How high can Christian Harris go with Lovie Smith?

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The Houston Texans really wanted Christian Harris.

The trade-up to leapfrog the Baltimore Ravens and ultimately secure the Alabama linebacker at 75th overall in Round 3 was widely celebrated. Infamously, the team’s social media caught general manager Nick Caserio and head coach Lovie Smith celebrating the pick.

How could the team not be excited? A linebacker that was projected as high as the late first round had suddenly fallen into Houston’s laps in the middle of the third. In a Smith defense that requires hyper athletic linebackers to plug in behind the defensive front four, Harris fits perfectly.

With the excitement of the selection finally settling down almost a month after the draft, it’s time to get down to business for Houston’s new head coach and his newest prized linebacker. The 6-1, 232-pound Alabama star may have had an excellent career with the Crimson Tide and an even better NFL Combine with a 4.44 40-yard dash. However, that’s no longer how Harris will be judged.

It comes down to what will happen on the football field. Amongst the immense glee at the selection and with Smith’s defensive background as a head coach, it begs a certain question: What is Harris’ future with Houston? Certainly, the defensive guru has a plan for a linebacker the team was willing to trade up for in order to secure his services.

On May 13 during rookie minicamp at Houston Methodist Training Center, Smith commented on the excitement that went into that moment and the caliber of talent that Harris represents for his defense

“We like Christian a lot. We had him ranked high on our board. When you don’t take a player, we thought he would go a little earlier. To have an opportunity to get him in that round when we did, it’s excitement. The cameras just didn’t catch Nick and I (as we) were high-fiving on most of our picks that we had throughout. We like this draft class.”

On the flip side, when Harris was asked about playing in a Smith defense, he finds a lot of excitement and potential in that opportunity as well.

“Just hearing about the history of the linebackers that have been in this similar defense and have had success like Derrick Brooks and Lavonte David. I mean those are two guys I’ve watched a little bit.  I think in my spot and my role, whatever they want me to do, I feel like I can have a high success rate with that and be very successful, so I want to keep that going.”

Smith’s Tampa 2 defense has three linebacker spots within the base package. Despite his immense talent, trying to decipher where and when Harris fits into the defensive equation is the toughest part of placing how the romance begins with his new head coach.

Harris, for all his talents, is relatively undersized and manifested itself somewhat in college with difficulties shedding blockers. This likely eliminates him from the “strong” or SAM linebacker role in Smith’s defense. His size may best project him to the weak side or WILL linebacker spot but this is the strongest position in Smith’s linebacker corps. Kamu Grugier-Hill had a career year in that spot in 2021 and even second-round selection Jalen Pitre played a lot of snaps in college at that linebacker spot.

The happy compromise could be playing Harris at the middle linebacker. He played inside at Alabama often and would have the opportunity to grow behind veteran Christian Kirksey as he learns the nuances of the NFL defensive schemes. The Tampa 2 middle linebacker needs to be athletic enough to carry tight ends in zone and be impactful in the passing game and Harris is more than capable of growing into that. There are concerns about his run angles in addition to block shedding but this is why Harris is a third-round prospect.

At the middle linebacker or even weak side linebacker position, Harris could evolve into a staple of Smith’s defense moving forward. His talent and college pedigree show a player that, if used properly, could be an absolute difference maker. One talent that Harris possesses is attacking the quarterback, he racked up 10 sacks over his final two years at Alabama.

As defensive coordinator, Smith rarely blitzed in 2021. The arrival of Harris in addition to Pitre may mean that philosophy has to change. Smith has already hinted the defensively philosophy may very well be changing this season to take advantage of the new players.

“In an ideal world, you win or lose games based on how you can play man coverage. If you look at our defense, we play man, we play three-deep, we play quarters, we play two, we blitz. We have a multiple package. Most of the ones that our defense calls out are corners by himself. If you have a guy that you feel comfortable covering their best receiver at that slot, it allows you to do some things. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to do a few things differently this year that we would like to do in an ideal world.”

Harris was never expected to make it all the way to 75 for the Houston Texans. His arrival and the excitement that comes with it can likely play a huge role in how Smith evolves his defensive philosophy in the third year. He brings a skillset and an element of youth to the linebacker group that was sorely lacking prior to the draft.

Can Harris become an elite middle linebacker or a difference maker on passing down with his blitzing ability? Time will disclose how the Harris pick works out. In the meantime, Houston fans should be excited about the David aspirations.