Special teams connoisseur Dwayne Harris is looking to expand his role in 2017; to become an improved wide receiver:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dwayne Harris won't get to reprise his best moment from the 2016 season, but that won't derail him having another outstanding year in 2017.
An upper body injury is expected to keep Harris out of uniform Monday night for the Giants' preseason game against the Browns in Cleveland. It was there last Nov. 27 that Harris caught his only pass of the season in the Giants' 27-13 victory. He made the most of it, scoring a touchdown on a 13-yard throw from Eli Manning.
The rest of his contributions were on special teams, and it is there that he is one of the NFL's very best players. A standout on both returns and in coverage, last season Harris was selected to his first Pro Bowl, making him the first wide receiver in history to play in the game after finishing with one reception. But that's how valuable Harris is in the kicking game.
"It meant a lot to me," said Harris, who is entering his seventh NFL season, and third with the Giants. "There have been plenty of years where I felt like I should have been there a long time ago, and I never got a chance to get in there. Last year, getting in there for the first time, it meant a lot. I work so hard just to be recognized by the things I do and my play on the field. It really does not go unnoticed and I know a lot of guys in the NFL and a lot of coaches in the NFL see what I do. Just to get that recognition throughout the whole league, it felt great."
Harris is arguably the league's most complete special teams player. Last year, he led the Giants in kickoff and punt returns for the second straight season, and finished fifth in the NFL with a 24.2-yard average on 22 kickoff returns. Harris also averaged 5.9 yards on 29 punt returns. In addition, Harris and long-snapper Zak DeOssie tied for the team lead with seven special teams tackles.
But his most impressive achievement might have been playing all 16 games. Harris endured an assortment of injuries. In the Giants' victory against the Rams in London, he was carted off the field, only to come back and return a punt. Throughout the season, Harris spent hours with the team's medical staff because he was determined to stay on the field and help the team.
"I came close to missing a few games," Harris said. "But I play because I love this game. My teammates have a lot of confidence in me, and when they see you have a guy who is playing through so much stuff, and he is going out there and giving it his all, it gives other guys confidence, too, to give it their all and play through stuff they normally wouldn't play through.
"A lot of people don't see that part of the things that I do and the physical nature of what I do. They just think that I have an easy job just running down and making tackles and catching the football. So the physical toll on my body, people don't see that. But being recognized for what I do is tremendous, I love it."
Harris, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, is a four-time NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. He never expected to receive this kind of acclaim for his kicking game skills when he was at East Carolina. As a senior, he caught 101 passes, or 31 more than he has in six seasons as a pro. And though he did set a school record with 41 kickoff returns that year, his coverage skills left much to be desired.
"I didn't do anything (on special teams), except return punts and kicks," he said. "I ran down on a kickoff once, and the other team ran it back for a touchdown. So they took me off. I think everyone got fired after that. It was my first time ever running out on kickoffs, and they said, 'Everybody off.'"
Now, his work on special teams sends him to the Pro Bowl.
"I take pride in what I do," he said. "I love doing it, and whatever it is, kickoffs, punts, returning, I find it as a fun experience. For me, I just find the good and the fun in whatever I am doing. It makes the job easier, it makes the job fun once you love what you do."
But Harris candidly admits he would like to catch more passes. He is, after all, listed as a wide receiver on the team's roster. One of the reasons he joined the Giants in 2015 was that he expected to be used more frequently in the passing game. That season, he had career-high totals of six starts, 36 receptions (three more than he had in four seasons with the Cowboys), 396 yards, and four touchdowns.
Last year, however, the touchdown was not only the only pass he caught, but the only one thrown to him all season.
"As a receiver, you want a larger role," he said. "My first year, Victor (Cruz) missed the whole season. The departure of Preston Parker gave me a chance to go in and show what I can do as a receiver. They obviously know what I can do. We have Sterling Shepard here, we have guys who can play receiver. They want me to be at 100% when it comes to special teams, because everyone knows how important field position is in this league now. When I get in and get my wide receiver reps, I try to make the best of it. I know I am not going to get 40 snaps, so when I get in I make the best of it. I know what my role is on this team. I am a special teams player. That is what they brought me in here to do, play special teams and help the special teams as best I can, so that's what I do."
Harris is confident he will be a steady contributor on one of the NFL's best teams this year. "I am definitely excited about this team," he said. "We've added some great pieces to the puzzle that I think can help our team get to the next level where we are trying to go. I think this team is going to do huge things. I can't wait to see it."
Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants face the Browns on Monday Night Football