Patriots roster breakdown: Can rookie LB De’Jon Harris make an impact?

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With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s undrafted rookie class.

Hard facts

Name: De’Jon Harris

Position: Off-the-ball linebacker

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 22

Size: 6-foot-0, 235 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Harris’ time in the NFL started just eight weeks ago, when the Patriots signed him as a rookie free agent shortly after the conclusion of late April’s draft. Since then, he has participated in the team’s rookie developmental program and its virtual offseason, but due to the Coronavirus lockdown has yet to step onto the field with his teammates. That being said, he does bring some high-level experience to the table from his four-year stint at the University of Arkansas.

Harris appeared in a combined 48 games for the Razorbacks — the 36 of which as one of the team’s starting inside linebackers. During those games, he proved himself a reliable presence at the heart of the team’s defense: he registered 371 tackles over the course of his career, including 26 for a loss of yardage, and also added 7.5 sacks as well as four forced fumbles and three recoveries. Harris also led the SEC in regular season tackles in both 2018 and 2019 and was voted to the second all-conference team twice.

What did his 2019 season look like? Despite coming off the best season of his college career up until that point, Harris decided to stay in school for his senior campaign. As was the case ever since he took over a starting role in the Razorbacks’ 4-3 defense back in 2017, he was highly productive from the middle linebacker spot during his final season as well: being a physical downhill defender that regularly found himself around the football, he added 101 tackles — 52 of which unassisted — to his totals.

Appearing in all 12 of Arkansas’ games as a defensive starter, Harris was on the field for 666 snaps and a bright spot on an otherwise bad squad that finished with a 2-10 record. While his team- and conference-leading tackle numbers stood out, his contributions to the club extended beyond taking down opposing ball carriers on a regular basis: Harris also made numerous big plays along the way. Not only did he register a sack and break up a pair of passes, he also forced two fumbles and recovered two more.

One of those two recoveries also resulted in the first and only touchdown of his college career. In the Razorbacks’ Week 5 game against Texas A&M, Harris scooped up a loose football and returned it six yards to the end zone. The play itself is a perfect representation of Harris’ collegiate career: while his team ended up losing — in total, Arkansas went just 15-34 during his four years in the building — Harris did stand out in a positive way.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Harris, who goes by his nickname “Scoota,” spent his college career as an off-the-ball linebacker filling either the middle linebacker position when the team was in 4-3 looks or one of the two inside roles in a 3-4 alignment. Entering the NFL, this usage is expected to remain the same: the Patriots will likely employ him on the second defensive level in their hybrid scheme, and use him primarily on early downs and in the kicking game.

What is his special teams value? When he arrived in Fayetteville, Harris played only a depth role on defense and instead had to earn his stripes in the kicking game. Seeing time on the team’s punt coverage and return units, the youngster did just that and carved out a regular role that he kept even as his defensive responsibilities increased. In New England, Harris also will have to leave his mark as a special teamer if he wants to earn a roster or practice squad spot. He will likely see regular looks on at least the punt squads.

Does he have positional versatility? While he could be featured prominently in the kicking game, and maybe get moved all over the formation on punt units and possibly even kick return and coverage teams as well, Harris’ versatility on the defensive side of the ball appears to be limited: he spent most of his time at Arkansas as a Mike (middle) linebacker with limited upside against the pass, and lacks the lateral moving skills and pass-rushing counters to be used in a different capacity.

What is his salary cap situation? Of the 15 rookie free agents the Patriots added after the draft, no one had a higher guarantee embedded into his standard three-year deal than Harris: New England gave him a $15,000 signing bonus and also added $125,000 in salary guarantees. Nevertheless, his salary cap hit of $615,000 is still among the lowest on the team at the moment and reflective of his status as a bottom-of-the-roster defender.

What is his roster outlook? Even though the Patriots lost three linebackers — Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts — in free agency, Harris faces an uphill climb to earn a spot on the roster and in turn become the latest Arkansas player to make an impact in New England. After all, fellow off-the-ball options Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are all guaranteed their spots on the 53-man team. Accordingly, Harris will have to compete against veteran Brandon Copeland, and youngsters Terez Hall and Kyahva Tezino for what may be one spot on the roster. While he could earn it, the odds look more favorable for Harris when it comes to making the practice squad.



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