For more than a month, from early March to late April, Napoleon Harris was the face of the Vikings' return on investment when they traded Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders. Once the draft was complete, the Vikings had essentially traded Moss for Harris, wide receiver Troy Williamson and cornerback Adrian Ward.
The comparisons between Moss and Williamson are easy fodder for fans, as both are speedy wide receivers with a reputation for stretching a defenese. But now, almost three months later, there is very little talk about Harris or Ward. In Ward's case, being a seventh-round draft choice with an uphill battle to make the roster, the oversight is understandable. Harris, however, stands a much better chance to make a lasting impression on the Vikings.
And Harris definitely has the confidence that his impressions will carry further than the Minnesota borders.
The 23rd overall draft pick in the 2002 NFL Draft had been a consistent starter in three seasons in Silver and Black, but he never quite made the Pro Bowl. In his mind, however, he's right on the verge of that honor.
"I feel like I never stopped being an elite linebacker," Harris told Viking Update. "The (knee) injury was a big setback for me last year. Now that I'm back playing full strength, I think the sky is the limit. I know I have the ability to go out there and do it. It's just a matter of me getting back into the flow of things like I've been doing here with the minicamps, learn the defense and play with a lot more confidence than what I've been playing with."
Last season, with a knee that hampered his consistency, he started nine of 14 games. Before that, he started all 16 games in his second year in the NFL and made 13 starts in his rookie season, when the Raiders went to Super Bowl XXXVII and he was named to the Pro Football Weekly All-Rookie team.
But as Oakland's defense struggled to find consistency following his rookie campaign, Harris' struggles began. He was still a producer, but he was being asked to make adjustments too often, according to Vikings officials. The Raiders switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and he was also asked to switch from middle linebacker to outside linebacker at midseason.
"The truth of the matter is, I never had a problem playing the 3-4. It's just that we switched so much that I never knew on a week-to-week basis where I was going to play," he said. "By me being injured and not being in the flow of things coming back, everything that we did in the preseason and the offseason, like now, went down the drain. Had I not been hurt, I definitely believe I'd have had an outstanding year last year, a Pro Bowl season."
This year, he wants to get wins and become a Pro Bowl linebacker, a title that has eluded him to date. Said Harris: "As far as Sam linebackers in he NFC, right now, just me coming over to the NFC, I feel I rank among the best ones."
In order for many Vikings defenders to receive national acclaim, the whole unit will have to come together. The Vikings could have five or six new starters on a defensive unit that ranked 28th in the NFL last season.
Harris doesn't see a problem there.
"This is a great group of guys. I'm just excited to get a fresh start. I'm just excited to play with some guys who are excited about football," he said. "I think it's going to be something special once we get some chemistry."
"You know how they do the show with the makeover, this is a ‘Defensive Makeover.' One thing about a makeover is you can't change the insides of a makeover. Basically what that means is the coaching staff stayed intact and the philosophy stayed intact. Once you get the guys who buy into it and believe in what's going on and you get to executing, the sky is the limit for what we'll be able to do."
"Every defensive unit around the league, the goal is to be the No. 1 defense in the league. That's our ultimate goal, to be the No. 1 defense in the league and help our team win. That's realistic. It's been proven and it's been done before. For instance, in Oakland, my first year, that was pretty much a defensive makeover. They brought guys in for one year and one year only and we were able to be a pretty solid defense and get to the Super Bowl. It's definitely possible and it definitely can happen. But you have to get the big guys up front, which we have, sound defensive backfield play that we have in (Antoine) Winfield and (Fred) Smoot, (Darren) Sharper and (Corey) Chavous. And then the linebackers with myself, Sam Cowart, E.J. (Henderson), Dontarrious (Thomas). I think we're going to be pretty solid around the board."
While Harris says the Vikings having Ted Cottrell as their defensive coordinator two years in a row is "a pretty big deal," he is used to the coordinator shuffle. He had a new defense or position to play each of his years in Oakland. His biggest adjustments with the Vikings will be learning the terminology and moving back to being an outside linebacker.
"I can get the opportunity to rush more (on the outside). That's the biggest thing, with my rushing ability and being able to get after the quarterback and use my quickness and athletic ability on the edge, I think that gives our team a solid chance to get pressure on the quarterback and help out our back end a lot as well," he said.
And if the whole defensive unit jells quickly with all the new additions to the starting ranks, it just might put Harris in a position for that title that has elude him personally – "Pro Bowl linebacker."
Harris Has High Expectations
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