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'There's so much more to this guy that's still out there': How the Falcons decided on Zach Harrison in 2023 NFL Draft 

The Falcons took the Ohio State product with the No. 75 overall pick in the draft because they saw a player whose best days are still ahead of him. 

Finding Falcons is a series dedicated to telling the stories of not just the fact that the Falcons decided to draft a specific player, but rather the why behind doing so. Based on exclusive interviews with Falcons position coaches, area scouts and the decision-makers at the top, the Falcons brass details the moments that solidified the decision to draft each of the men who make up their 2023 draft class. For six consecutive weeks, we'll tell those stories.

We've already taken a look into the stories of Bijan Robinson and Matthew Bergeron. This week, we put the spotlight on Zach Harrison, a former five-star recruit who went back to the drawing board to refine himself in a way that tied him to the Falcons.

By: Tori McElhaney

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During the early days of the summer months, teams across the league receive a list of college players who will become draft eligible in the next draft cycle. Once they receive said list, they pass it on to their scouts who begin their work, diving into the nitty-gritty of the who behind the names that make up the next draft class.

For Falcons area scout Ryan Doyal, he began looking into a specific edge rusher coming out of Ohio State: Zach Harrison. He'd heard of Harrison, of course. It's hard not to remember Harrison. It's even harder not to see him. But what tied Doyal to Harrison was his story, one that involved a perseverance that Doyal couldn't help but notice.

Whenever anyone talks of Harrison they tend to always bring up his former "big-time recruit" status from his high school to college days. He was a five-star recruit out of Ohio, and the No. 2 strongside defensive end in the 2019 recruiting class. He was ranked the 12th-best recruit in the nation, but Ohio's very best. Heck, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds this is a guy who ran a 10.78 in the 100-meter dash on his high school track team. In terms of athletes, Harrison was as impressive as they came.

Harrison received scholarship offers from nearly every national contender in the country before he ultimately decided to stay home to play for Ohio State. You don't talk about the 2019 recruiting class without mentioning Harrison's name.

For Harrison, though, his first years in the college ranks left him, and others, wanting. He'd tell you, and coaches and scouts likely would, too, that he didn't have the production some would say is notorious for a five-star recruit.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Harrison got to work, and the way he worked caught Doyal's eye during the pre-draft process a year later.

Harrison essentially went back to the drawing board. He stripped his own game down to the bones, finding which parts of his game were strengths and which parts were holding him back. Driven by his own will to improve, he began cutting the fat away, leaving the lean muscle that he could build upon. That impressed Doyal.

"Being that huge recruit and not having that success that all these kids expect when you're 17, 18 years old. You're going into college and you're a five-star kid, you expect all of these things," Doyal said. "So many of these guys when they get to these programs and they don't have that success they don't really rebound from that. They never really come out the other side of that."

Harrison did, leaning into the basics of his strengths. By the time the 2022 season rolled around, Doyal said he saw a player who - in some key moments during the season - leaned into what he's good at instead of leaning into false hope or new teachings. Harrison didn't reinvent himself when he went back to the drawing board a couple years into his college career. He refined himself.

"You saw a kid who, mentally, didn't go into the tank when things didn't go the way he wanted it to initially," Doyal said. "A kid who kept grinding, kept working, kept doing the things that we value so much as an organization. That really tied me to him."

The core basics of Harrison's game that he leaned into at Ohio State included his length and power.

Doyal called Harrison's length "extreme." You can't watch Harrison play and not take note of that length. When Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen first turned on the tape of Harrison, he couldn't overlook it, either. If Harrison's arms are locked out on a blocker, Nielsen said, it's difficult for said blocker to touch him simply because there are few who have comparable length.

Something that Nielsen also appreciated about Harrison's game is his power. Throughout the pre-draft process, as Nielsen and a group of Falcons representatives went to Ohio State's pro day, that power propelled Harrison up their board as discussions continued.

"Throughout the process, (I'm) watching his tape, watching his drills and he played with power," Nielsen said. "He's a powerful guy and the No. 1 way to win in the league is with power, and he has that... Coming in right now you know that he's going to play with power."

It is power that still needs to be honed, though. But because of the work Harrison did in recent years breaking down his game to build it back up, the Falcons believe Harrison's best years are still ahead of him. The hope is that this power and length are the stepping stones to something greater.

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Zach Harrison #96 during the 2023 Rookie Minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

When looking at a prospect, especially those you're targeting late on Day 2 and into Day 3 of the NFL Draft, you're weighing their potential. With Harrison, the Falcons believe that ceiling has the potential to be high. It's what makes Nielsen excited to get his hands on Harrison, helping to mold him into the player they believe he can be.

An easy way to see Harrison's potential isn't in sack numbers, though, it's in pressures. Harrison led the Buckeyes in quarterback pressures in 2022 with 33. Looking at sack numbers alone doesn't show the full scope of what Harrison can be, but hurries and pressures can. If you're only looking at sack totals when focusing on Harrison, you are honing in on the wrong part of his game.

"A guy who can pressure the quarterback and force the quarterback into making poor decisions? That's something that's huge as well," Doyal said, "and Zach excelled at that."

It's one of the reasons Nielsen liked the idea of Harrison, too.

"You look at the growth potential," Nielsen said. "You go back a year, two years and you see the numbers, the tackles, the pressures, what he did from one year into the next year, and one of the things we like about him is that we believe there is still growth left in the player. He hasn't reached his max potential."

When the Falcons are going through the potential of drafting Harrison, that's something that Nielsen said they kept writing down: "There's so much more to this guy that's still out there."

"You want to get your hands on him and work with him to help him develop some of these things to reach that max potential," Nielsen said.

And as head coach Arthur Smith said after the Falcons did indeed draft Harrison in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the pressure is not on Harrison to reach that potential just yet. He has time to grow the right way.

"He is a young guy and we feel that there's a lot of room to develop," Smith said, "and there's no pressure immediately for him because of the way that room is constructed right now."

What Smith alluded to (and Nielsen as well) is that when it comes to presence off the edge, the Falcons have put a lot of work into building up the position with veteran presence this offseason. They re-signed Lorenzo Carter. They went out and picked up Bud Dupree and Calais Campbell in free agency. Even coming through the interior is Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata. For someone like Harrison, Atlanta is likely the best place he could have landed as a player who is still developing.

"These are guys who have made a lot of football plays," Nielsen said of the veterans around Harrison. "He's going to have the opportunity to watch them first hand and work with them in drills. They'll be able to share their experiences with him and speed up that growth process for him."

If Harrison leans into this group's knowledge in similar fashion to the way he once leaned into his basic strengths at Ohio State, the potential the Falcons see in him could be clear on the horizon.

"We're getting a guy who has done a lot of good things," Nielsen said, "but there's still things left that he can do."

Take a look at the 2023 Atlanta Falcons in action during OTA practice.

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