If you can't tackle him, block him, or get away from him, then you might as well sign him to a five-year, $17.5 million contract with $7.1 million guaranteed. That seems to be how the New York Giants decided to deal with former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver/kick returner Dwayne Harris this offseason. Given the opportunity, they snapped up Harris on the free-agent market, signing him to a deal that drew snickers around the league.
"We thought the guy was kind of a four- to five-tool type player for us. We thought we were getting a lot of players out of one position," said general manager Jerry Reese. "We played against him for a long time and he has been a good player for [Dallas]. Hopefully he will bring it over here to us and he will play for us in those capacities."
Harris has heard the grumbling about the contract. His response?
"They [the Giants] know what they're getting. They know what kind of player [I am]. They played against me two times a year for four years so they knew what kind of player they were getting and they knew what I was capable of," Harris said. "People who think they overpaid me, they know what I can do. I'm not just a special teams guy. I come in I do a lot of stuff. I block, and I block well. I'm so much more than just a special teams player.
"The fact is I come on this team and I give this team a chance to get good field position. I'll go down and make tackles and reverse field position, go in and help the team in the run game with my blocking, whatever the case may be. I do so much."
What are the Giants getting in the 27-year-old Harris?
"I had really a good idea before he came in, having faced him for so many years. He has done a nice job assimilating himself and getting the returns down, so we have seen enough, we are pleased," said special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. "He is going to be a ‘big four' player, so he will be on all four of the teams and he will make a very good contribution. His coverage skills are equal to his return skills, so that is the nice thing about getting this kind of player."
Will the Giants get the last laugh? Let's take an in-depth look at Harris as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the Giants will bring to training camp in a few short weeks.
2014 Season in Review
Harris averaged 9.2 yards on 30 punt returns. The Giants as a team averaged 7.7. Harris averaged 24.7 yards on 30 kickoff returns. The Giants used a variety of return men and averaged 23.3 yards per return. As a wide receiver, Harris caught only seven passes, averaging 16.6 yards per catch. Harris is a top-flight gunner in punt coverage and also a quality player on kickoff coverage. He had a +7.7 special teams grade from Pro Football Focus in 2014 and led Dallas in special teams tackles with 11.
2015 Season Outlook
The Giants hope Harris impacts both their kick return and kick coverage units, and justifies their belief that he was under-utilized as a receiver by the Cowboys.
Let's go through the three areas where the Giants hope Harris will help them -- kick returning, kick coverage and pass receiving.
The Giants hope Harris finally ends their revolving door at both return positions. Quintin Demps, Preston Parker, Michael Cox and then Parker again were used as kickoff returners a year ago. Parker, Rueben Randle and eventually Odell Beckham Jr. returned punts.
Harris is not a pure speed-burner as a return man. He reads and uses blocks exceptionally well. He has good balance and the ability to stay on his feet and gain yardage after initial contact. He runs hard and will fight for extra yardage. The key ability for a punt returner, other than being able to catch and secure the ball, is making the first would-be tackler miss. Harris has that ability.
I sat recently with former Giants scout and current Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman and watched film of Harris. Here is Hatman's take on why Harris is a quality returner.
"First, Harris displays a great ability to track the ball in the air and to secure the catch, which is critical to Coughlin (see McQuarters, RW). Second, he makes good early decisions as to where to bring the ball up the field, creating angles that help him," Hatman said. "Finally, he has very good feel for when and how to set a would be tackler up, in order to make him miss. This elusiveness, coupled with his excellent balance through contact allow him to produce 10+ yard returns without elite physical tools."
Here is a return against the Houston Texans last season that shows Harris's abilities to make the first man miss, read the hole and get as much yardage as possible.
Harris calls himself a "vision returner," rather than a pure Devin Hester/DeSean Jackson speed type of returner.
"In Dallas I always studied the way our returns were being set up. You don't have to be fast, you have to be a vision returner and see stuff before it happens," Harris said this week during mini-camp. "I trusted the guys up front to do their job so that way my job would be a lot easier.
"Here it's the same way. I've just gotta learn the way everybody is blocking their assignments."
As for making tacklers miss and getting yards after contact, here is what Harris had to say:
"I've always had great balance," Harris said. "Being able to make the first guy miss is something I've always taken pride in."
Here is one more return. The impressive things here are the vision and the extra yards after contact.
Kickoff and punt coverage
Harris has excelled here, especially in the role of gunner (the outside man) in punt coverage. Hatman explains that once again it isn't about athleticism.
"Discipline and mental processing," said Hatman. "He understands how leverage works in the return game, quickly analyzing the Vice players, taking a strong release to win an edge and working hard to get to the returners hip. He uses proper technique in approaching returners as evidenced by his coverage stop on Odell Beckham Jr. Thirty-two teams would like to have a player like him at gunner."
Here is the play Hatman references.
Here is Harris on what it takes to be a quality gunner:
"You've just gotta be tough. It's a tough position. You've just gotta be able to get off blocks. You've gotta know how people think out there," Harris said. "Most of the guys out there are DBs and they don't want to be physical, so you've gotta take the physical nature of the game and apply it to that position."
Harris had only 33 receptions for Dallas, with a career-best 17 in 2012. That was his only double-digit reception season. Yet, part of the reason why the Giants signed Harris to that big contract is because they believe he was under-utilized in the passing game by the Cowboys, who preferred Cole Beasley as a third receiver.
"He is definitely a jack of all trades who can make 11 personnel function like 12 personnel," Hatman said. "I assume the hope is that he provides value on game day as the fourth WR who can back up the slot WR position, winning with consistent routes and strength at the top of his breaks (a la Anquan Boldin).
"If [Victor] Cruz is not healthy, he will have a bigger role early on. I assume they have preseason film or older film that backs this up."
If you aren't familiar with the distinction between 11 and 12 personnel, here it is. One running back, one tight and three wide receivers. is '11' personnel. One running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers is '12' personnel. What Hatman is referring to is that the Cowboys often used Harris as a blocker when they wanted to run out of their '11' personnel package. At times Dallas would motion Harris into a position where he was a de facto second tight end or even a lead blocker from what amounted to an H Back position.
The Giants could do some of that with Harris, but both he and the Giants are looking for him to become a real part of the passing attack, not just a decoy or an additional blocker.
"I don't think my role in Dallas was to be a receiver. They just used me as a blocker," Harris said. "I don't know why they didn't use me more as a receiver, but things work out the way they work out."
Harris is eager to see an increased role as a play-maker on offense with the Giants.
"I'll still do whatever I need to do on special teams just to help the team win, but also I want to contribute on offense to help this team win, too," Harris said. "I like doing both [slot and outside].I can be physical on the outside with DBs and I can be more physical with the nickels because they're smaller guys. I've got different techniques for both. I played the slot in Dallas and I played outside."
The most impressive thing about Harris? How seriously he takes his job and how hard he works to learn every aspect of it.
"I had to learn every position [in Dallas] just in case somebody went down I had to know everything. Every assignment, how everything is supposed to be done. It's something I take pride in. You never know which guy might go down, you never know where they might need you." Harris said. "I started out as a special teams guy just returning punts. As the years went on I moved to different positions on special teams as a gunner, kickoff. Putting myself in those positions keeps me playing in this league.
"[I] tell a lot of young guys when they come in don't look at special teams as just a role on a team. Look at it as a way for you to be on a team for a long time. I've seen guys stay in the league 12 years just doing special teams."
It is a professional, workman-like attitude the Giants can benefit from no matter what role he ultimately fills on the field.