Bill Parcells once famously said of young players: “If they don’t bite when they’re puppies, they usually won’t bite.”
So how concerned should the Dolphins be that Charles Harris produced just two sacks and 19 tackles in 15 games (and 496 defensive snaps) as a rookie?
If Harris — the 22nd overall pick in 2017 — was going to be a high-end pass rusher, wouldn’t he have shown more as a rookie than merely two sacks in 309 pass rushing opportunities?
I explored the historical precedent for this, studying every defensive end selected in the first round over a 10-year period from 2005 through 2014.
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The bad news: The majority of the high-quality pass rushing defensive ends selected in the first round, as Harris was, produced better pass rushing stats — often much better — than Harris did. And most of the first-round defensive ends that generated rookie sack numbers as modest as Harris’ last year did not become quality NFL pass rushers.
The good news: There have been a handful of recent examples of first-round defensive ends who became above-average pass rushers after producing similar results as Harris did as a rookie.
▪ There were 18 defensive ends selected in the first round of those drafts who had similar sack numbers to Harris as a rookie (three sacks or fewer). Of those, 16 played more than a quarter of their team’s games (in all cases, far more). Of those 16, just six turned out to be quality NFL pass rushers.
Those six: Robert Ayers (zero as a rookie for Denver but 34.5 in eight years since), Brandon Graham (three as a rookie; 35.5 since in his ongoing Eagles career); Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes (zero in 12 games as a rookie, 40 since), Cameron Jordan (one in 16 games as a rookie, but 58.5 since in his ongoing Saints career), Green Bay’s Muhammad Wilkerson (three as a rookie but 41.5 since) and Cameron Hayward (one as a rookie, 36 since, including 12 last year for Pittsburgh).
▪ That should give Harris hope, even though nearly all of the other 10 first-round defensive ends in our study who had low rookie sack numbers never produced more than a dozen career NFL sacks, a group including Philip Merling (one as a rookie for Miami, 3.5 in six years) and Larry English (two as a rookie, nearly identical rookie stats as Harris, but just 12 in a four-year career).
▪ Here’s what else is encouraging: Coaches say Harris is using his hands better than he did as a rookie and that his get-off on the pass rush is well above average. He displayed those skills to get past Sam Young for a sack in Tuesday’s practice.
After working out with Jason Taylor before his rookie season, Harris said they couldn’t get together this offseason. But Harris worked diligently, to the point that Cameron Wake said Harris had the best offseason of anyone on the team.
Harris believes he will be better because he’s “playing free” and every day is now “less of a burden.” Becoming more religious was one reason for that. But he also said he has polished his pass rush moves, instead of adding new ones.
“Get me two or three moves that I can do consistently and perfect them,” he said. “I feel like as a young defensive end, especially myself, I can do almost everything in the book. Sometimes we have too many moves. So, we’re just simplifying it and going with my go-tos.
“At first last year, I was just checking boxes every day. I came in, I punched in, I punched out. This year it’s like I love it. I love it because I understand what it means to work. This is my work and [I] use it as my worship.”
Harris said he was “in a dark place last year.” Why?
“A new environment and adjusting to having wealth, not knowing how to deal with it. Now, I have an understanding. I felt like I was confused last year a lot, but now I understand why everything has happened the way it did and I’m blessed for it, and I understand it. I’m using my talents and not burying them. I feel like last season I buried them. I’m a different player.”
The trade for Robert Quinn suggests the Dolphins weren’t convinced Harris is ready to become an NFL starter. He will need to buck the odds if he’s to become a high-end pass rusher despite underwhelming rookie stats.
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