Heading into this past April's NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills were searching for an upgrade at linebacker. Bills officials had already met with big-name free agents such as Mike Peterson and Cato June, but did not reach agreements with anyone other than veteran Pat Thomas, who was not signed in the hopes that he would challenge for a starting spot. Meanwhile, many Bills fans hoped that the perceived pre-draft stock slide of Aaron Curry would manifest on draft day, and the team was rumored to be interested in USC's Clay Matthews.
Yet on the second day of the draft, the Bills still had not added a linebacker through four rounds of selections. The hope of finding a potential challenger for Keith Ellison's SAM linebacker role was essentially out the window. In round five, with pick No. 147 overall, the Bills finally addressed the linebacker position - by selecting Oklahoma's Nic Harris, a college safety.
A few Bills fans here and there expected Harris to contend for Ellison's starting spot anyways. That speculation never really had any basis in reality; Ellison will open the season as the starter at SAM linebacker, barring injury. But through training camp and three pre-season games, Harris has proven that early optimism on his behalf was warranted. Harris has been one of Buffalo's most impressive defenders to this point in the pre-season.
Harris having a strong pre-season
Bet you can't guess who Buffalo's leading tackler is this pre-season! Harris has shown himself to be active and in possession of a nose for the football with his 16 pre-season tackles, including nine in last weekend's loss in Green Bay. Moving to linebacker from safety, Harris has preserved some of the instincts that made him such a productive defensive back in college - and he's retained his ball skills, as well. He's very natural in coverage; as just one example, Harris was beaten in the end zone for a score in the Chicago game, but leaped to bat the pass out of the air, preventing the score.
His instincts and safety experience are smoothing his transition to linebacker. He came into the league with linebacker size (6'2", 232 pounds), but many questioned how quickly he could learn new techniques and how comfortable he'd look closer to the line of scrimmage. His early-season success speaks for itself.
Peter King (SI.com) has taken early notice of Harris, naming him as one of ten rookies who have impressed. King mentions that Harris "could be a special-teams demon" before he ever sees the field as a regular defender. He's certainly athletic, physical and competitive enough to be an asset for coordinator Bobby April.
Is Harris the Bills' top reserve linebacker?
As the only linebacker with any negligible experience entering the 2009 season, most expected Pat Thomas - a young player who has spent time (and seen the field) with Kansas City and Jacksonville - to be the team's chief linebacker reserve. Thomas, however, has missed two pre-season games and a healthy chunk of practices with an ankle injury; though he returned to practice on Wednesday (along with undrafted rookie free agent Ashlee Palmer, by the way), some believe that Harris is already the preferred top reserve.
That's not exactly a comforting thought - if I'm running an NFL team, I don't necessarily want a rookie linebacker making a position switch as my best depth player at the position. It's no secret that the Bills have some serious questions at linebacker behind starters Ellison, Kawika Mitchell and Paul Posluszny. Still, Harris' steady, consistent pre-season performances have to be a comforting thought to the coaching staff, even if only on a small level.
Harris isn't going to start. Ellison had him beat out before Harris even took the field in OTAs. It's not a comfortable fact that Harris is some of the Bills' most reliable depth at linebacker, either. What is comforting is that, after just three pre-season games, it's pretty clear that Harris has some natural talent. He can play this game. He's got a lot to work on - shedding blockers, to start with. But considering his college experience, his smarts and instincts, and his nose for the ball, Harris already has the appearance of a mid-round steal for a franchise that can use as many good draft picks as possible. The best news: he has the potential to help the Bills win games this season as a special teamer.