The New England Patriots’ linebacker corps suffered some major losses in free agency: Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts signed with the Miami Dolphins, while Jamie Collins opted to join the Detroit Lions. Even though the Patriots did add Brandon Copeland to fill the hybrid/move role previously held by Collins, it is obvious that the team would benefit from adding more bodies to the position via this year’s draft.
Luckily for New England, the draft is deep at the position with Malik Harrison out of Ohio State looking like one of the best fits from a Patriots perspective. A two-year starter for the Buckeyes, Harrison lined up primarily as the Will (weakside) linebacker in the team’s 4-3 scheme and led the team in tackles during his 2019 senior season. With that said, let’s therefore take a closer look at him.
Name: Malik Harrison
School: Ohio State (senior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 14 games; 701 snaps; 75 tackles (16.5 tackles for loss; 10 missed tackles); 2 fumble recoveries; 12.0 quarterback pressures (4.0 sacks, 1 hit, 7 hurries); 25 passing targets, 17 catches given up, 220 yards, 2 touchdowns
Size: 6025, 246 lbs, 9.88 hand size, 32.88 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.66 40-yard dash, 6.83 three-cone drill, 4.32 short shuttle, 1002 broad jump, 36.0 vertical jump
Expected round: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: What stands out when looking at Harrison’s tape is that he consistently finds himself around the ball and has a natural feel for recognizing plays, even the misdirection variety: he is patient versus play-action but not hesitant. He also has shown solid horizontal range when asked to play sideline-to-sideline, and has the athleticism to cover considerable ground despite measuring at 6-foot-2 1/2 and almost 250 pounds at the combine.
A former two-sport athlete (basketball), Harrison was used on both offense and defense during his high school days. Harrison’s versatility also was on display regularly at Ohio State even though it was limited to the defensive side of the ball: that said, the 22-year-old has experience playing all three of the primary linebacker positions in a 4-3 front and also was used on the line of scrimmage regularly. He also has proven himself a sound tackler and hard-hitter capable of setting the tone for the entire defense.
Harrison is a strong downhill player that reads blockers well and is capable of challenging them: he drops his shoulders well and has active hands to stand offensive linemen up. He also knows how to time blitzes well in the passing game. All in all, he is a confident player when attacking towards the ball.
Weaknesses: Despite his strong athletic makeup, Harrison is not the most fluid player when asked to drop into open space in coverage: he opens his hips rather slowly, which limits his ability to seamlessly execute deeper drops, and also has not shown a consistent ability to read and react to routes. Overall, he appears to be a somewhat limited coverage linebacker at this point in time and after not being used in this role regularly by the Buckeyes’ coaching staff.
Harrison’s tape also has its fair share of questionable angles when attacking the pocket or pursuing ball-carriers. At times, he also is a bit too aggressive when hitting his gaps.
What would be his role? Ohio State used Harrison primarily as an off-the-ball linebacker during his 2019 senior campaign, and the expectation is that he will play the same role upon entering the NFL as well. This would allow him to take advantage of his abilities to diagnose plays and play downhill against the run. While his limitations as a coverage linebacker may hurt his ability to regularly contribute on all three defensive downs, the Patriots would likely still use him prominently on early-downs and as a blitzer against the pass.
How many downs can he play? Harrison has the skillset to contribute on all four downs, but he needs to be put in a position to be successful in passing situations when on defense: he may not have the fluidity or experience yet to successfully compete in coverage on a play-to-play basis, which means that he might be used more as a blitzer from the second level or occasional edge rusher instead of a coverage defender. As a result, he might will see most of his defensive action on early downs in 2020 — even though he has potential for an increased role.
What is his special teams value? New England has never shied away from using its linebackers in the kicking game as well, with Jamie Collins registering 209 snaps in the game’s third phase over the course of the 2019 season — ninth most of the team. While neither Dont’a Hightower nor Kyle Van Noy saw that much action on special teams, they still were used occasionally on the punt or field goal/extra point block units. A similar usage seems realistic for Harrison as well.
Does he have positional versatility? Ohio State used him primarily as an off-the-line defender in 2019, and Harrison played 607 of his 701 defensive snaps from a box alignment (86.6%) according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide. That said, the team did move him around the formation from time to time as well and also gave him 57 snaps on the defensive line. While those numbers may not seem impressive, Harrison does have plenty of experience playing all three linebacker spots in a 4-3 alignment.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Even though he does not project to have much of an impact as a coverage linebacker in 2020 based on his collegiate career, Harrison’s athletic profile in combination with the growth he displayed during his senior year at Ohio State makes him a prime candidate to carve out a bigger role in Year Two. How could it look like? Apart from being prominently featured on early downs, he might also see more snaps in the passing game and furthermore be moved around the formation quite a bit.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If the Patriots plan to use him primarily as an off-the-ball linebacker in the mold of Elandon Roberts in 2020 (as opposed to the more versatile roles previously held by Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins), his primary competition for playing time currently project to be Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall with Brandon Copeland also possibly factoring into the mix as more of a Van Noy/Collins-type defender. Harrison would, of course, be a lock to make the 53-man roster based on his projected status as a Day Two selection.
Why the Patriots? New England has an obvious need at linebacker following the aforementioned free agency departures. While Harrison’s skillset entering the NFL does not make him a fit to fill the hybrid roles previously held by Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins just yet, he would give the Patriots a solid developmental option as an off-the-ball defender. His size and athleticism in combination with his abilities as a downhill disruptor certainly would fit in well with how the team uses its players at the position.
Why not the Patriots? Compared to other early-round off-the-ball linebackers who might be in the Patriots’ range — Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen, for example — Harrison is rather raw when dropping into coverage. The Patriots might furthermore be willing to wait until one of the later rounds to invest in a linebacker who offers limited upside at the edge: they already have Brandon Copeland and Ja’Whaun Bentley as linebacker options to serve alongside Dont’a Hightower. The need for a starting-caliber option might therefore be limited, at least compared to the potential investment it would take to bring Harrison aboard.
Verdict: Harrison is a throwback linebacker: he is physical when playing downhill and has an impressive amount of athleticism for his size. Add his playing intelligence and developmental upside and you get a player that fits what the Patriots are generally looking for at the position. While he appears to have his limitations based on his time with the Buckeyes, it would be unsurprising if Harrison would not just develop into a starting linebacker in New England’s system, but also play a prominent role on early downs right away.