We are now two months away from the start of the 2017 NFL Draft, and hype about this year’s class of edge rushers has yet to calm down. Just in the first round alone, we could see as many as eight to 10 defensive ends come off the board, with the position being a prevalent need for many teams. There are a few locks for the top 32, and then there are some who are teetering on the edge between the first and second round. As of right now, Charles Harris resides in the latter group.
After shining on the basketball court as a high school underclassmen, Harris started playing defensive end on the football team as a Junior, when he was just 220 pounds. He beefed up during the next five years, getting to 255 pounds on his 6’3’ frame at Missouri. After redshirting in his true freshmen year and playing limited snaps in his second year, Harris broke out during his third year in 2015. With former teammates and top 60 draft picks Shane Ray and Markus Golden gone to the pros, Harris was inserted in the spotlight and didn’t disappoint, totaling seven sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. He then came back with a nine sack 2016 season along with 12 tackles for loss to confirm 2015 was no fluke, even when Missouri had their edges in more of a passive run defending mode.
For an edge rusher who put on pads just six years ago, Harris looks like a natural playing the position. Let’s hit the tape to see how he does it.
What he does well
In some reps, whether a player made a major impact, or if they were just a part of the play, show you exactly who a player is on-the-field. This is one of them:
6’3”, 255 pound human beings can’t normally move this fast in such a short time span. Harris can.
As a full time right defensive end for the Missouri Tigers, Harris showed a lightning quick first step - and I mean, lightning quick. He explodes out of whatever stance he starts in like a race horse out of the gate at Churchill Downs in early May. He capitalizes on his get-off by covering a lot of ground in very little time. Let’s take a look at a couple of reps against West Virginia for visualization.
You’ll often see the Bengals run this zone sweep out of the shotgun in their base offensive sets, but they typically run it with 11 personnel, or three receivers and a tight end. West Virginia has four receivers lined up out wide, instead of having a tight end on the line of scrimmage to help block. Even if they had an extra backside blocker, Harris still makes this play with his incredible burst off the line:
After a solid first step, Harris cuts off the tackle’s attempt of an angle block, and drives into his chest, translating his speed to power to generate push. By the time the running back has full possession of the ball after the hand off, Harris has established himself right in the middle of his desired pathway.
Later in the game, we see the captivating acceleration off-the-line on full display and it turns into a quarterback hit with the use of a well set up spin move. Harris works the tackle so far out that he overextends on his set, and transitions smoothly into his oft-used spin move:
Sometimes, these still shots are the best visual tool to show how quick an edge can cover ground in their rush, not only in comparison to his teammates, but in comparison to the tackle he’s going up against.
The center begins the snap:
After his first step:
After his second step:
He moves about seven feet in one second. That’s moving.
I wrote about Derek Barnett a couple weeks ago and how he needs to rely on jumping the snap to win the edge. Harris can jump the snap, but is more than explosive and athletic enough to produce without getting a perfect jump. It doesn’t hurt when he does:
This lethal speed off-the-edge coupled with a strategically set up spin move that he’s shown he can pull off, can prove to be immediately lethal in the NFL. Harris also possesses violent and heavy hands, helping him to shed blocks effectively and forcefully as a pass rusher, and an edge setter:
Size doesn’t mean anything if you use your hands better than the man across from you. Harris gets his hands on the tackle’s chest, and with his strength in that area, it’s over for him.
What he needs to improve
Harris is not perfect, but with only a few years of football experience, he’s pretty far along from a development standpoint. He knows how to use his hands, he has the right athletic traits needed to win against NFL-caliber tackles. There are just a couple of kinks in Harris’s armor that need to get straightened out.
For starters, he’s susceptible to cut blocks.
Plain and simple, the thing you look for in an edge rusher handling a cut block, is seeing him not go to the ground. This was a much more glaring problem the year prior, and it didn’t come up as much in 2016.
The player whose on the opposite end of the spectrum in this class is Takkarist McKinley. The two are similar in terms of size (McKinley is listed at 6’2” and 258 pounds according to nfldraftscout.com) but this speaks to some slight balance issues Harris has. McKinley has a lot more twitch and agility in short areas that allows him to stay on his feet against cut blocks. Harris has a different build than McKinley, as his mass is more noticeable in his upper half. So this is something to monitor in his early years as a pro.
As a run defender, Harris sometimes has trouble reading the play and finding the ball. He’ll either go too far upfield and lose his gap, or simply lose sight of the ball. Context of a player’s background helps, as Harris is still rough in the area of play recognition, having only about six years of playing experience under his belt. He can give you much higher quality reps on passing downs early on, and in today’s NFL, that’s good enough to get you significant reps out of the gate.
Making his case for the Bengals
If we’re just ranking pure pass rushers, Harris is without a doubt a first round talent this year. He has the size, speed, hands and hips to develop into a double digit sack artist in time, whether as an even or odd front edge with his hand in or out of the dirt. Before the 2016 season, there was reasonable buzz around Harris being the best pass rusher coming out of Missouri since Aldon Smith in 2011, and I have to say, that buzz was well warranted. Harris is just the guy you want on your defensive line because he’ll capitalize when others don’t.
With that said, Harris won’t go in the top 10 in such a great all around class, and the Bengals won’t trade back and get him later in the first round from their ninth-overall pick, having 11 picks in the draft already. So the club can either hope he lasts 40 picks and is on the board for their second round selection, or, they can use some of their new found draft capital in the form of compensatory picks and not take that chance.
The Cowboys, Packers and Steelers are edge rushing starved teams who all pick in the final five slots in the first round, and are all likely targets for Harris. It would take a few later draft picks to acquire a spot ahead of them, but with compensatory picks now tradable in the draft, the Bengals have the capability to trade back into the first round and get a guy like Harris if the team doesn’t address the position with pick No. 9. And I do believe Harris would be worth trading back into round one for.
All of my boxes are checked when watching Harris, he provides the jumpstart the Bengals need at pass rusher as a traditional 4-3 defensive end. You can deal with the mental things later, just give him the green light in your nickel packages and reap the benefits.