Few people had heard of WR/KR Deonte Harris when the New Orleans Saints added him as an undrafted rookie following the 2019 draft. At just 5’6” 170-Lbs from little-known Assumption College, Harris was thought too small to take an NFL pounding and unable to handle the big jump in competition. He immediately proved experts wrong by not only defying the odds by making the New Orleans roster, but having perhaps the best season of an undrafted rookie in NFL history.
Harris was the only rookie to be voted to the All-Pro team in 2019. He led the league in punt return yards, scoring one touchdown and averaging 9.4 yards per return. Harris was just as impressive as a kickoff returner, averaging 26.8/return and often flipping field position in favor of the New Orleans offense.
As spectacular as Harris was as a rookie, he wasn't used often on offense. He played just 65 offensive snaps in 2019, catching six passes for 24 yards during the regular season, adding four rushes for 31 yards. Harris flashed a glimpse of his gamebreaking potential as a wideout when he caught a 50-Yd pass from Taysom Hill during the team's first-round playoff loss to Minnesota.
Entering the 2020 season, many expected New Orleans head coach Sean Payton to incorporate Harris' dynamic skills more into his offense. Our Year-in-Review spotlight looks at his impact for the Saints this season.
Harris had one reception for 17 yards, had a rushing attempt for 9 yards, and averaged over 14 yards on four punt returns in an opening day win over Tampa Bay. He was in on a career-high 31 offensive snaps during a Week 2 loss at the Raiders, catching 3 passes for 23 yards, rushing for 11 more, and totaled 64 yards on two kick returns. He’d again be a factor as a returner the next week in a loss to Green Bay, but had just five yards on 2 receptions.
Harris had 67 all-purpose yards in a win over the Lions in Week 4, but injury sidelined him the following week against the Chargers. An ankle injury to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, and various other injuries through the receiving corps, would thrust Harris into a more prominent offensive role through mid-season.
Harris caught a career-high 4 passes for 46 yards and the first receiving touchdown of his career against Carolina in Week 7. He followed that by being an effective check-down option in a win over the Bears, also setting up his team with excellent field position with four big kickoff or punt returns.
Harris continued to threaten opponents with his explosive return skills, while playing a larger role offensively through the mid-season point. He had 282 all-purpose yards over a three-week stretch against Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Atlanta, combining big returns with key receptions or rushes. Unfortunately, Harris suffered a neck injury in Week 11 against the Falcons that would sideline him for the rest of the regular season.
He returned to the lineup for the Saints Wild Card win over Chicago, setting up a score with a punt return and leading all receivers with 7 receptions for 83 yards, both career-highs. He looked like he was going to be the deciding factor early on in the Divisional round matchup against the Buccaneers the following week. Harris had a 54-Yd punt return to set up a 1st quarter field goal and had a 67-Yd punt return for a touchdown wiped out by a questionable penalty on the ensuing possession. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated his neck injury late in the opening quarter and was sidelined for the rest of the Saints eventual defeat.
Harris averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 27.7 per kickoff return in 2020, both higher than what he averaged during his All-Pro rookie campaign. In ten games including playoffs, he had 28 receptions for 268 yards and a touchdown and added 50 yards rushing.
Deonte Harris is one of the most electric players in the NFL in the open field and the league's best returner. We should expect those gamebreaking skills to be an even bigger part of the New Orleans offense in 2021.