This article will continue the series of looking at players in the last year of their contracts. Players often use this last year to prove they are worth a long-term deal. Last week’s article about Carl Granderson can be found here. This is another player whose contributions to the team grew in 2020 after their rookie 2019 season. Just like Granderson as well, this is another undrafted free agent find for the Saints in the 2019 NFL Draft. Deonte Harris will be looking to expand his role and hope to find either a contract extension or long-term deal this season. Here is how Harris’ contract situation might shake out in the upcoming NFL season.
Deonte Harris expanding role will be tested in 2021
Deonte Harris is the first offensive player that this series will focus on. Harris was primarily a special teams player in 2019, returning kickoffs and punts. Harris showed his skills early on, appearing in 14 games in the 2019 season. He returned 36 punts on the year with a 9.4 yards returned on average. Harris scored one touchdown on a punt and had a long return of 53 yards. Harris’ kick returns averaged 26.8 yards with a long of 51. In total, Harris accounted for over 1,000 yards in returns in his first season. It is not surprising with these numbers, that he earned First-Team All-Pro status and was named to the Pro Bowl.
So with all of these rookie year accolades, shouldn’t a contract be almost guaranteed for Harris? Sadly, this is unlikely the case in many situations. Special teams play is often looked at as replaceable. The special teams numbers for Harris dipped in 2020, mostly due to injuries it seems. Harris only appeared in nine games for the Saints. When he was out, the special team touches were spread amongst several other players looking to contribute to the team. Marquez Callaway, Tommylee Lewis, Ty Montgomery, and Dwayne Washington all had a hand in trying to replicate Harris’ success. Callaway did this the best, averaging over 11 yards per punt and almost 24 yards per kickoff return. Lewis was the best kick returner on limited action, averaging almost 30 yards per return, but with only three on the season. It is likely that backups like Montgomery will need to step more into the special teams role in 2021. This is due to Harris recent success with the offense.
Will Deonte Harris be a Saint after the 2021 season?
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Deonte Harris contributed on offense much more in 2020 than his rookie season. In 2019, Harris was only on the field for 66 snaps in the entire season. In his second year, that number grew to 169. As mentioned earlier, Harris was injured some in 2020. He only appeared in nine games on the season. So in nine games, Harris had almost 100 more snaps than his 2019 year. Harris appeared in 14 games in the 2019 season, so it is easy to see how much more he was on the field in 2020. This was by design. Sean Payton saw the kind of open-field runner that Harris is and started expanding his role in the offense. Payton is regarded as one of the NFL’s best offensive minds so he was not going to let Harris’ skills be used only on special teams.
Sean Payton has used Harris as a slot and gadget player. Expect that to continue into Harris’ last year of his rookie contract. The Saints first playoff game at the end of the 2020 season could be a sign of how much Harris could be involved in the offense this upcoming season. Harris was returning from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for six straight weeks. Against the Chicago Bears, Harris caught all seven of his targets for 83 yards. He also returned three punts for 22. The next playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Harris’ numbers dipped in a defensive battle. He caught his only target but did manage to turn two punt returns into 61 yards in the game. Wherever Harris manages to touch the ball, yards usually follow.
Players in the NFL have very limited windows for success. The sport is too physical for most players to have longevity. Wide receivers average time in the NFL is just under three full seasons. Players have to make their mark quickly to be able to earn that second contract. Sean Payton will likely keep putting Harris in the best situations to succeed as seen in the Saints playoff games. The Saints also did not add any offensive weapon this off-season, likely cementing Harris’ growing role in the offense. If he stays healthy and continues his trajectory in the Saints offense, a long-term deal in or after this season could be obtainable.