COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots are no strangers to bringing in controversial players they believe can help their team. That philosophy may be tested with the recent signing of undrafted college wide receiver Mark Harrison.
Originally projected as a mid-round pick in last month's NFL draft, the 6-foot-3, 255 pound Harrison went undrafted because of questions regarding his character.
Harrison was a three-year starter at Rutgers University, where he totaled 107 receptions, 1,769 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns during his career. After leading the Big East with nine touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011, he finished with just 44 catches, 583 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season. His inconsistent production prevented him from ever joining the ranks of the top receiver prospects.
Despite posting impressive measurables at the NFL Scouting Combine, Harrison's draft stock was impacted most by what he allegedly did off the field.
Along with fellow wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson, Harrison was identified as occupying a hotel room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Indianapolis during the combine that was trashed to disgusting levels, according to NFL.com's Dan Hanzus. The damage included strewn bodily waste and garbage. After Hopkins denied involvement and was able to show he checked out in advance of Harrison, the blame fell more squarely on the Rutgers receiver's shoulders.
National Football Scouting director Jeff Foster described the condition of the room to Yahoo! Sports. "I can confirm that a room was left in an inappropriate condition and we're disappointed by both players who occupied the room. There was no material damage to the room; otherwise we would be pursuing further action and really be trying to get to the bottom of the situation. It's just very disappointing, and the people we feel the worst for are the people at the Crowne Plaza who had to clean it up."
Harrison's college coach Kyle Flood told Hanzus that the alleged behavior didn't sound like the player he knew. "I've been on a lot of road trips and we've never had a single disciplinary issue with him. He's a model of the type of person we want here at Rutgers. It would be so out of character to be involved in this that I just cannot imagine under any circumstance that it would happen and involve him."
Justified or not, the incident definitely impacted Harrison in the draft. While Hopkins was selected by the Houston Texans with the 27th overall pick, his combine roommate never got the call. That a big, physically gifted received like Harrison went undrafted spoke volumes about the state of his reputation around the NFL.
The Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs reported that Harrison was going to sign with the Chicago Bears shortly after the draft, but a deal was never consummated after he failed his physical because of a foot injury. Consequently, he fell into the lap of the Patriots.
New England feels very comfortable with players from Rutgers, presumably in part because head coach Bill Belichick's son Steve used to work for the school's football program. Additionally, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach Greg Schiano manned the Rutgers' football program from 2001-2011, and has a close relationship with the elder Belichick.
Harrison becomes the seventh former Rutgers player to be added to the current Patriots' roster. The team drafted Steve Beauharnais, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, and signed Brandon Jones as an undrafted free agent this offseason. The youngsters join veterans Devin McCourty and Justin Francis, who were already on the roster.
Harrison is significantly larger than any other Patriots' receiver. However, he faces a tall order to make the team over established veterans like Danny Amendola, Donald Jones and Julian Edelman, or more highly touted rookies like Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson.
But, New England may envision a different role for Harrison besides simply lining him up on the outside. WEEI suggests that because of his size, he could be used in more of a hybrid role, similar to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has similar size and physical tools.
For now, Harrison's physical attributes balance out the questions about his makeup and character. In signing him as a free agent, the Patriots are gambling they can get a positive return by taking a chance on a flawed prospect.
Previously, the team has brought in players with checkered histories like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss and Albert Haynesworth. They haven't all paid off, but enough have to continue making the practice viable.
In the grand scheme of things, New England has paid a small price to get a peek at a player who may just need the right situation to get his head on straight. Harrison can either take that opportunity and run with it or prove his detractors right.
Andrew Martin writes for Bleacher Report, where he serves as a Featured Columnist (Boston Red Sox), and he has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts. He has also written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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