With exactly four weeks until the first day of the 2020 NFL Draft, today brings around another prospect profile, this time at another critical position for the Green Bay Packers. Today’s player is an instinctive linebacker, but one whose coverage abilities push him a tier back of the very top options at the position, making him a potential day-two pick.
Malik Harrison, ILB, Ohio State
Malik Harrison’s play diagnostic skills are very good. While not at the level of, say, Kenneth Murray, Harrison was able to identify plays pre-snap on a semi-regular basis and blow up plays before they got started. Even when he didn’t get a read before the ball was snapped, Harrison was relatively quick to read blocking once the play began and more often than not attacked the proper gap.
Once he committed to a gap, Harrison attacked like a missile. His acceleration and tackling ability are absolutely superb, allowing him to wipe out ball carriers once he has a bead on them. While his acceleration is top notch, Harrison is a bit lacking in lateral agility and doesn’t have the quickest feet. As a result, shifty ball carriers can dodge him from time to time and he also struggles a bit on stretch plays, smoke plays, screens, and anything else that requires that he play sideline to sideline. It’s not a glaring problem but it is one flaw in Harrison’s run defense skills. (Editor’s note: On this note, Harrison had a very good 3-cone time of 6.83 seconds at the Combine, but his short shuttle was a mediocre 4.32.)
In instances where offensive lineman tried to block Harrison at the second level, he proved adept at being able to lock out and shed or otherwise knife through them. When Harrison was attacking the line and encountered offensive linemen he was able to knife through them with relative ease. When linemen tried to engage Harrison when he was in pursuit towards the edge, he showed a real knack for long arming with his inside hand and maintaining pursuit while keeping his outside hand free to go for a tackle.
When covering tight ends in man coverage, Harrison struggled with some of the more athletic players he encountered. Harrison’s tight hips and somewhat poor footwork made him vulnerable to tight ends with good release technique and Harrison got beat off the line far more than you’d like to see. Once Harrison flipped his hips and started running with his assignment he was able to keep pace fairly well, though he was often simply a step behind.
Harrison did have a bright spot in his man coverage skills however. Harrison showed a fairly good jam with accurate hand placement and good force generation transfer from hip extension through his arms. Despite his somewhat tight hips he was still able to flip them quickly enough to maintain very good coverages in those instances. This leads me to believe that if Harrison can get some consistency with his jam and work on his footwork so more athletic tight ends can’t get a clean release on him as often, Harrison has the potential to become adequate in man coverage later in his career.
In zone coverage, Harrison simply looked lost a lot of the time. Harrison didn’t have a good sense of receivers entering his zone and when he did sense them his lack of lateral agility made it difficult for him to get into position to cover them. Harrison did do a relatively good job of tracking the eyes of the quarterback and trying to break on the ball every so often, but again his apparent lack of lateral agility hindered him and prevented him from making many big plays in coverage.
Harrison is a rare combination of force and technique that’s rare to find at an NFL level, let alone in college. Harrison aims for the ball carrier’s thighs, comes into his tackles with good bend at his hips, accelerates into the tackle in a controlled fashion, shoots his hips on contact, and wraps. He does all of this at blazing speed and with extreme force. Due to his technique, Harrison rarely misses tackles and he’s able to deliver them with bone crunching ferocity. You almost never see big hitters with good technique, but it appears that Harrison is that unicorn.
Harrison is a very strong interior rusher. Harrison utilizes his excellent acceleration to attack gaps and there were instances where he managed to get behind linemen before they were able to react. Even when they did react to Harrison’s rush in time, he showed a good ability to turn his shoulders and hips to “get skinny” and split offensive linemen. Harrison didn’t rush from the outside often enough to get that good of a feel for his talent, but the few times that he did it was apparent that he didn’t have adequate bend as a speed rusher to pressure the edge or enough power to bull rush his way through.
Harrison will likely enter the league as an above average run defender and a liability in the passing game. Harrison has the potential to become an excellent run defender, but it will likely take a season for him to blossom as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL. I believe that Harrison also has the potential to eventually not be a liability in the passing game if he can improve his technique, but I find it likely that he’ll always be a match up problem that other teams can exploit to some degree. As such, I think that Harrison isn’t going to be able to be a three down player, at least initially.
Since pass defense is such an important skill for linebackers in the modern NFL, I can’t give Harrison a grade any higher than a early third round pick, despite his potential as a run defender. It would behoove whatever team drafts him to pair him with an exceptional coverage linebacker to get the most out of their selection.