2006 regular-season stats: 58 tackles, 17 assists, 1-1 tackles for
loss, 3-18-0 interceptions, 9 passes broken up
2006 playoff stats: 18 tackles, 1 assist, 1-9-0 interception, 2 passes broken up, 1 forced fumble
The player: People have counted Nick Harper out before, but he's made a career of proving them wrong. Not recruited by the majors out of high school, he played at Division II Fort Valley State. He played great, making all-SIAC, tested well and could have been drafted if he hadn't suffered a major knee injury as a senior. Unpicked but undaunted, he went to Hamilton of the CFL and made the league's all-star team. Colts GM Bill Polian, who has a long history of paying attention to what happens north of the border, signed Harper and gave him a chance. He worked his way into the lineup and by 2003, he was a regular starter. And he's since become the team's No. 1 cornerback.
Even though he doesn't have great deep speed, Harper is good enough in man coverage and very good in zone. He's agile, has a smooth backpedal, fluid transition and excellent tracking instincts. Perhaps more important, he has surprising closing speed and a solid veteran's understanding of how offenses work. Young corners could learn a lot by watching his footwork. He'll gamble though, especially late in games, and allow lots of short completions in front of him as he tries to cut off the long gain. Harper has a good vertical and times his jumps well. He'll fight to get his hands on the ball and gets a good number of deflections. He's earned the nickname "Nick the Pick" not because he gets a lot of interceptions — never more than four in an NFL season — but because he seems to get them when the Colts really need them and because he is a threat to score on every runback.
He's aggressive as a tackler and in run support, but doesn't show great technique, preferring to drag his man down rather than wrap him up. This is probably because he weighs just 182 pounds and he often plays nicked up, but he will force the odd fumble here and there out of sheer determination.
Although Harper is generally considered a good guy, he's had some problems with the law, especially as regards his wife, Danielle. On the week of the 2006 AFC Championship, Harper had a row with her and ended up playing the game with stitches in his knee. When he was outrun by thick-legged Ben Roethlisberger at the end of the 21-18 Pittsburgh victory, people wondered if he'd have gone all the way if only he'd not fought with his wife. And it wasn't their only altercation that ended up in court — Harper was arrested for domestic battery seven months earlier.
Should he stay or should he go: While Harper is a quality cornerback who can help any team win, he's probably played his last down for Indianapolis. By the end of last season, teams were testing him more often than rising star Jason David on the other side and the Colts have a former first rounder (Marlin Jackson) and two second rounders (Kelvin Hayden and Tim Jennings) waiting in the wings.
Before the 2006 season, Harper held a short holdout because he felt he wasn't being paid like a No. 1 corner. He had a point. He was entering the second year of a two-year, $2.4-million deal and, while Harper is no Champ Bailey, he probably deserved more than 13 percent of what Bailey makes.
While Harper may get the raise he seeks, it almost certainly won't come from Indy. The team is strapped under the cap, has bigger fish to fry when it comes to free agency, and has the talented trio of Jackson, Hayden and especially Jennings ready to step in.
But Harper may not get the payday he expects elsewhere, either. Although he has been a solid contributor to a Super Bowl champion, the market for undersized, 33-year-old corners who lack deep speed and bring along considerable legal baggage may not be as lucrative as he hopes.
Because of his outstanding footwork, I would expect Harper to be courted by teams with young secondaries who need a leader and coach-on-the-field type of presence. Arizona comes to mind, as does Tennessee.
Who'd replace him: Certainly, the primary candidates to replace Harper would have to be Jackson, Hayden and Jennings. While each has his strengths, they also all bring weaknesses. Jackson is big and tough and an excellent tackler, but he lacks deep speed and isn't fluid in his turnaround. Hayden is a premier athlete who really doesn't yet understand the nuances of the position. Jennings has outstanding speed and instincts, but is terrifically undersized. Still, none of them would have represented a considerable drop off from Harper even if they stepped in last season. And the arrow is pointed up on each of them, while Harper's career is clearly on its back side.