After a preseason injury cost Nick Harris his entire 2022 season with the Cleveland Browns, with fill-in center Ethan Pocic set to hit free agency, the team should give Harris another chance to start in 2023.
In the fifth-round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Andrew Berry's first as Cleveland Browns general manager, the team selected Nick Harris out of Washington. Harris played guard and, primarily, center in his time with the Huskies, beginning his NFL career backing up then Browns starting center, J.C. Tretter.
The first game that Harris saw significant snaps was against the New York Giants in 2020, playing right guard. For a rookie, going up against the likes of Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson is a daunting task. Watching the tape, he did so many impressive things, particularly in the run game, that Browns fans (and coaches) should be excited about.
Just as he was in college, Harris displayed how effective he was as a mover. Whether he was pulling, getting out in front of screens or chipping and getting to the second level, Harris showed just how fleet-footed he is, always reaching his spot/man and executing wonderfully. He showed promising technique in pass protection, again using his foot movement to positively affect the play. They even ran a quarterback sneak behind him, leading Baker Mayfield into the end zone.
Harris started the next game for the Browns, against the New York Jets, once again at right guard. He continued to put out more impressive tape, playing every snap in the loss. But where people should really be paying attention is to the one game he played in his second season, on Christmas Day in Green Bay against the Packers.
Week 16 in 2021 was Harris' first opportunity to start at center for the Cleveland Browns, although he didn't even have the chance to play between Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, with Bitonio jumping over to left tackle for the game while Blake Hance filled in at left guard.
Harris once again looked light on his feet, with the team getting him in space early, in the screen game and on some outside zone runs and end arounds as a puller.
While this has always been a strength for Harris, what may surprise some people (especially given his size) is how well he performed in pass protection. Harris earned a 75.3 pass block grade (70.0 overall for the game) from Pro Football Focus. Further, he did not allow a sack, quarterback hit, or even a pressure in 44 pass-blocking snaps. All while primarily going up against one of the league's best in Kenny Clark.
Coming out of college, I was very high on Nick Harris and graded his selection an "A" for Cleveland when they picked him in the fifth round in 2020. I could tell by his college tape that he would be a perfect fit for what the Browns do on offense. After even just three NFL games of playing time, Harris has only bolstered my confidence in him.
While I truly believe that Harris has what it takes to be a starter in the NFL, particularly in the Cleveland Browns offense, what people should really pay attention to is that this Cleveland coaching staff and front office believed that same this time one year ago. Harris was slated to start in 2022, but a right knee injury cost him that opportunity.
Ethan Pocic was signed from the Seattle Seahawks last offseason, and eventually became the starter for the Browns. Pocic really came into his own throughout the year and clearly played at a very high level all season long. His level of play was great for the Browns in 2022, but could potentially cost them now in 2023. Pocic likely played himself into a much higher-paying contract than the 1 year, $1.19 million deal he signed in Cleveland, with his market value sitting at $7.2 million per year, according to Spotrac.
It sounds like the Browns want Pocic back, and he wants to stay in Cleveland as well, so I certainly would not be mad if they brought him back on a fairly "team-friendly" deal, keeping the offensive line 100% intact. Some believe that Pocic needs to be a top priority for the Browns this offseason. Honestly, I think Nick Harris will perform just as well, assuming he is truly back to 100 percent healthy, for likely $6-7 million cheaper for 2023.
Harris is in the final year of his rookie contract, so he has a lot to prove. A breakout season like Pocic's and he could find himself in for a similar payday next offseason. The Browns need to take advantage of this while the cost is still cheap, and utilize that money on the defensive side of the ball.
Harris was slated to start last season, so the team should be confident rolling him out, with Watson behind him, in 2023. It was always the play to have Harris take over once the team moved on from veteran JC Tretter. Despite the setback a year ago, Browns fans should still be excited to see what Nick Harris can do for them this season.