Immediately after the 2019 NFL Draft had concluded, the New Orleans Saints signed a little-known undrafted wide receiver and kick returner named Deonte Harris.
Harris played at tiny Assumption University in Massachusetts, a lightly regarded Division II school. Scouts overlooked him during the draft process because of the perceived lack of competition and doubts that the 5-6 and 170-pound Harris could take the pounding of NFL defenders.
Scouts should have done their research better. Harris left Assumption as the NCAA record holder at all levels with 14 combined return touchdowns in his career. He also held the NCAA Division II record with eight touchdown returns in a single season.
More than just an electric returner, Harris was also an accomplished receiver at Assumption. He had 813 receiving yards during his last college season and scored 31 offensive touchdowns during his collegiate career.
DEONTE HARRIS - 2019 (Rookie Season)
Harris immediately turned heads in his first training camp with the Saints, certainly as a kick returner but also as a receiver. His explosiveness as a returner would give the team an extra dimension they had lacked for years.
He defied odds just by making the roster and took over the team's punt and kickoff return duties. Harris played just two offensive snaps in the Saints' first two games of 2019 but had a combined 90 yards on kickoff and punt returns.
Deonte Harris made his first significant impact as a rookie during a Week 3 win at Seattle in 2019. He had two long kickoff returns to give New Orleans an excellent field position to start a drive and notched his first score as a pro. Harris took a first-quarter punt back 53 yards for a touchdown in what would be a 33-27 New Orleans victory
Harris saw little action offensively during the 2019 season. He’d be in on only 6% of the offensive snaps during the regular season, catching six passes for 24 yards and rushing four times for 31 yards.
He showed flashes of his big-play potential as a receiver by catching a 50-yard bomb during the first-round playoff loss to Minnesota.
Harris made an enormous impact as a rookie with his special team contributions. He averaged 9.4 yards per punt return and led the NFL with 338 punt return yards. His 26.8 yards per kickoff return ranked third in the league.
Harris led the NFL with a combined 982 yards on kickoff and punt returns, with several other long returns getting called back by penalty.
The diminutive player that every NFL team thought was too small to make a difference earned first-team AP All-Pro honors as an undrafted rookie.
DEONTE HARRIS - 2020
Already the league's most feared return artist, New Orleans coach Sean Payton wanted to incorporate the explosive open field ability of Harris into his offense.
In a season-opening win over Tampa Bay, Harris caught one pass for 17 yards, had a rush for 9 yards, and accounted for 59 yards on punt returns.
A severe ankle injury to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas gave Harris even more offensive opportunities. Over the first ten games of the season, Harris caught 20 of 25 targets for 186 yards, including his first career receiving touchdown against Carolina. He added 51 rushing yards on six attempts but still maintained his status as the league's most lethal return threat.
Harris had a higher average as both a punt returner (12.2 ) and kickoff returner (27.3) than during his spectacular rookie campaign.
Unfortunately, a neck injury suffered during a Week 11 win over Atlanta would sideline him for the rest of the regular season.
Returning to action in a first-round playoff win over Chicago, Harris caught a career-high seven passes for 83 yards to lead all receivers in the game. In the Divisional Round matchup against Tampa Bay the following week, Harris had a 54-yard punt return to set up the first New Orleans score.
After another long punt return for a score was nullified by a penalty, Harris left the eventual loss to the Buccaneers after re-aggravating an injury.
New Orleans' offense was already severely limited from injuries to RB Latavius Murray, Taysom Hill, and a one-legged Michael Thomas. But, it was further handcuffed without the explosive Harris as an option.
Deonte Harris will return to his duties as the primary kickoff and punt returner for the Saints in 2021. More than just a scoring threat every time he touches the ball, he flips field position with his elite instincts and explosiveness in the open field.
After flashes of what he could do as a receiver, we will see Harris more heavily involved in the New Orleans offense this season.
His stature and importance to the team may prevent him from being a full-time starter at receiver, but he’s proven to be a threat from anywhere along with the offensive formation.
Harris has shown that he has the speed to take the top off defenses. The deep pass is a weapon that Jameis Winston can use more often than Drew Brees as the starting quarterback.
Harris has also shown that he can be a precise route runner underneath and through the intermediate zones. His open-field running skills are unmatched by anyone in the league.
Harris’ explosiveness with a ball in his hands not only makes him a feared home-run threat but will also open up opportunities for the other New Orleans offensive weapons.
Once overlooked by every NFL team, Deonte Harris has made the rest of the league regret that decision with his electric return abilities. Harris now seems poised to become the NFL's next big-play offensive weapon.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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