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When the free agent period officially opened on March 10, the New York Giants moved quickly to sign five players. Wide receiver and returner Dwayne Harris of the Dallas Cowboys was one of the five. And surprisingly, Harris’ 5-year, $17.5 million deal was by far the largest in terms of the number of years and overall value. Harris also received the largest amount in guaranteed money ($7.1 million with a $4 million bonus).
On the surface, that appears to be a lot of money for Dallas’ 4th wide receiver/back-up slot receiver and punt/kickoff returner.
The 27-year old Harris was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cowboys. In four seasons with the Cowboys, Harris has played in 52 regular-season games with three starts, catching 33 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns. Harris finished 2014 with just seven catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns, down from nine catches in 2013 and 17 catches in 2012.
Harris also averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kickoff return in 2014. Those decent but not stellar figures were 9th- and 13th-best in the NFL last year.
So why the big bucks for a guy who has been only a good role player to date?
“Harris is a well-kept secret to a lot of people, except the teams in NFC East,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He is one of the top all-around special teams players in league and a solid third or fourth receiving option.”
Harris indeed was far more impressive on special teams in 2013 as he averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Those figures were 3rd- and 2nd-best in the NFL that season, helping him to earn “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” twice, including once against the Giants.
Harris also won another another “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” honor in 2012 against the Philadelphia Eagles. That season, Harris averaged 16.1 yards per punt return, 2nd best in the NFL. Harris returned punts for touchdowns in both 2012 and 2013. Bringing him on board strongly suggests that the Giants do not want to risk Odell Beckham on punt returns.
On the downside, he Harris six career fumbles on punts, including four in 2014. Ball security has been an issue for him going back to his college days at East Carolina.
Harris’ contributions on special teams are not limited to the return game. Harris is an excellent coverage man on special teams. Indeed, it was Harris’ coverage work against the Giants on opening day in 2013 that earned him the “Special Teams Player of the Week” award. In that game, Harris made three special teams tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered by Dallas. In 2014, Harris was credited with 18 special teams tackles – a very high number.
“I am a physical player,” Harris said. “I think all of the Giants fans are going to find that out soon. I am a physical player and I like the physical nature of the game. I like being the guy who hits players. I take a lot of hits during the game. It is always fun to return the favor.”
But $17.5 million with $7.1 million in guaranteed money still seems like a lot of money for a special teams player. Could the Giants see Harris as a bigger contributor at wide receiver than his 33 career catches to date indicate?
Assuming everyone stays healthy, the top three receivers on the Giants should be Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle. Since Harris is experienced playing the slot receiver position, the Giants may consider Harris to be an insurance policy if Cruz struggles or re-injures himself. Preston Parker was the reserve slot guy in 2014, finishing with 36 catches for 418 yards and two touchdowns. Parker also returned both punts (6.6 yard average) and kickoffs (24.2 yard average) for the Giants in 2014. The Giants might see Harris as an upgrade over Parker not just as a returner, but as a receiver.
Heading into the offseason, the Cowboys felt they could re-sign wide receiver Cole Beasley or Harris, but not both. Harris provided more special teams value, but Beasley is the primary slot receiver for the Cowboys. Dallas re-signed Beasley with a 4-year, $13.6 million contract that included $7 million in guaranteed money and a $4 million signing bonus. As soon as that deal was done, Harris was sure to sign elsewhere.
Harris has flashed at receiver. While he is not a big (5’10”) or exceptionally fast (4.5 range) target, Harris is a solid 202-pounder with good quickness and run-after-the-catch ability. He is tough and physical and an excellent blocker for the ground game, something repeatedly mentioned by those who followed him in Dallas.
“This was just a perfect fit for me with what (the Giants) do,” said Harris. “They are going to give me a chance to play my old team, the Dallas Cowboys, twice a year.”