Charles Harris: The Very Sound Method Behind Miami’s First Round Madness

Whether fans love the Charles Harris pick or hate it, the truth is, at this point, there is little to no basis upon which to base their decision. Sure, we can look at his college stats, which are impressive and do provide some glimpse into his potential, but they are far from a guarantee that his particular skill set will transition successfully into the NFL. Harris is, after all, on the smallish side for a defensive end, and as such, most experts expect him to be a vulnerability against the run.

So, is there a logical train of thought to support the Dolphins’ decision to draft a pass run specialist in the first round, especially considering the team finished 30th against the run in 2016? Well, the simple answer is yes.

To begin with, we need to understand that very few draft picks can be evaluated as successes or failures purely on the basis of their previous body of work. This is because, no matter how talented they may be, they will not be performing in a vacuum. Rather, they are brought in to function as a cog within a much larger system, and that certainly applies to the Charles Harris pick.

That is particularly true of the Dolphins, who are in the midst of a defensive makeover that began last season when the team replaced its undersized cornerbacks with larger, more physically imposing players capable of pressing receivers at the line and disrupting their routes. It was a strategy that proved an instant success.

Of course, some will argue that, regardless of this change, the Dolphins were still picked apart at times by opposing quarterbacks. That is true, to some degree. Yet, unlike 2015, when QBs did their damage deep and primarily against the corners, the 2016 Dolphins gave up few long passes on the outside. Instead, they were bled dry in the middle of the field with short and mid-range throws. In other words, their Achilles heel shifted from their corners to their linebackers.

What Dolphins fans need to understand is that the choice of Charles Harris, a small but very quick defensive end, marks the start of the second stage of that makeover. You see, what good does it do a team to have cornerbacks who can disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage if the defensive line can’t get to the QB quickly?

Unlike some casual fans, Miami’s coaching staff understands a very simple principle. The Dolphins MUST get instant pressure on quarterbacks if they hope to pry the division away from New England, because Tom Brady has made a career of picking them apart with quick slants in the flats. In fact, Tom Brady is the primary reason for Miami adopting this defensive philosophy.

The idea is simple. Press New England’s receivers at the line, preventing Brady from getting rid of the ball quickly, then hammer him with a relentless pass rush. And we all know how much Brady enjoys getting hit. In fact, just the threat of it made him look downright vulnerable in this year’s Super Bowl.

Be that as it may, the Harris choice would seem to do little to improve Miami’s fortunes against the run, at least at first glance. Yet, upon closer inspection, one begins to see an additional logic behind the method to what some might dub the Dolphins’ “madness”.

Miami is addressing their issues against the run in two ways. The first is improving both their linebacker corps and their inside linemen, so expect additions to both in the draft. The second, and perhaps even more important action, at least for the purposes of assessing Harris, is by making adjustments to the Wide Nine defense with the goal of providing better angles of attack for the team’s defensive ends.

Naturally, if that last strategy is to prove effective, the team must have lightning fast defensive ends. Hence, the Harris pick.

Now, that is not to suggest that Harris will be a terrific addition against the inside run game. That responsibility will undoubtedly fall on Suh and the new and improved linebacker unit. Harris’ duties against the run will depend much more on him sealing the edge. Fortunately, given his speed, it is difficult to imagine many running backs getting around him on a regular basis.

Lastly, no look at the Charles Harris pick would be complete without taking his versatility into account, and as most fans know by now, that is an attribute that Adam Gase covets dearly. Harris is capable of lining up as a down lineman or, essentially, as a linebacker. That proved attractive to the Dolphins because, if 2016 proved anything, it is the fact that they are looking to use their front seven in ways that will confuse opposing quarterbacks. If you doubt this, simply consider that both Cameron Wake and Jordan Phillips snagged interceptions last year by dropping back into coverage. Better still, Kiko Alonso proved the difference in the San Diego game when he pulled off a game winning INT by dropping back into coverage after faking a blitz. Harris is certainly swift enough to play a similar role, and as such, has the potential to be a perfect fit in the team’s developing defensive scheme.

Of course, as previously stated, none of this guarantees that Harris will be successful, and some of the more pessimistic Dolphins fans are already comparing this pick to the recent Dion Jordan debacle. Yet, needless to say, that supposition is foolishly premature, at best, because it fails to recognize two glaring differences between Harris and Jordan

  1. Harris comes into the NFL with none of the issues that haunted Jordan. In fact, he is at the other end of the issue spectrum. His character, behavior away from the field, and work ethic have thus far been outstanding.
  2. Unlike Jordan, the Harris pick wasn’t made by one misguided GM thrusting him upon a coaching staff that has no idea how to use him. Harris was a choice by committee (Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier and Gase), and the three men involved know exactly how they want to use him in defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s system moving forward.

In the end, only time will tell if Harris becomes the heir apparent to Cameron Wake or if he settles into being a one-dimensional pass specialist and nothing more. Regardless, one thing is for certain. Dolphins’ fans should take solace in the knowledge that the team thought long and hard about who they wanted, then, went to great pains to keep it a secret in order to ensure they got him. In other words, Harris may be many things, but a poorly executed pick is not among them.

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