Rodney Harrison is part of several all-time NFL lists. He’s one of its dirtiest players. One of its hardest hitters. One of its most intimidating safeties.
Raiders fan might think of another description — not suitable for print — dating to hits on wide receiver Jerry Rice in 2002 and tight end Jeremy Brigham in 2000.
Bill Belichick offered his own assessment of Harrison: He was, simply, one of the finest defensive players he ever coached. High praise from the Patriots’ boss.
Harrison retired in 2009 after a 15-year career with the Chargers and New England, a member of each franchise’s 50th anniversary team. He owns two Super Bowl rings and was voted by fans as the 29th person to be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. He also knows the strong safety position as well as anyone who played it.
Johnathan Abram plays the same position for the Raiders. The second-year player will try to steady what has been an inconsistent start for him when Buffalo visits Allegiant Stadium on Sunday.
Abram, a former Mississippi State star, was lost for all but three quarters last year with a torn rotator cuff and labrum. He has already suffered a sprained shoulder and chipped collarbone this season. He is listed as questionable for Sunday but is expected to play.
As thrilling as some of his body-crunching hits have been, Abram has also missed several tackles in 2020 and overrunother plays that led to either big gains or touchdowns.
Here, then, is Abram through the eyes of Harrison.
Q: What were your first impressions of Abram?
Harrison: “When he first came into the league and I saw him last year on ‘Hard Knocks,’ I was like, ‘I like this kid. I like has aggressiveness. His confidence.’ But he also seemed just a little too cocky. I understand the arrogance, but that should come from a quiet place. You don’t have to announce to the world how good you are. But when you go through an injury like he did and miss the rest of the season, you become humbled. But he also became hungry.
Q: Will he, like you then and Jamal Adams of the Seahawks now, immediately earn a certain reputation with officials?
Harrison: “Johnathan is always going to be looked at like I was and Jamal. Big hitters. Officials know who you are, and they look at you every single hit. Johnathan can still play aggressively. He can still play with excitement. But why do you think quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes freely throw across the middle so much? Because they know defensive backs now are afraid to really hit guys for fear of penalties. The rules have changed. They’re not going to allow you to knock out the superstars of their game.”
Q: What does Abram need to learn most?
Harrison: “The playbook. To play with technique. To first make sure all his checks and adjustments are in line every snap. To know the entire defense and the responsibilities of everyone on the field. Once you do all that, you can play free and have fun. But as a strong safety, you better be mentally ready each week.”
Q: What would you consider an example of tough love for him?
Harrison: “That it can’t always be about him. Not every hit has to make a highlight reel. Sometimes, just get the guy on the ground. If you’re outside technique, don’t go inside just to try and make a hit. Take the right angle. If he doesn’t work to correct his mistakes, he’s going to get exploited. This is the NFL. I don’t care how physical he is. You can’t play any way you want to. You can’t play selfish. You have to be smart.”
Q: In your mind, does Johnathan Abram possess the ability to become a great NFL safety?
Harrison: “Absolutely, but it’s going to take commitment. That’s the thing. I think his priorities are wrong right now. He has all the tools. But to be great, it has to be more mental than physical. You want to hit, you want to go full speed and hit with passion. All those things. But just because you were great in college and a great athlete and could take chances, this is the pros and you have to be smarter.
“Are you making sure everyone hears the calls? Are you echoing the calls? Are you communicating? Are you making sure people are lined up in the right place? Are you where you’re supposed to be? All those things entail becoming a really good, consistent safety.”
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.