"I'm a football player"

Nic Harris shined at safety at Oklahoma, but will play linebacker for Buffalo. He's ready to prove his doubters wrong. After the Bills failed to pick up a big-name player at outside linebacker, Harris has a golden opportunity to do just that...

Nic Harris isn't going to change. No, he's not going to pack on the pounds or undergo any sort of physical makeover just because that's what critics demand.

Harris is a "football player." And he said that doesn't change whether it's at safety or linebacker. So back off.

"I don't need to put any weight on," Harris told BuffaloFootballReport.com Thursday. "I'm bigger than any of the linebackers we have here now. I haven't changed anything. If it's not broke then why fix it?

"What I'm going to do now is try to learn the defense and learn the schemes and make sure I take advantage of the opportunity given to me."

What an opportunity it is. The chance to play day one at New England is wide open for the fifth-rounder from Oklahoma. After the Bills bypassed a slew of free agent options in Cato June, Freddie Keiaho and Pisa Tinoisamoa, Harris is darkhorse to start (or at least play a lot) at outside linebacker. An ultra-productive ballhawk in Norman, Harris spearheaded the Sooners' defense. A three-year starter, Harris totaled 232 tackles, seven picks, five sacks and 21 breakups.

Now, he's learning a completely new position. It's "night and day," Harris said." But with only Keith Ellison and Pat Thomas in his wake, the confident Harris could be playing sooner rather than later.

Not that the transition has been a cinch.

Harris is learning on the fly and keeping his nose in the playbook during any down time. For someone accustomed to fishtailing at will in deep center, operating in tight quarters is quite a metamorphosis.

"You're playing in literally a more confined space, close to the line of scrimmage," Harris said. "Whereas at safety, you're pretty much roaming, doing your own thing and making plays on the ball."

Harris heard his detractors loud and clear leading up to the draft. At 6-foot-2, 232, Harris was too bulky and stiff to play safety in the pros and many claimed too spry to play linebacker. Nothing but a NFL flameout, they said.

To Harris, that's hogwash. You can't teach playmaking.

"A lot of people said he's a ‘tweener, he's this, he's that,' and ultimately those people are critics," Harris said. "I've never seen a critic make a pick in the draft or seen a critic play football before. At the end of the day, I'm a football player. And the end of the day, I'm a football player. Put me anywhere on the field and I'm going to be productive."

In Buffalo, the Tampa 2 strong-side linebacker must be light and nimble. All three of the aforementioned free agents brought in on visits are undersized. In Dick Jauron's Tampa 2 hybrid, one outside linebacker must cover extra acreage against the pass. In this sense, Harris could blossom.

Then again, he doesn't care what the scheme is. Then again, he's a "football player."

"Ultimately, defense is defense whatever scheme you're going to run. At the end of the day, you still have to make plays, no matter if it's Cover 3, Cover 1 or Tampa 2."

The position switch doesn't bother Harris. While coaches haven't given him the green light to read-and-react quite yet — "Coach wants to set the foundation down and play fundamental football right now" — Harris sounds upbeat and hungry to get on the field asap. Businesslike.

"Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if I like the change or not," Harris said. "It only matters if I'm productive to the Bills and that's what I plan to do."

Buffalo's offense has hogged the offseason spotlight. Signing the single-most polarizing player in league history will do that. But several players are lauding an internal attitude adjustment on the other side of the ball.

After improving from 31st to 14th in the league, the ‘D' is itching to elevate the elite status. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, that caliber. Yes, a different atmosphere is spreading at One Bills Drive. When asked whether the defense is ready to take the next step and be a dominant unit, Nic Harris pauses for effect.

"Getcha popcorn ready," he said. "Getcha popcorn ready on both sides of the ball."

Maybe Harris will be an unexpected protagonist for the show.

Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com and also writes for the Buffalo News, Olean Times Herald and Packer Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com.

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