Last week, the Jets confirmed the signing of former Patriots and 49ers wide receiver Chris Harper, who will compete for a roster spot in a crowded receiver group.
The 23-year-old Harper is listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, and was a former undrafted free agent out of California in 2015. He played for the Patriots as a rookie and the 49ers last season and has recorded 14 receptions so far in his NFL career.
Harper was a productive receiver over his three seasons at Cal, registering 163 receptions for over 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. His most productive season saw him catch 70 passes for 852 yards as a sophomore, including 231 yards on 14 catches against Washington State.
He opted to declare early for the draft in 2015, but this backfired as he was a surprise combine snub and ended up going undrafted. The Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent and he caught 15 passes in preseason, tied for fourth in the league. Injuries enabled him to win a roster spot, although he caught just one pass for six yards.
Harper also saw some work fielding punts and lost his roster spot after a costly muffed punt in a loss to Denver. He returned to the practice squad and was back with the Patriots for preseason last year, but was released in final cuts.
The 49ers ended up signing Harper and he saw some significant playing time over the second half of the season, catching 13 passes for 133 yards. He almost made a big play against the Jets when he had a step on a 3rd-and-10 slant in overtime, but slipped short of the marker and the Jets stuffed the fourth down attempt to set up Bilal Powell's winning score.
The 49ers released him in early May with the Jets signing him last week.
Let's move onto some further analysis of what Harper brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
After his combine snub, Harper posted average numbers at his pro day, including a 4.53 40-yard dash and 35" vertical. He posted a disappointing 11 bench press reps though.
Harper doesn't have ideal size and has a slim build. However, he does display good quickness and agility on film.
Harper has played mostly on the outside at the pro level. He has seen some action in the slot but hasn't produced much there in regular or preseason action.
At Cal, he would sometimes end up in the slot, albeit often because someone went in motion after he was initially outside. Cal's spread offense would also sometimes use him as the middle of three receivers on one side.
His skill-set would seem suited to a slot role, even though he hasn't done much of it yet at the pro level.
Harper operates mostly as a possession receiver, but did display the ability to make plays down the field at the college level.
On this play he gets a clean inside release and blows by the defender for a clutch late score:
So far he hasn't made any plays down the field in NFL action, other than this touchdown in a preseason game, which saw him find an open spot down the field after a play was extended:
While Harper hasn't made many significant contributions as a blocker, he was quite impressive in limited action. Harper seems to have a good ability to lock onto his man and then shift his weight and move his feet to maintain his leverage and prevent his man from getting off the block or maybe drive them out of the play.
At his size and strength, Harper would be mostly limited to blocking defensive backs on the outside or blindsiding linebackers, but he shows a good effort and technique.
Here is an example of a play where he prevents Juston Burris from making a tackle on the outside, setting up a big run:
Harper's route running skills seem pretty good without being outstanding. He might have entered the league with a raw skill-set as a route runner, due to the limited complexity of the route combinations in Cal's scheme, so he's probably still a bit of a work in progress.
However, he is quick off the mark, gets defenders off balance with his footwork and can make sharp breaks. He's shown an ability to lose a defender on a double-move and had some success in getting separation on short and intermediate routes.
The main concern from his body of work so far is that he hasn't had much success at getting downfield separation.
He's good at locating the ball on back shoulder throws and jump balls and that's been something he's displayed in the red zone:
Harper only had a couple of drops over the past three years, including preseason action and his final year in college. He also has a 70% catch rate at the NFL level, so it's fair to categorize him as sure-handed.
Nevertheless, the one drop he did have at the NFL level was disappointing as he showed a case of the alligator arms going over the middle.
Harper has the ability to make some highlight reel type grabs. Here was a deep ball where he laid out to make a diving grab:
He has also shown a knack for making one-handed catches like the one below, although he arguably did this unnecessarily on at least one occasion:
Yards after the catch
Harper's numbers after the catch over the past few years aren't actually that great, but it was something he excelled at earlier on in his college career.
Harper showed that he has good acceleration, can avoid people in the open field and fights for yardage at the end of a run. However, at the NFL level, he's usually gone down on first contact. Perhaps adding some strength and getting more opportunities would help him show more of what he can do in this area.
Here's one play where he shows off his elusiveness:
From the footage watched, Harper seems to play with good instincts in areas such as finding open areas in the secondary, open field running, locating the ball and setting up a target when blocking in space.
He has one penalty in his NFL career, for an illegal formation call.
Harper came out of the same college system as Jets' draftee Chad Hansen, who he'll now be competing with for time. Hansen actually took Harper's #6 jersey, but the two did not play together because Hansen was sitting out Harper's last season having just transferred.
Harper was also a teammate of another Jets receiver - Quinton Patton - with the 49ers last year. Whether Hansen and Patton will aid his transition as he competes for their spot is another matter.
Former Jet Keyshawn Johnson was one of Harper's mentors and part of his decision to enter the draft early.
Harper has some experience as a return man, mostly on punts. However, while the Jets need a punt returner, his gaffe against Denver in his rookie year does not breed confidence:
He did have one nice 28-yard return in preseason action though, avoiding the first man to sneak down the sideline. He also had some limited success at Cal.
Harper was disappointed not to get a combine invite and the decision to enter the draft without asking the draft advisory board for advice first was probably a sign of over-confidence. However, he's been using that to drive him and there were reports out of New England that he regularly stayed late after practice to catch passes from Jacoby Brissett last year.
He doesn't appear to have any off-field issues or character concerns.
Harper hasn't had major injury issues so far in his career, although he missed the last game of the 2013 season with an unspecified injuries. He was also dealing with injuries during the spring in both 2013 and 2014.
Harper's collegiate film is impressive, but he hasn't had a chance to display the same ability at the pro level yet. In that regard, he seems like a similar pick-up to Brian Parker. The Jets will obviously be hoping that the light-bulb goes on for him and he stands out in the competition this offseason.
However, the outlook for Harper is not great with the Jets having added five rookies to an already diverse receiving group.
If he can prove himself as a punt returner, then that perhaps gives Harper a slightly better chance, but he hasn't been especially impressive in that role either.
Harper is a talented player who seems to have been overlooked a few times in the past. In that respect, he fits the profile of the type of low-cost, potentially high-reward addition the Jets are going to keep adding throughout this ongoing rebuild phase. Inevitably some of these long-shot moves will pan out, but, despite some good film, Harper doesn't stand out as having a better chance than the rest.
Up next: We'll look at another recent addition; offensive lineman Alex Balducci.