Meet the Newest Steeler: OT Ryan Harris

via denverbroncos.com/ Just think how much handsomer he will look with a black and gold background…

This season’s post-Super Bowl period has been quite busy for the Steelers, relatively speaking. They managed to re-sign a number of their own free agents, which was expected, but what wasn’t was the signing of tight end Ladarius Green as soon as free agency opened.

Of course, the news about Martavis Bryant’s suspension which hit the wires not too long afterwards made it evident why they were so keen to find a replacement for, ostensibly, Heath Miller. But when you look at Green’s blazing 40 time and relatively trim size for a tight end, it begins to look as if they were looking to replace Bryant more than Miller.

Another surprise, although I suppose it shouldn’t have been, was the search for an offensive tackle. From information which is now leaking out it looks as if the Steelers offered Kelvin Beachum a substantial contract last season which he chose to refuse, and ironically it sounds as if it was pretty equivalent to the one he signed with the Jaguars. 

And although it appears Mike Adams will be ready for training camp, the Steelers don’t seem to view some combination of Adams and Alejandro Villanueva as the answer at left tackle and for depth, or at least not for certain. So the Steelers went fishing again, and Ryan Harris landed in Pittsburgh.

What did they catch?

They caught a guy with a substantial resumé who also happens to have a Super Bowl ring. And in Harris’ case it actually means something in terms of the game, because, unlike the, say third-string equipment manager or the marketing director, Harris actually started the game. Finished it, too. It was, in fact, the only season other than his second in which he started every game. He played in 16 games during the 2012—14 seasons, first with the Houston Texans and with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014.

Drafted out of Notre Dame in 2007, the Broncos picked him up in the third round of the 2007 draft. Here’s some of the information from his CBS Sports profile at the time:

Ryan Harris is one of the few players to ever start every game he played in (45) at Notre Dame, lining up at right offensive tackle for the first eight games of his career before shifting to the demanding left tackle position.

Head coach Charlie Weis called Harris one of the best pure left tackles in the collegiate ranks. “There aren’t too many guys playing left tackle that are really left tackles in the eyes of pro guys,” Weis said. “Left tackles are the guys that (need) the athleticism to handle an edge rusher by themselves, which is normally the blind side of a right-handed quarterback. There are guys playing left tackle (in college), but as soon as they get to the NFL, they go over to right tackle because they’re more slug-it-out type of guys. Ryan Harris has the athleticism to play left tackle.”

Their analysis makes him sound like the sort of linemen the Steelers have been developing lately—lean, athletic, quick, smart. The latter is obvious—he was smart enough to come to Pittsburgh to work with Mike Munchak (one of the reasons he gave for signing here.) As Teresa Varley wrote recently on Steelers.com:

Another factor that went into Harris’ decision was the opportunity to work with offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Coach Munchak was definitely a part of it,” said Harris. “I don’t think you can play offensive line in the NFL and not be aware of Coach Munchak’s reputation, or the Steelers as an organization for that matter. I feel extremely fortunate to be here and be a part of the Steelers’ family. I look forward to getting to work.”

The draft scouting report also described him as a “self-starter in the weight room” and said he “takes well to hard coaching.” He ‘has the speed to get to the second level” and “has the mobility to get out quickly on pulls along the perimeter.”

Obviously there were negatives—there always are, particularly when a player makes it to the third round before being drafted. Most of them were, as far as I can tell, mainly matters of technique, except for this one—”Has to develop a nasty streak, as he seems to just go through the motions at times.”

One of the other criticisms—”Needs to add more bulk in order to face up to the bigger defenders at the next level”—speaks to a problem most of us would love to have. In fact, he appeared during the summer before going to Notre Dame on the MTV reality show “True Life” looking for a perfect body. In his case, this consisted of adding weight, of the right sort, of course. This is undoubtedly why he could potentially have made it onto a Momma’s Mock Draft, were I putting them together back in 2007.

So let’s see how he has done throughout his career. Going in, I’m not making the assumption he was a top-rated tackle all along, because the Steelers wouldn’t have been able to pick him up for such a relatively modest contract. It’s also interesting to see how he has compared to Kelvin Beachum in the past few years, so I’ll put those figures in. And I’ve also added figures for Max Starks, the Steelers’ main left tackle during the earlier years of Harris’ NFL career.

But I think it’s fair to assume that none of these guys were in the top tier of left tackles (although Beachum was getting there when he blew out his knee,) and so I’ve also added the figures for a player well known to AFC North fans, Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns. Despite being stuck in a dumpster fire of a franchise, to put it honestly if not kindly, he has excelled at his position every year since being drafted No. 3 overall in 2007. He is the only offensive lineman to be elected to the Pro Bowl every single year of his career, and was a first team All-Pro for most of them. (He didn’t make first team his rookie year, and was second team for a couple of the other years.) If anyone can set a benchmark for left tackle in the years between 2007 and 2015, it is Joe Thomas.

Of course, the great difficulty in rating an offensive lineman is that so few people try to do so, apart from the entire offensive line. Pro Football Reference is one of the few who assigns separate “values” to linemen, and so those are the figures we have. Pro Football Focus also does so, but because they’ve changed what information they make available to “consumers” such as myself, I only have the grades for 2015 (and in any case their figures only went back to 2009, back when I could access them all.)

One of the matters of interest as I looked up the figures was to see how durable a player was, I supposed you could say. Joe Thomas definitely wins this award—since he was drafted he has started every single game. That’s really quite amazing. None of the other guys we are considering came anywhere close to that, although once he made the starting lineup Kelvin Beachum started every game until last season.

And just being there does matter, as we know to our cost with our ill-fated center Maurkice Pouncey. None of his injuries have appeared to be because of some sort of genetic weakness or lack of conditioning—they are just plain bad luck. But as Pro Football Focus pointed out in their ranking of the 2015 offensive lines,

You take out Wallace and replace him with Maurkice Pouncey, and you’re looking at a group that could challenge the top three. Replace Alejandro Villanueva with Kelvin Beachum, and they could be the best. This line has really transformed over the years, and it’s only injuries that saw them drop down the rankings in 2015.

Football Outsiders ranked the Steelers offensive line at No. 8 in run blocking and No. 6 in pass blocking for the season. Pretty sweet—but the trouble with spending a lot of top draft picks on one position group is, you can’t afford to keep them all. But back to the figures I do have:

Tackle comp As you can see, Harris was never a world-beater, at least in comparison to the top tackle in the league (Pro Football Focus declared Joe Thomas the top tackle, by a goodly margin, in 2015.) But the heartening thing is the obvious improvement in 2014 and 2015. As Mike Tomlin would say, the arrow is pointing up…

Of course Harris isn’t guaranteed a starting spot, and he will be competing with a Momma favorite, Alejandro Villanueva, (although AV was even better-looking before he had to put on 100 pounds or so to play offensive tackle.) But it can only make both men better to battle for the left tackle spot. (I didn’t put Alejandro’s numbers in the chart, but PFR gave him an AV of 6 for the 10 games he started last season, so it seems like a really fair contest.)

The truth is, though, that the Steelers obviously aren’t certain he is the answer at left tackle, and it is entirely possible the issue was accelerated because of Heath Miller’s retirement. Heath was put in, a lot, as a pass blocker to help Alejandro out. Which is fair enough. He never played the position in the NFL (or pretty much anywhere else, although he did play left tackle for a year on the Army team before being converted to a 290 pound wide receiver. And then went to Afghanistan for three tours of duty.)

The other point to make is, Harris started most of his NFL games at right tackle. This, of course, only makes him more attractive to the Steelers as a possible backup swing tackle.

To return our focus completely to Ryan Harris, what sort of a person is he? He is a person with the courage of his convictions. Raised in the Unitarian Church, he converted and is now a devout Muslim. As a Muslim he spoke out last December because of the xenophobia he felt was growing in the US, particularly in regards to Muslims:

In all of my years of being Muslim, I feel this is the most tense it’s been in terms of Muslims having a lot of fear. Not as much me — I mean, I’m 300 pounds, I’ll be OK. But for the Muslim woman who wears a hajib and goes to work, or the Muslim kid in school right now, it’s tough.

He spoke about his conversion and what it means to him. He’s a funny and engaging speaker, and I recommend spending the 15 minutes:

There were two things he said which really struck me. The first, in reference to the largely Catholic student body at Notre Dame:

“My brothers and sisters there made me a better Muslim.” He noted that they have 338 masses on campus every week, and that his friends and teammates could understand when he couldn’t do something or eat something because it was Ramadan, or because he still had to do his evening prayers.

Although he’s here to battle it out with Alejandro Villanueva, the two men should also hit it off, given Harris’ past experience, as Villanueva is a devout Catholic.

The other incident Harris related which I found especially interesting was him talking about how, when he entered the NFL, he had just had a back surgery and had to have another. When he finally got to play in a pre-season game, he said:

I think I have probably the worst game in the history of the NFL. In the first half I have three penalties, two of them back to back, two of them were holding, which is like the worst penalty an offensive lineman can have.

I love a self-deprecating man, and one who can admit his failures. I suppose most women do…

One of the charitable activities Harris has been involved in is very impressive to me. While he is fasting during Ramadan he serves food to others. Last season it was sponsoring and serving lunch at the Denver Rescue Mission. It’s hard enough to fast, but to serve food to others while you’re doing it argues a high degree of self-discipline. All in all, it sounds as if he will fit right in with the Pittsburgh ethos.

In an article on denverbroncos.comHarris said the following, about tuning out distractions:

Before a game, during warmups, I always think of anything outside of the white lines as things that don’t matter at that time. I work on my hands, work on hearing the sounds that I need to hear from the quarterback and my lineman, and go from there.

Presumably this also helps when inhaling the smells of Kansas City barbecue sandwiches whilst fasting.

Welcome to the Steelers, Mr. Harris. We look forward to some awesome camp battles. Enjoy your work with Mike Munchak, and we all certainly hope that the other reason for signing with the Steelers will come to pass: [quote from previously linked steelers.com article]

“Most importantly at this point of my career, I want to continue to play for championship-caliber teams,” said Harris. “Teams whose goal is to win a championship, and that couldn’t be any clearer when you walk the halls of this organization.”

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