Camp Countdown: Harris has right stuff at OLB

The Bills did next to nothing to remedy the situation at strong-side linebacker. Keith Ellison is penciled in for now, but expect a hard push from Nic Harris. The fifth-round pick has the playmaking ability the unit needs. In the first part of a 5-part BFR series analyzing camp story lines, we take a look at Harris...

Never underestimate the power of freelancing. It's so easy to get caught up into jargon. Every innovative scheme breeds another scheme and another and another in the endless pursuit of confusing the Peyton Mannings.

A decade ago, we had the 4-3, the 3-4 and a tweak here and there. That's it. Today, every individual coordinator has a style, has a stamp on the league. Jim Bates' aggressive corners, Jim Johnson's banzai blitzing and, in Buffalo, Perry Fewell's Tampa 2 hybrid.

A second-generation Tampa 2'er, Fewell finally has the pieces to do some serious damage. Buffalo jumped from 31st to 14th on defense last year and finished 2nd in the AFC in negative-yardage plays. Catapulting into the NFL elite is not unreasonable this fall.

For that to happen, a stud must lurk next to Paul Posluszny and Kawika Mitchell on the strong side. Not a placeholder. Not a special-teamer force-fed onto the defense. A playmaker. The front office — while busy elsewhere — snoozed here through March. Can't bail out everything, after all.

Steady at times and exposed at others, Keith Ellison is what he is: a fringe starter. He'll squeeze out every bit of potential he has, which isn't a ton. The Bills signed Kansas City's Pat Thomas to a one-year deal. A head-scratching, half-hearted effort. The salt in fan's wounds came when the Bills entertained Pisa Tinoisamoa on a visit, only to watch him sign with Chicago (you know, the theme of free agency this year).

So is there any reason to believe Fewell's defense can take that next step with C+ players duking it out on the strong side? For sure. Hope lies in a game-changer drafted in the fifth round.

Harris, the stingy safety from Oklahoma, has the raw potential to pour a little gasoline on the fire in Fewell's defense.

The X ‘n O's take time. Harris told the BFR a few weeks back that coaches haven't quite unleashed him yet. But when they do, his raw ability alone could be enough to warrant a starting role sooner rather than later.

Harris and last year's camp darkhorse, Alvin Bowen, should both challenge Ellison. Banking on Harris here. Making the switch from safety to outside linebacker won't be strenuous as coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Harris played five different positions on some violent Sooner defenses in college. Good move by Fewell to give Harris cameos with the first-team defense through minicamp and OTAs. More should be on the way in a few weeks.

There will come a point this summer when Harris is playing off instincts. Not thinking, doing. Not reacting, enacting. When that breakthrough comes, we'll know if the havoc Harris wreaked in the Big 12 can transition to the AFC East. If what he did to Chase Daniel works against Tom Brdady At Oklahoma, against the best pass-heavy offenses in the country, Harris had seven picks, five sacks and 21 breakups as a 3-year starter.

Scared off by the ‘tweener stigma, teams shied away from Harris on draft day. His productivity and killer's instinct were forgotten. Too top-heavy for safety and too thin for linebacker, they said.

With the Bills, he is easily the thickest strong side linebacker on the team.

Once Harris is able to freelance in open space and be himself, look out. For better or worse. Harris could flop as a too-stiff linebacker and get cut at camp. Or he could blow up as the defense's missing piece. During the team's embarrassing free-fall from 4-0 to 7-9, the defense rarely ever flipped the momentum of a game.

The team needs one, ravaging specimen to stir up a bar fight on Sundays. Is it Harris? We'll find out soon.

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

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