The Atlanta Falcons drafted Zach Harrison in the third round in the 2023 NFL Draft because of his promise, rather than his production. He delivered just 11 total sacks in college at Ohio State but was a potent run defender with a history as one of the top defensive line prospects in the country coming out of high school, and the Falcons were willing to bet they could help him turn glimpses of greatness and a terrific toolkit into something special.
They knew that would take time, and Harrison had that after joining a pretty veteran defensive front and a coaching staff intent on developing him. A noted hard worker who seemed eager to hit the ground running in Atlanta, Harrison found a role right away but delivered a mostly quiet season until a late breakout that bodes well for next season.
The coaching staff has changed, but general manager Terry Fontenot drafted him and assistant head coach Jerry Gray is still on staff, while new head coach Raheem Morris has been noted for his work with young players at other stops. Chances are good that the 2023 development and 2024 and beyond potential for Harrison will conspire to deliver a major role for him this coming season.
Here’s a look back and a look ahead for an intriguing player and one of the few potential young building blocks for this defensive line.
16 games played with 0 starts
33 combined tackles, 2 missed tackles (5.7% missed rate)
4 tackles for a loss, 9 pressures
3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 8 hurries
21 run stops
63.0 Pro Football Focus grade
Harrison was sort of a mound of clay coming into the league, with the team acknowledging he would need time and development work to become the kind of player the Falcons expected him to be over the long haul. He was, however, a useful special teams piece and run defender immediately, which led to a fairly consistent role throughout the season.
Aside from the final game of the season, which he missed owing to injury, Harrison logged under 24% of the defensive snaps just once all season. He also logged over 40% of the defensive snaps just once all season, meaning he settled into a pretty good groove of playing between a quarter and a third of the snaps on a given Sunday, while playing a larger role on special teams earlier in the year than he did later on. Part of that was because he was blossoming at the end of the year.
Over the final three weeks of his season, Harrison appeared to become the player the Falcons were hoping for. He put up 11 of his 21 run stops, all three of his sacks, and three of his eight hurries over that three game span, at times looking unstoppable with his length, strength, and savvy. For a player who was expected to learn and grow on the job, the fact that Harrison was able to do so in his rookie season is mighty encouraging.
The level of investment in the defensive front this spring will tell the tale, but I’d bet on Harrison having a significant role.
Raheem Morris and Jimmy Lake are fresh off a stint with an extremely young Rams defense, one where Morris in particular was responsible for coaxing plus performances out of young pass rushers like Byron Young (24), Michael Hoecht (26), and Desjuan Johnson (24). Harrison’s end of season explosion and obvious promise will make him a fun player for Morris and company to develop, and at the moment he’s one of the only players under contract in this defensive front with the combination of youth and upside that’s worth that development.
Consider this: Only two Falcons defensive linemen/EDGE rushers under the age of 25 had more than a single sack, and that would be Arnold Ebiketie (6) and Harrison (3). All of Harrison’s sack production and most of his best games came over the final quarter of the season, when he appeared to be figuring things out and stepping into a slightly larger role. At worst, Harrison figures to be a player who takes on 30-40% of the defensive snaps because he’s a plus run defender and clearly has something to offer as a pass rusher. If the Falcons don’t make major investments this offseason, Harrison could step into a starting role; that will likely depend on how Morris and the coaching staff feel about his potential and development.
Regardless, Harrison figures to be capable of putting up 4-8 sacks next year and providing quality run defense as a young piece of a Falcons front that needs that kind of production. Atlanta has sunk a lot of mid-round picks into the defensive front in my many years as a Falcons fan, and Harrison looks like he’ll be a rarity: The guy who ends up being a multi-year, quality contributor.