Dwayne Harris roared downfield on Sunday night to pull down Cowboys kick returner Ryan Switzer at the Dallas 17-yard line, a standout individual effort during a game in which the Giants had few.
Harris, who turns 30 years old Saturday, struggled uncharacteristically as a returner last season due to inconsistent decision-making and injuries. But he still made his first career Pro Bowl due to his team-high seven special teams tackles and uncanny ability to get free and down punts to pin opponents deep.
“Of course I don’t make it all the other years I have great return years, then I have my worst return year ever but I make it because I had a great year as a gunner,” Harris said with a laugh Thursday in the Giants’ locker room.
Harris’ special teams skills bring unique value, though, which is why the Giants kept him despite a significant $2.475 million 2017 salary for a specialist (reduced by $500K in a slight offseason paycut), with $3.225 million salaries on deck for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The work of a special teams gunner doesn’t receive as much attention as a wide receiver’s routes or a defensive end’s pass rushes. But for Harris, it is an art that makes him an irreplaceable asset, even when he’s not taking kicks back for TDs, as he did in 2015 when he returned both a punt and kick for scores.
“Instinct is a part of it,” Harris said, in his seventh NFL season. “I mean, I’ve been in the game a long time. I think I just know how to get to the ball. But also, a lot of guys that play gunner try to use their speed and just beat their man down the field. I like to use my power and then speed to run around. I’m probably not the fastest person. I’ve just learned how to use my opponents’ abilities against them.”
Harris often gets double-teamed as a gunner on the outside, preparing to race downfield to cover the opposing team’s punt return. But Harris said once he realized that he was stronger than the average defender on the outside — and that he could grab his opponent, but they couldn’t hold him — he knew how to beat them.
Harris’ teammates can vouch for his strength.
“For real, Dwayne has a really strong grip,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “I go against him in our (one-handed catch) drill a lot after practice. (Two receivers face the ball and simultaneously try to catch and take the ball away with one hand). And he’s tough to beat.”
Shepard and Harris joked with fellow receiver Roger Lewis Jr. — the speedy gunner who lines up opposite Harris on the Giants’ top coverage team — that Lewis often has it easy with just one defender to beat because Harris often draws double teams.
“I feel like every snap as a gunner is equivalent to like five plays on offense, though,” Harris said. “You’re running full speed 60 yards down field against two people.”
It’s not glamorous, but it’s a vital job.
In addition to Odell Beckham Jr. (sprained left ankle, limited in practice), right tackle Bobby Hart (right ankle) was also limited in practice on Friday after sitting out Thursday’s session altogether.
If Hart can’t play on Monday night, undrafted rookie Chad Wheeler is the Giants’ first backup tackle, or coach Ben McAdoo could slide left guard Justin Pugh to right tackle, or he could activate swing tackle/guard D.J. Fluker after not dressing the free-agent signing in Week 1. Pugh has not lined up at tackle since he played in place of an injured Marshall Newhouse on Jan. 3, 2016, in a 35-30 Week 17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles — also known as Tom Coughlin’s final game as Giants head coach.
Linebacker Keenan Robinson (concussion) is still in the protocol but “took the next step” on Friday, per McAdoo, and participated in a non-contact form of practice.