the door for Harper to prove he belongs on the 53-man roster, an opportunity he has seized so far early in the preseason. The coaching staff seem to be noticing, as Harper was a much bigger factor in the offense last night than third-year receiver Josh Boyce, who is also fighting for a roster spot.

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots have shown that they are willing to take chances on relatively unknown players in the past. They kept Brady as the fourth quarterback on the roster in 2000 and they kept Butler last season, despite already having Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan at the corner position.

No one is expecting Harper to catch the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 50 – but there is a chance he might play a part in helping the Patriots get there.

Next: Malcolm Butler will be just fine

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