The Saints went back to Canada and this time brought back a player without a clearly defined position.
Look around at various publications and official websites and you’ll see Erik Harris listed as a safety in some places and as a linebacker in others. With 4.57 speed, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has the athletic ability to play both and could end up being a hybrid player in the NFL.
Harris used that size and speed to create seven turnovers and record 27 special-teams tackles over three years in the CFL, which gives him some versatility entering the NFL.
But while Harris’ fit with New Orleans is yet to be determined, John Murphy, vice president of player personnel and football operations for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, believes the versatile defender’s future in the NFL lies at linebacker and on special teams.
“Kind of a nickel linebacker type guy, potentially,” Murphy said, noting that outside linebackers in the CFL often have to cover a greater portion of the field than their NFL counterparts. “He’s not a pure safety. He’s not going to be a pure coverage guy. I think it’s not as a safety. I think it’s as that undersized linebacker, a pass coverage guy. He runs better than people think.”
Harris, a product of California University of Pennsylvania, played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he was once teammates with Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux. The two players share the same agent.
That connection likely helped Harris catch the Saints’ eye, because they saw him last year when they were scouting Breaux. It also helped that Harris followed it up with another good season of film and has displayed the athletic ability to potentially develop into an outside linebacker in the NFL.
But those hoping Harris will show up and immediately have the same impact as Breaux might need to adjust their expectations. Murphy believes Harris will first have to compete for a job on special teams, which will help get him on the field as he transitions to a new league and figures out how to play linebacker in the NFL.
“He’s probably more in that same type of role when teams have brought these guys down from the CFL and tried him as that versatile back-end defender,” Murphy said.
“But I don’t think he’s a pure safety, he’s not a pure outside linebacker in terms of a guy that you’re going to look at and say for sure he’s challenging for a position on the defensive side of the ball. I think it’s more they like him as a special-teamer, like the way he runs, like his work ethic.”
Murphy noted several times that Harris is more athletic than most people would expect for a player of his size and said linebackers in the CFL are expected to cover more ground than they are in the NFL.
In Hamilton, Harris played in more of a zone scheme and was responsible for snuffing out crossing routes and driving down on underneath routes. Murphy said in the CFL, an outside linebacker would be expected to match up with someone like C.J. Spiller on every down.
“I think the athletic ability to be able to do that in space — and even more, space in the CFL — allows him to be possibly considered as a hybrid depending on your scenario of what you’re playing,” Murphy said. “But it’s probably more seen as an outside ’backer guy that’s going to compete on teams and not be put in the position where he’s over the top.”
While Harris makes the transition, if he makes the roster, Murphy said he could see him comparing favorably to Brian Peters, who jumped from the CFL last year and hooked on with the Houston Texans. Peters emerged as one of their better players on special teams last season.
Players like Peters and Marcus Ball, who previously played for the Saints and is now with the Carolina Panthers, are more typical of the guys who transition from the CFL to the NFL. And for them to make it, Murphy said, they usually need to show off the kind of versatility he believes Harris possesses.
“That’s what you’re looking for in the late rounds of the draft, and I think that’s what you’re looking for from priority free agents,” he said. “I think what Erik Harris does is gives you a guy to compete with those guys to make your team better on the back end of your roster.”
Murphy said he believes Harris has a shot to make it in the NFL, and he noted he’s impressed with how well the Saints have scouted the CFL in recent years. He said he’s on the phone, emailing or texting with New Orleans director of pro scouting Terry Fontenot once per week and said the Saints are “doing a lot of research and using that league as a source of talent.”
Now the Saints are hoping Harris is the next source of talent.