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Defensive lineman Zach Harrison grew as 2023 season progressed, primed for quick start in 2024 -- Rookie Review

Looking back on the rookie season of the Falcons' 2023 third-round draft pick, a defensive lineman from Ohio State. 

Editor's note: The "Rookie Review" is a series of stories analyzing members from the Falcons' 2023 NFL Draft class. We take a look back at their 2023 production, as well as forward to what 2024 could hold for each individual.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Defensive lineman Zach Harrison should have felt spoiled as a rookie.

The Atlanta Falcons' No. 75 overall pick in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft joined a position group chock full of veterans. All the 22-year-old had to do was be a sponge, soak up the wealth of knowledge that surrounded him on a daily basis and automatically be better for it.

From 16-year veteran Calais Campbell to eight-year veteran David Onyemata to nine-year veteran Bud Dupree, and even nine-year captain Grady Jarrett before his season-ending injury in Week 8, advisors were readily available in the Falcons' defensive line room. Former defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen also brought a history of mentoring defensive linemen that dates back to 2005, between his college and professional days as a coach.

"Zach has really put the work in," Nielsen said. "You appreciate Zach because he asks all of the right questions in that it's not questioning you, it's questioning why we're doing something, so he really understands why the technique (is what) it is and things like that. He gets all the credit. He has busted his butt learning the defense, the scheme, the technique, and then the weight room, the strength, just continuing on."

Because there was still pressure to perform, even if the depth chart suggested otherwise.

Harris was a 2019-22 product of Ohio State University. The Buckeyes made the College Football Playoff semifinals in three of Harris' four years and advanced to the national championship once. Harris played in 40 of a possible 48 games, too.

With that, comes expectations both from himself and others.

"He had a good college career, but sometimes you go from college to the NFL and maybe there's that in the back of your mind, 'Oh, now I'm in the NFL. Can I play at this level?'" Nielsen said. "Sometimes, it takes guys a couple of games or half the season. And then, all of a sudden … they make a play, they have a little success, and then they have a little bit more success.

"I think that's what you're seeing with Zach. He's come out, he's practiced, he's had success in practice, he's taken to the coaching and technique. He's really feeling like, 'Hey, I can play at this level.'"


A look back

Harrison played in all but one game as a rookie, missing only the regular-season finale against the New Orleans Saints, which the Falcons lost. He was inactive due to a knee injury. Otherwise, Harrison took 342 defensive snaps in the 16 games he played. That turned out to be 32% of the work.

In total, Harrison made three sacks and 33 tackles in his debut season. He also had a pass breakup, four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits. He really started to shine later in the season, notching all three of his sacks in his final three games. That's also when he had the pass breakup and the four tackles for loss. The five quarterback hits came in his final five games.

Harrison also spent time on special teams, taking 107 (25%) of those snaps.

What Harrison learned in 2023

Harrison's statistics alone prove that he improved as his rookie season progressed, as he got more comfortable. To get into the nuances of those numbers, though, Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray can help detail what Harrison learned in order to post those numbers. He was yet another person in charge who saw obvious growth in Harrison.

"Well, the hardest thing to do is stop the run," Gray said. "Once he got past that, now you can see him like, 'OK, I know how to stop the run. I'm long. I can use my arms to get off of blocks and make tackles. Now, the passing game on second and third down, I can go do that.' And you can see that he's actually getting better. We would love to see him get three or four sacks before the season's over because that's only going to help him grow for the next season."

Mission accomplished with three.

Areas for improvement

There wasn't really one specific area of Harrison's game that was ever critiqued. It was more so getting him the experience he needed in order to operate at a faster, more consistent pace on the field. That came with time.

Now, the important thing for Harrison to do is build on that foundation in Year 2, being able to eliminate the transition period so he doesn't need a few games or half a season to find his groove again.

"You already have the knowledge of what we're doing here. Not a lot is going to change," Nielsen said. "Then, hey, let's take the next step and let's go from there when you're bigger, faster, stronger. So, now, mentally, he's not hearing it for the first time, the second time. He's heard it a bunch of times, so he'll come back here whenever that is in OTAs in April and he'll walk in the building with so much more confidence, because nothing is new. He doesn't have to learn. No new faces, no new scheme, no new technique. Walk back in, and here we go. It will be exciting."

Join us as we take a look back on the top 100 photos from the Atlanta Falcons' 2023 season.

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