New York Jets add scheme familiarity and versatile depth to their defense in Marcell Harris
The New York Jets recently agreed to a deal with former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Marcell Harris, who played under Jets head coach Robert Saleh from 2018 to 2020 while Saleh was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
Let’s get a feel for what Harris brings to the table.
- Height: 6′ 0¾”
- Weight: 215
- Wingspan: 75½”
- Arm length: 32″
- Hand size: 8⅝”
- Age: 27 (turns 28 in June)
Rough early-career run at safety
A sixth-round pick (184th overall) out of Florida in 2018, Harris played strong safety for the 49ers over the first three years of his career. Harris served as a backup, starting 13 of his 37 games and logging a total of 1,046 defensive snaps (28.3 per game).
It was a rough time for Harris at the safety position. Harris was brutalized in coverage, allowing 31 completions on 47 targets for 419 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions from 2018 to 2020. That equates to a passer rating of 133.8. He allowed a passer rating over 127.0 in all three seasons.
Harris also struggled with missed tackles. From 2018 to 2020, he missed 20 tackles and had a missed tackle rate of 18.7%. For reference, the average NFL safety in 2021 missed a tackle on only 11.5% of their tackle chances.
On the positive side, Harris did have a solid knack for making splashy plays. While he had zero interceptions, he did record eight passes defended, five forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries in his limited playing time.
Mixed bag of results for 2021 switch to linebacker
Following the exit of Saleh, Harris transitioned to linebacker under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Harris served as the main backup behind starting linebackers Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair.
We’re starting to see Saleh and the Jets show a particular fondness for these safety-turned-linebacker players. New York added two of them in the 2021 draft (Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen). That came shortly after the Jets were reportedly a finalist for free agent safety-to-linebacker convert Keanu Neal, who ended up joining the Cowboys.
Harris primarily played weakside linebacker for San Francisco. He played 335 snaps in 15 games (22.3 per game), routinely rotating onto the field for small dosages of snaps each week. It was common to see him play from 30 to 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps even when both starters were active.
The position change led to some mixed results for Harris.
From a raw production standpoint, Harris’ coverage was much better. He allowed a career-low passer rating of 83.8, which ranked at the 88th percentile among qualified linebackers.
Harris allowed 23 completions on 25 targets but those 23 receptions produced a fairly modest 203 yards. His average of 8.8 yards allowed per reception ranked at the 66th percentile among qualified linebackers. Plus, he had the first season of his career in which he did not give up a touchdown, and he also snagged his first career interception.
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However, despite the impressive box-score numbers, Harris’ coverage was panned by Pro Football Focus’ snap-by-snap grading system. PFF scored Harris with a coverage grade of 48.8, which ranked at the 29th percentile among qualified linebackers.
The disparity between Harris’ raw production and his grade could suggest that he was lucky to get bailed out on some plays in which he was beaten in coverage, be it via a missed read by the quarterback, a bad throw, or a drop. It could also mean the positive plays that boosted his stats were fairly routine and not all that impressive or difficult.
Missed tackles remained an issue for Harris. He missed eight tackles and registered a missed tackle rate of 17.4%, which ranked at the 10th percentile among qualified linebackers.
Harris had issues stopping the run in his first season as a linebacker. Of course, that’s something you would probably expect from an undersized converted safety in his first season at the position. Harris recorded only eight run-stops over 160 snaps against the run. That’s a run-stop rate of 5.0%, placing at the 16th percentile among qualified linebackers.
Great special teams value
New York’s special teams unit gets a big boost with Harris.
While Harris has issues with tackling on defense, those woes do not carry over to special teams. Harris has recorded 20 special teams tackles in his career while missing just one tackle. That’s a 4.8% missed tackle rate, which is incredible – for reference, the 2021 league average on special teams was 22.0%.
A regular special teams contributor throughout his career, Harris played 812 special teams snaps throughout his four seasons in San Francisco and ranked fourth on the 49ers with 249 special teams snaps in 2021.
Harris contributes everywhere on special teams. He routinely suits up for the kickoff return team, the kickoff coverage team, the punt return team, the punt coverage team, and the field goal block team. The only unit he does not play on is the field goal protection team.
Synopsis for Marcell Harris
Overall, I think the Jets are getting a good special teams player who can compete for the Jets’ No. 3 linebacker spot against Jamien Sherwood, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and any potential rookie additions.
While I do not see Quincy Williams as quite good enough to be considered a shoo-in to retain his starting spot beside C.J. Mosley, it seems Sherwood and Nasirildeen would get the first crack at stealing Williams’ job if there is an open competition. New York also may add a linebacker early in next week’s draft.
I don’t see a path to Harris rising higher than the No. 3 spot on the linebacker depth chart, but if Sherwood and Nasirildeen fail to impress and/or the Jets do not spend an early pick on a linebacker next week, Harris certainly may end up having an inside track to being the team’s primary backup linebacker.
In that role, Harris could play a few snaps per game when the Jets deploy their 4-3 base personnel, just as he did with the 49ers.
Most likely, though, the second, third, and fourth spots on the Jets’ linebacker depth chart will be taken by some combination of the team’s young players (Williams, Sherwood, Nasirildeen, and any potential draft picks), leaving Harris to try and crack the roster with his strong special teams resume.
When he takes the field defensively, Harris should be expected to struggle against the run and with tackling, but his smaller frame and experience as a safety give him the athleticism and instincts to fit nicely into a WILL linebacker role where he could provide some respectable coverage production in a pinch. There is also a slight chance for future growth due to his lack of experience at the position.