FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots visit the New York Jets on Sunday, which will mark veteran New England linebacker David Harris' first game against the team for which he played from 2007 to 2016.
If he even suits up.
Harris, who signed a two-year contract with the Patriots in the offseason that included $1.25 million in guarantees, hasn't been an on-field factor in the team's 3-2 start. He's been active for four games and been on the field for a total of seven defensive snaps.
Given the matchup against the Jets, it's timely to explore why Harris' Patriots tenure hasn't unfolded as some projected.
Off-the-line linebacker depth chart. The Patriots opened the season with Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts as their top off-the-line linebackers, which is Harris' position in the scheme. Dont'a Hightower also takes snaps there (in addition to the edge). So Harris is next on the list, alongside Marquis Flowers.
Defensive schemes have dictated some playing time, but that's not all. In the opener against the Chiefs, the Patriots primarily played a dime defense, with just one traditional off-the-line linebacker. So Harris wasn't going to be a big part of that plan regardless. Then the next week against the Saints, it was more of a nickel game, with two off-the-line linebackers, and Harris possibly would have been summoned in the event of an injury to Van Noy or Roberts. The club also could have worked a three-man rotation as they do at some other positions (e.g. defensive tackle) but elected not to. Then when the Patriots played more base packages with three off-the-line linebackers in Week 3 against the Texans, and Harris was still hardly tapped (Flowers got the nod over him at one point), it highlighted how far down the depth chart he's slid. He was then inactive the next week, before dressing for Thursday's win in Tampa but not playing a snap.
Lack of speed is one factor in the decision-making process. Harris has never been viewed as a fleet-footed linebacker, as evidenced by his lack of a role on special teams. Before the season, the Patriots traded a seventh-round pick for Flowers, and then during the season promoted special-teamer Geneo Grissom from the practice squad instead of turning to Harris. That might explain why Van Noy, Roberts and Flowers have played more than him on defense: a concern with his lack of speed as a liability in the passing game.
No complaints from coaches. On Tuesday morning, coach Bill Belichick summed up Harris' contributions and how he's transitioned into the team's program, saying, "David has done everything we've asked him to do. He's worked hard, been a great teammate. I couldn't have asked for him to have any better attitude or any more cooperation than we've had from him. He's been great." Asked about his lack of playing time and what might have to happen for that to increase, Belichick said, "We'll keep making the best decisions we feel like we can make for the team to help us win, so -- All the players that are here potentially have a role in that based on every game, game-plan situations and so forth."
Summing up his role. At this point, Harris represents an insurance policy in the event of injury to a player ahead of him on the depth chart and adds a strong presence in the locker room. It's a significant price for the Patriots to pay for that, especially since backup linebackers usually contribute on special teams. With linebacker Shea McClellin soon eligible to return from the injured reserve list (if medically cleared), it could create further stress on Belichick to keep Harris on the roster based on his current playing time and on-field contributions.