The New Orleans Saints made out like bandits in the undrafted free agency frenzy this spring, grading highly on a several sites’ rankings. Most of the buzz has been about a pair of offensive linemen – Michigan State’s Jack Allen and North Carolina’s Landon Turner. But a Texas A&M defensive back may very well be the best of the bunch.
It’s the opening drive of 2015’s tilt between Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze’s squad is tearing up everything in its path, even walking out of Tuscaloosa, AL with a win. Texas A&M is having a good year, too; senior cornerback De’Vante Harris is having the best season of his young career and is hoping to go out on a high note. His job tonight? Keep All-SEC and future first-round NFL draft pick Laquon Treadwell at bay.
Freeze calls a screen on the second play of the game. Treadwell, who towers over Harris by four inches and outweighs him by at least 40 pounds, charges upfield to block the diminutive defensive back out of viewers’ TV screens.
Harris isn’t having it. He digs in his heels and gets blown about a yard off the line of scrimmage by Treadwell’s initial contact. This would be enough to end the play for most defenders. It isn’t the case with Harris. He shifts his weight, somehow gets beneath Treadwell’s pads, and pivots – using the bigger receiver’s momentum against him. In one slick motion Harris bodily throws Treadwell out-of-bounds in an impressive display of intelligence and functional strength.
Then Harris resets and assists in the tackle to stop the screen well-short of a first down conversion.
Harris and Treadwell go on back and forth that night, with Harris winning some more reps – like a savvy redirection to save an easy score in the red zone, and holding up against more devastating blocks on the edge.
As expected, Treadwell wins some reps too; he scores a long touchdown after beating Harris off the line of scrimmage and using a good angle to split Harris and the safety, walking untouched into the end zone.
But Harris showed he can play hard, and at a high level. He never lacked for confidence and won many more snaps than he lost, though A&M was tidily packed away 23-3 by the end of regulation. He played with a big heart – a lion’s heart – despite being outmatched by an opponent with a bigger name and stature. If the New Orleans Saints are going to rebuild their defense, they need players like Harris to staff it.
Brandon Williams, A&M’s starting corner opposite De’Vante Harris, was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but Harris outplayed him for several years in the Southeastern Conference.
- Height: 5-foot-11
- Weight: 180 pounds
- Arm length: 30 5/8 inches
- Hands: 8 1/8 inches
Harris started for Texas A&M for three years, and ran the gamut of talented All-SEC receivers. He notably spent most of a game against LSU in 2013 matched up solo on Odell Beckham Jr, winning a number of reps against the future All-Pro. Beckham won his share of snaps, but I left the game with the impression that Harris gave more than he got in that contest. Harris has allowed only one touchdown into his coverage since the 2013 season (to Treadwell, as seen above), his first as an every-down starter.
Size hasn’t been as much of an issue for Harris as you may first suspect. He regularly matched up with stout opponents like Ole Miss’ 6-foot-2 Treadwell (now of the Minnesota Vikings) and 6-foot-3 Cody Core (drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals), Mississippi State’s 6-foot-5 De’Runnya Wilson (possibly a New England Patriots receiver/tight end), Missouri’s 6-foot-6 Dorial Green-Beckham (running routes for the Tennessee Titans), and Auburn’s 6-foot-2 D’haquille “Duke” Williams (picked up by the Los Angeles Rams).
Harris has allowed only 15 completions on 28 targets to receivers 6-foot-3 or taller the last two years, per College Football Focus. That’s due to a combination of smart play, above-average athleticism, and solid overall technique.
Few corners in this rookie class move as well as Harris. His hips flip naturally from a back pedal to a sprint to keep up with faster receivers, and I don’t know of any defensive backs who break on the thrown ball faster than Harris does. Over and over again he showed off an impressive ability to break up the pass at the catch point and recover from mistakes to save a touchdown.
Harris does need to improve aspects of his game. He needs to add some muscle mass as soon as possible; it’s not realistic to expect him to pack on 20-pounds in the two months leading up to training camp, but it’s clear his body wasn’t developed as it should have been in college. Harris admitted that he could barely do one bench press rep of 210-pounds before training for the NFL Scouting Combine, but he wound up throwing down five reps of 225-pounds. A few months in an NFL strength and conditioning program – if not a year, if he makes the team or practice squad – will do wonders for him.
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How he fits the New Orleans Saints:
The competition behind starting cornerback Delvin Breaux will be intense. New Orleans has a starter on paper opposite Breaux in Keenan Lewis, but the thin-legged corner has spent too much time on the trainer’s table lately to be counted on. That leaves two second-year draft picks to compete for a possible starting job outside on the boundary in P.J. Williams (coming off a hamstring injury), and Damian Swann (coming off a concussion).
Veteran slot corner Kyle Wilson has been re-signed for another year, and it may be tempting to pencil Harris in at the slot position due to his lack of size. But that would be disrespectful of both Harris’ abilities and Wilson’s. Harris has some experience covering the slot but he is very capable of lining up outside the numbers. Wilson played well last year despite a few dumb penalties, and tied for second on the team in interceptions (1) with five other players. That last part was a joke, but don’t dismiss either player so quickly.
It’s too soon to say whether Harris will make the roster, but the odds are in his favor. He’s an experienced starter in the SEC with 45 games under his belt. He showed the willingness to get physical and play special teams, starting on A&M’s punt and kickoff coverage units as a gunner as well as rushing off the edge on field goal attempts. Harris can make a splash play when given the chance, as seen by his 21 pass deflections, 7.5 tackles for loss, and five interceptions in his Aggie career.
It’s unlikely for Harris to leap either Williams or Swann and be the team’s fourth corner behind Breaux, Lewis, and Wilson, but keep an eye out for him to push the other corners lower on the Saints’ depth chart: Brian and Brandon Dixon, and fellow undrafted rookie Ken Crawley.
The Saints usually keep five corners and five safeties on the 53-man roster, so that fifth spot will be at a premium. Harris is a perfect fit for the Cover-2 defense featuring many zone coverages the Saints are expected to roll out, and can contribute on special teams. Expect him to continue playing his heart out in training camp this summer.
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