The offensive line has arguably been the Browns greatest improvement this year.
QB Baker Mayfield now has time to survey the field instead of being flushed and running for his life. Plus, the run game is again in full gear currently ranked third in the league.
Cleveland’s fortune in the win-loss column have dramatically improved, and one has to point to the O-Line’s resurgence. LG Joel Bitonio was finally recognized as one of the NFL’s best guards with a Pro Bowl nod announced this week.
Last year, in addition to both tackles spots being an issue, the right guard position was seen as problematic as well. Veteran Kevin Zeitler was traded. Austin Corbett was the apparent favorite but was listed as the backup center by the third preseason game. Rookie Drew Forbes had a ton of scouting poured into his resume but was injured early. Eric Kush was the starter on opening day until mid-season when Wyatt Teller, who the Browns traded for during training camp, finally won the job and finished out the year.
Teller kept the RG spot in training camp this year as Forbes opted out , Chris Hubbard was signed as a backup and Michael Dunn could not unseat Teller. NFL.com writer Nick Shook tabulates an NFL MVP projection list weekly. After Week 4, he listed Teller #10.
Teller has had issues staying on the field in a year that he was a shoe-in for a Pro Bowl nod and probably would have been named All-Pro. The third-year player has battled a calf injury and then had issues with his ankle and knee.
Hubbard started four games in Teller’s place, but was injured on the second play against the New York Football Giants with torn ligaments in his right knee plus a dislocated knee cap. He has since been placed on IR.
Harris has been listed as the backup center all season. Now, he is the starting right guard.
Who is Nick Harris?
Harris (6’1”-302 pounds) had two scholarship offers coming out of high school in San Juan Capistrano, California. He was just 6’, 1” tall and 270 pounds. Recruiters want their offensive linemen with more height and a lot more meaty. He was told he would never play Division 1 as none of the offers were from a D-1 school. Frustrated, he thought about leaving the game he loved.
Finally, he got an offer from the University of Washington and accepted. He had never been on an airplane until his official visit. He saw action in 12 of the team’s 14 contests as a true freshman and started four of the last seven games either at left or right guard. He started in the Pac-12 Championship Game as well as the CFP semi-final against Alabama.
It was a role he was ready to embrace for a guy who is supposed to 6’, 4”. The weight he could add, but you can’t make yourself grow taller.
The following year, Harris started all 13 games at right guard and was named All-Pac 12 Honorable Mention. His junior and senior years he started every game at center except one due to injury. Both his final seasons he was named First Team All-Pac 12 at the center position.
His offensive coordinator at Washington had this to say about Harris:
“He’s a contagious personality,” offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said. “That guy, whatever he says, this team does and this offense does. He’s genuine, I think he’s authentic, and that guy’s as good of a leader as we have.”
His best feature is that Harris is fast. He can really run well, has quick feet, is athletic and possesses a very wide wingspan. His experience at the center position has enabled him to know adjustments on blocking assignments.
While at Washington, Harris won the team’s Guy Flaherty Award, the football program’s most prestigious team honor. Plus, he was a Two-Time Academic All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention so the kid is smart.
Washington and Wisconsin are two schools known for cranking out quality offensive linemen. He accepted an invitation to compete in last year’s Senior Bowl.
Onto the Browns, and now?
Cleveland took Harris in the fifth-round of the NFL college draft. Their prognosis was as a backup center to starter J.C. Tretter as a young guy to groom.
In training camp, Tretter had his own knee issues to which Harris filled in and garnered praise from the coaching staff. His snaps were like a veteran presence and he had his assignments.
It’s not like Harris has been practicing at guard all year. He is listed on the official depth chart as the backup center. Any reps that were thrown his way were at that position – not right guard. Then in a flash, he was inserted into the Giants game.
As the right guard. In a live game. At a position he wasn’t practicing. Despite being on the field for exactly one offensive snap all season, he held his own.
In last week’s Brownies & Frownies column after the win over the Giants, DBN writer Thomas Moore gave Harris a Brownie and had this to say about the rookie suddenly thrust into the game:
“Right guard Nick Harris - The Browns came into the game without starting right guard Wyatt Teller and then lost backup guard Chris Hubbard after just two plays.
Nick Harris, the team’s fifth-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, stepped in for Hubbard and outside of one bad play against New York defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, more than held his own.”
Despite the Giants’ defensive line well-known for being one of the league’s best, Harris allowed only one sack with zero penalties. He was graded out on Pro Football Focus at 55.1 for his debut.
News5 in Cleveland had this to say about Harris’ first effort:
“Although he had no NFL experience at right guard, Harris was familiar with the position and played it well in college, and the Browns trusted him to bring those skills they needed it most. In prime-time, Harris took his first real snaps as a Cleveland Brown, and he did so out of his usual position, which is a testament to his talent, his position coach, Cleveland’s ability to develop young players and the ‘next man up’ mentality the team has embraced this season.”
Harris was obviously pleased with playing and being the next man up. Coach Kevin Stefanski has the veteran Kendall Lamm at his disposal, although Lamm is considered more of a tackle. But, Hubbard played right tackle last year and was Stefanski’s first choice to supplant Teller. Plus, Michael Dunn is another veteran who has played guard in this league and was recently activated from the practice squad. In the Giants game, RB Nick Chubb’s touchdown was off Harris’ ass.
Harris had this to say after the Giants game:
“At the end of the day, it’s football. I played guard my first two years in college, so it wasn’t foreign to me. It was just a matter of knocking the dust off, and getting my feet wet. I felt comfortable. I just want to be the best person and best player I can be.”
This assessment was issued by Forbes Magazine:
“With their second-string center filling in as their third-string guard, the Browns offensive line didn’t miss a beat. Technically playing out of position, Harris held the fort for the rest of the game, becoming one-fifth of the offensive line that built a wall around Mayfield, allowing him to complete 84.3% of his passes (27-for-32), for 297 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.”
Harris’ success is just one more testament to the immense talents of offensive line coach Bill Callahan. He had Harris ready to step up and play a different position is a tremendous job of coaching. And remember, Harris is only a rookie.
All 6’-1” of him.