METAIRIE — However the New Orleans Saints’ 53-man roster shakes out in the coming days, promising second-year offensive tackle Bryce Harris said he will have a job this season in the NFL.
Nine months ago, Harris might not have felt so strongly about his career path after suffering a season-ending injury 12 snaps into his first NFL start, just one week after making a good showing in his pro debut as an in-game replacement for an injured teammate.
Barely 10 minutes into a Week 12 game against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Harris’ big break ended in a bad break. San Francisco middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks rolled up Harris’ right leg, breaking the fibula and dislocating the ankle and sending the undrafted rookie free agent from Fresno State into a temporary funk.
“It was a freak thing,’’ Harris said. “I’d gotten rolled up like that 100 times and it never broke, and it just snapped. I’ve had sprained ankles before, but I never missed a game in college or high school. Ever!
“I was miserable. I couldn’t walk for six weeks. My foot was in a boot, and I couldn’t put any weight on it. I sat in a bed every day watching TV at home. Once I started rehab, I got motivated to get back on the field because ultimately this is my dream and my job, so I needed to get back on the field.’’
He paused and smiled.
“Plus,’’ he said, “I’m marrying my high school sweetheart in April, and I got to have a job.’’
Slowly but surely, Harris has moved up the depth chart in training camp and finds himself working at right tackle with the second unit going into Sunday’s exhibition game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.
Harris is expected to survive Tuesday’s mandatory league cutdown to 75. Whether he makes the final cut to 53 by Aug, 31 remains to be seen.
“If I take care of my business at both right and left tackle, I think that I’ll make this team, and, if not, I’m sure I’ll make another team,’’ said Harris, 6-foot-6, 300 pounds. “It’s a business, and you can’t get mad about it. They can only keep 53 so there’s a lot of people who will be without jobs 10 days from now.’’
If Saints coach Sean Payton keeps eight offensive linemen, the three likely reserves are rookie tackle Terron Armstead, guard/center Eric Olsen and tackle/guard Marcel Jones. If Payton keeps nine, Harris has a chance as a swing tackle, along with guard Andrew Tiller.
Payton said Harris has worked hard to get himself back into contention for a roster spot.
“Turn the tape on,’’ Saints starting right tackle Zach Strief said. “You can see that Bryce is playing awfully well. He came in and had a great opportunity last year and something bad happened. That’s football; that’s life. But he’s come back and having a good camp.
“He keeps getting better and that’s what you want to do in your second year in the NFL. You’re trying to make a name for yourself. You want to get better every day, and he is.’’
Harris originally signed with the Atlanta Falcons after the 2012 draft as an undrafted rookie free agent. After Week 1, the Saints raided Atlanta’s practice squad and signed him to their 53-man roster. Harris, 24, saw his first playing time in Week 11 against Oakland when right tackle Charles Brown went down with a knee injury.
A week later, Harris opened at right tackle against the 49ers on a national stage.
Facing a first-and-10 from the 49ers’ 17 late in the first quarter, Saints quarterback Drew Brees turned and handed the ball to running back Mark Ingram who burrowed into the right side of the line. Moments later, Harris’ rookie season came to an abrupt end.
“It was really frustrating because that was a big opportunity for me that I missed out on,’’ Harris said. “Here I was trying to establish a foundation here and it was a major setback. I don’t know if it changed the way people viewed me around here but, to me, I felt like I let everyone down. I felt like I needed to get back as fast as I could so I could stay here because this is a great organization. That was my first big break, and I hope it never happens again.’’