Bill Wippert/AP

Through six NFL seasons, the ultra-talented Harvin has earned a reputation as a misfit toy: injury-prone with no clear position in an offense, and a malcontent who rubs teammates and coaches the wrong way in the locker room. Now on his fourth team in four years, he’ll get every opportunity to reinvent himsel with the new-look Bills

By Emily Kaplan
August 20, 2015

PITTSFORD, N.Y. — For three years at Florida, Percy Harvin was a gimmick in Urban Meyer’s spread offense. At 5-11, 195-pounds, Harvin played all over, his vexing speed burning defenses on every touch. Over three seasons, he stockpiled almost as many yards rushing (1,852) as receiving (1,929).

Some NFL teams wondered how his skill set would translate to the pros, and Harvin knew he needed to polish his route running to cement a first-round grade. Two months before the 2009 draft, he summoned longtime Packers receiver Antonio Freeman for help. In five-hour sessions for five straight days, Freeman harped on footwork. Just slow down. You’re telegraphing your cuts with pitter-patter steps. What you got away with on raw talent at Florida might not fly in the NFL.

The student absorbed it all. He got to the point much quicker than Freeman anticipated, but also picked up on angles and nuances. The teacher’s mind raced with possibilities.

“This kid had all the talent to do anything he wants to do in this league,” Freeman says. “It was just a matter of how teams were going to use him. You can line Percy up anywhere on the offense. What makes the most sense? What do teams see him as?”

Six years later, this is what many across the league see him as: a gadget guy, injury-prone, a locker-room cancer, a disappointment. Taken in the first round by the Vikings in 2009, Harvin is now in Buffalo, his fourth team in four years, each restart spoiled. He is both ubiquitous (just like at Florida, he has been used as a Swiss Army knife) and replaceable, never concretizing his role. He has been sidelined for long stretches, surfacing sporadically—like his lightning 87-yard return to open the second half of Super Bowl XLVIII—only to remind us of his game-breaking talent.

Harvin arrives in Buffalo as a bruised star on a team soaked with redemptive storylines. Not only is he looking to reclaim a once-promising career, the 27-year-old is seeking something else: reinvention.

• WHY BUFFALO ADDED ENEMKPALI: The saga of IK Enemkpali, the linebacker cut loose by the Jets after cold-cocking QB Geno Smith, got even more interesting when ex-Jets coach and new Jets nemesis Rex Ryan claimed him off waivers for the Bills. 

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Harvin has spent a large chunk of training camp in a familiar place: on the sideline. (Bill Wippert/AP)

Harvin lounges on stone steps at St. John Fisher College, training camp home of the Bills, on a cloudy August afternoon.

“I want to be known as Percy Harvin the receiver,” he says. “I’m not that gadget guy anymore. I’m not what I was over the last few years.”

Harvin signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Bills, in part because general manager Doug Whaley shared his vision. Though Harvin’s elusiveness and speed tempted the Vikings, Seahawks and, to an extent, Jets to utilize him as a multipurpose wingback-type, Buffalo wants Harvin to thrive in a more traditional role.

“Percy is a receiver for us, that’s what he is,” says offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “People became enamored with the other things he could do, because how many of those guys are out there? Because he was so unique he got typecast. Not anymore.”

Now, the question is: How long will Harvin last in Buffalo?

His career has been marred by reports of problems in the locker room. At Florida he was rumored to have been in a physical altercation with wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales (who told The Sporting News that the incident was overblown). In Minnesota he butted heads with his first NFL head coach, Brad Childress, at one point reportedly hurling a weight-room weight at Childress. Earlier this week he admitted to The Buffalo News of infighting with the Seahawks, if only to get his side of the story on record. (Harvin, who had physical altercations with teammates Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin while in Seattle, told The Buffalo News that the two receivers instigated the problems and viewed him “as a threat, rather than a teammate” because of Harvin’s increased role in the offense.)

“I’ve always just let things ride,” Harvin tells The MMQB, “And maybe that was one of my faults, not speaking up to say what it really was. It bothers me when people call me a monster.”

Harvin’s locker-room rap sheet pales in comparison with his injury history, which includes ankle problems, a heel surgery, migraines, a concussion, tendinitis in his Achilles, tendinitis in his knee and, most recently, hip surgery.

Harvin has played a total of 23 regular-season games over the past three seasons,  and has been sidelined for much of training camp because of hip soreness associated with the surgery. After not responding well to platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, Harvin is hopeful for the Aug. 29 preseason game against the Steelers, though the Sept. 3 preseason finale seems more realistic.

His surgery to repair a torn labrum is similar to what safety Ed Reed underwent in 2013 and wide receiver Brandon Marshall in 2009. Recovery depends on the severity of the injury—whether it is frayed or torn, and how torn. Reed’s procedure is believed to have been less severe. He underwent the surgery in May 2013 and debuted in Week 3 of that season, though he was never the same player and was cut by the Texans mid-season. Marshall’s surgery sidelined him for most of the 2009 offseason, and he has had two hip surgeries since, both described as “minor” maintenance procedures.

The Bills aren’t particularly worried about Harvin.

“He just turned 27; athletic peak these days isn’t until 29, 30,” says wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. “If he can stay healthy, he has a lot left.”

• BILLS TRAINING CAMP REPORT: The Rex Effect is on full display in Buffalo. The Bills are brazen, heavy-blitzing and perhaps a quarterback away from being a contender. 

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Harvin's kickoff return TD in Super Bowl XLVIII was the highlight of a tumultuous season-plus in Seattle. (Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated)

When Harvin was released by the Jets in March, he considered joining another AFC East rival: the Patriots. “I knew how they used Wes Welker back in the day, with short routes and intermediate routes,” Harvin says. “And that could have worked for me.”

But first he visited Buffalo, where his former Jets coach Rex Ryan, and wide receivers coach Lal, had landed. Something happened on that trip: Harvin felt wanted. Fans found out he was visiting and began pleading on social media for him to join the Bills. Buffalo laid out a plan in which he could flourish as a return specialist and line up alongside Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.

Owners Terry and Kim Pegula escorted Harvin home on a private plane. “We just had a regular conversation,” Harvin says. “And it clicked. It just felt normal, it felt like I belonged here.”

Harvin never made it to New England.

Ironically, his new team is built similarly to an old one that left him frustrated with his role. Seattle was constructed around a dominant defense and a workhorse back. The 2015 Bills seem to be following that blueprint.

If Harvin is lining up mostly outside—as Lal says he has through the offseason—questions persist about his role. To compensate for its lack of an established quarterback (Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel are the Bills’ not-so-enticing options) Buffalo is centering on a ground-and-pound offense. Roman’s run game is predicated on pre-snap motions, formation changes and dynamic running back LeSean McCoy. His offense also features a large role for tight ends, and the Bills spent big to steal ex-Dolphin Charles Clay from a division rival. Buffalo already has outside threats in Watkins and Woods; can Roman keep those two and Harvin happy with the distribution of touches? And do the Bills have a quarterback who can get them the ball?

Before being traded to the Jets last October, Harvin had 22 catches over the season’s first five games for Seattle. Half of those were behind the line of scrimmage, and none was a deep ball.

What seems most likely this season, and what Lal, Roman and Harvin all hinted at, is that the wide receiver will mostly line up outside. But he’ll be used as that deceptive, multipurpose threat as well. He will still receive the ball in the backfield and be used on screens and sweeps, because his explosiveness after the catch is what makes him exceptional. If he establishes himself as an actual field-stretching threat, the sweeps and screens will be even more effective.

“The last two, three years, it was just, ‘get the ball in his hands real quick and let him do the work,’ ” Harvin says. “But what’s going to make me more dangerous is getting me out wide. We can still do those things, but hide it by running receiver routes. When I’m splitting out wide it’s not, ‘Hey, he’s splitting out wide to do this.’ I actually could be running the route this time. And I will.”

If all goes as planned, we will have no choice to view Harvin in a new light: as no gimmick.

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