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One year later: The Nick Harris query

Where does he fit in? Or does he? 

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

There was quite a bit of optimism with the Cleveland Browns’ offense this time last year.

Donovan Peoples-Jones appeared to be an exciting young receiver. Veteran Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper was obtained via a trade. The backfield featured two Pro Bowl runners in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. New QB Deshaun Watson would be playing at some point and show why he was voted to three Pro Bowls. WR David Bell was drafted after being named the Big 10 Receiver of the Year. TE David Njoku had just signed a four-year $56.75 million extension.

And the offensive line was hailed as one of the league’s best.

The only real news besides the Cooper trade, was that veteran center J.C. Tretter and his expensive contract had been released. With the news of Tretter’s departure, the door was suddenly open. Tretter’s backup, Nick Harris stayed in Ohio during the offseason, changed his eating habits in order to make himself a larger man, and completed workouts at the Berea facility.

His goal was to change his body composition. Harris put on the weight and added muscle.

During training camp, the competition was fierce for the starting job but eventually won by third-year man Harris over free agent signee Ethan Pocic, rookie draft pick Dawson Deaton, and undrafted rookie free agent Brock Hoffman.

Harris (6’-1”, 293 pounds) had been taken in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL draft out of Washington and the Browns used him sparingly at the backup center plus had played some left guard for the injured Joel Bitonio. Harris often took first-team snaps in practices when Tretter didn’t participate or had a nagging injury which made him limited.

As a rookie, Harris arrived in Cleveland with accolades of his own having been named Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 after his sophomore year, then was a Two-Time First Team All-Pac 12 his junior and senior campaigns. He also was a Senior Bowl invitee where he shined. The University of Washington is well-known for sending quality offensive linemen to the NFL.

It took exactly two plays to derail all the hard work Harris had done during the off-season as well as training camp.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

In the first preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Harris was bull-rushed and twisted awkwardly. The result was a severe knee injury. The Browns feared the injury would end his year before it even began, and by the following Tuesday, he was placed on season-ending IR.

In his stead, former second-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks Pocic filled in as the starter and quietly had the best season of his career while playing on a one-year deal. In fact, Pocic had the third-highest grade of any NFL center as graded by Pro Football Focus.

After the 2022 season, Pocic was inked to a new contract for three years worth $18 million. Both Hoffman and Deaton were released.

And now, after tearing his ACL in the first preseason game a year ago along with a lost season, Harris is resting in a tough spot. Not only is he no longer the starter at center, but in the April NFL draft the franchise selected center Luke Wypler out of Ohio State in the sixth round. Wypler was generally considered to be a third-round pick, so the value is definitely there.

Going forward

Harris is now in the final year of his rookie contract. Durability has been an issue.

In his rookie year, he was placed on IR with a knee injury. During his second season, he had a hamstring issue which again placed him on IR. Then the torn ACL at the start of last year. Needless to say, durability does not seem to be in his toolbox. In college, he missed only one game in four seasons due to injury.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame-New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Browns versus New York Jets contest in the annual Hall of Fame Game, Cleveland posted their first official depth chart. At the center position, it listed Pocic as the starter, with Harris as the backup and Wypler third string.

What Harris does possess is versatility. He isn’t - but could be - penciled in as a backup left or right guard. Not every player along the offensive line can boast of being able to play three positions at a moment’s notice in a live game. This alone is a huge plus for Harris.

Against the Jets, he started at center and played 19 snaps, or 26% of the game’s offensive plays. Wypler subbed for him later and finished out the game with 74% of the offensive snaps (55). Basically, the coaching staff was already familiar with Harris’ work in live action and was an opportunity to see what the rookie could do under actual game situations.

Against both Washington and Philadelphia in preseason, Harris has played plenty. So has Wypler. For the fourth preseason game against Kansas City, Harris is listed as the backup center with Wypler third string.

The fact that GM Andrew Berry did not bring in any free agent centers or undrafted free agent rookie centers to camp this year is a testament to what he feels about his experience of Harris and that the position is on solid ground. Wypler may one day be the next starting center, and at some point, he may even surpass Harris as the backup. But, he is a rookie. And if Offensive Line Coach Bill Callahan can keep him busy while helping his development as Harris toles away with any needed game action, then all the better.

And while it is true Cleveland traditionally doesn’t carry three centers, with Harris’ ability and experience at guard, he just may be listed as a backup guard but in reality, could be the next man up in case of an injury to Pocic. After all, Pocic missed a solid month last year with a knee injury on his own.

The backup guards presently are Wes Martin, Michael Dunn, and Drew Forbes. Both Martin and Dunn have numerous NFL starts whereas Forbes has yet to start a game and has been battling a back injury. This may bode well for Harris if Wypler ends up as the backup center.

Or the opposite might happen

Then there is the flipside with Harris.

It could be that the Browns only want two centers, love Wypler’s development, are satisfied with other guards on the roster, and this year may be the end of Harris’ tenure with Cleveland. The drafting of Wypler may become the catalyst that could likely force Harris’ name to be left off the 53-man final roster. In that scenario, he would certainly be claimed off waivers and continue his career somewhere other than on Lake Erie.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame-New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Not to mention that Harris uses the “hop-hop” technique. This is used to try and stop the charge of a rusher who is trying to rush through the blocker. Harris has been using this technique since college. While hopping, Harris will maintain a good base with feet and shoulder width apart which makes it difficult for his defender to make a move.

But after this recent knee injury, will Harris be able to use this same technique effectively? Or at all? It requires a strong anchor. Will the recovery be problematic for him or make him limited?

As what can - and does - happen in the NFL, “the next man up” can take advantage of a situation. It hasn’t been “you can’t lose your starting job to an injury” since the 1960s. This isn’t something you do after class - it is a business.

This story of Harris could be a tale of overcoming adversity.

Or it might be a sad ending.