John Tomase

Who are the best center fielders in Red Sox history? Ranking the Top 5

Who are the best center fielders in Red Sox history? Ranking the Top 5

The Red Sox have employed all manner of center fielders throughout their history.

Whereas left field has generally been home to run producers and right to all-around threats, the men in the middle have covered a wide range of styles. There are straight speedsters like Jacoby Ellsbury, defensive dynamos like Jackie Bradley Jr., fun-loving eccentric types like Johnny Damon, underappreciated standouts like Ellis Burks, and even plodding sluggers like Tony Armas.

Get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App

Only in recent years have the Red Sox consistently prioritized defense in the role, from Coco Crisp to Ellsbury to Bradley.

But that doesn't mean they haven't featured some talented players there, including a turn-of-century Hall of Famer, the younger brother of baseball royalty, and the one who fans over 50 still lament got away.

Click here for the Top 5 center fielders in Red Sox history.

MLB's Top 100 players for 2020 season: Numbers 100-76

MLB's Top 100 players for 2020 season: Numbers 100-76

There was once a time when a list of baseball's top 100 players would've been dominated by men in their 30s or even 40s. In 2004, for instance, the NL MVP was 39-year-old Barry Bonds and the Cy Young went to 41-year-old Roger Clemens. It was the seventh respective award for each.

We now can be almost certain that neither accomplishment was achieved without help, but if any good came from that era, it's that it forced baseball to address its PED problem, which means that a top 100 list now looks very different.

Get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App

Our list will reflect that shift. What it won't include are three pitchers guaranteed not to play in 2020 because of Tommy John surgery — Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, Luis Severino of the Yankees, and of course Chris Sale of the Red Sox.

Over the next four weeks, NBC Sports Boston will unveil its top 100 players, 25 at a time, and the list is dominated by youth. Never have young players been so essential to winning, whether it's 20-year-old Juan Soto helping lead the Nationals to last fall's shocking World Series title, or 23-year-old Cody Bellinger being named NL MVP.

Click here for Part 1: Players ranked 100th to 76th on our list.

Safety School: Rodney Harrison's most potent NFL weapon was his mind

Safety School: Rodney Harrison's most potent NFL weapon was his mind

Rodney Harrison became famous for laying his hat on opposing receivers. But he owed his true greatness to what was going on inside that helmet.

Other safeties were faster than Harrison, though he was plenty fast. Some were even stronger, though fewer still.

But what elevated the ferocious hitter was a mind that never stopped whirring and a mouth that never stopped motoring.

During a 15-year career that started with the Chargers and ended with a pair of championships in New England, Harrison established himself as one of the best safeties in the NFL, alongside Baltimore's Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

What put him in their class wasn't simply a string of highlight-reel sacks, clutch interceptions, and bone-jarring tackles. It's how he thought the game, mental advantages which allowed him to recognize a play a little faster than everyone else, opening the door for his physical skills to shine.

With the Patriots drafting Div. II safety Kyle Dugger 37th overall, now seems like a good time to check in with Harrison — himself a product of I-AA Western Illinois — to discuss the tricks of the trade that made him an all-time great and could yet earn him a spot in Canton, Ohio as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"The thing that makes somebody special, it's not even physical talent," Harrison said in a phone interview. "It's the freaking mind."

When Harrison entered the league in 1994 as an unheralded fifth-round pick, he learned the three A's — alignment, assignment, and adjustment. The first was where he lined up, the second was what player or area he needed to defend, and the third was how he countered any pre-snap movement.

"Even if a guy is super, super fast, if he's not seeing things, guess what? That 4.4 he runs equates to a 4.5 or 4.6, because he's hesitant," Harrison said. "But if I'm running a 4.5 and I see something and I'm going 100 mph at it, that means I have no fear and I'm the first one to the ball.

"No matter who I played with, I had a bunch of fast guys around me, and I was always the first guy to the ball, I was always leading the team in tackles, because you diagnose things."

Let's peer into that mind and break down how he did it.

PRE-SNAP: LOOKING FOR TELLS

Harrison's most basic job was determining run or pass, and he scanned the offense for clues. He started with the offensive linemen, who have a hard time hiding their intentions. If their forearms were flexed, that meant run. If their rear ends were high, that meant pass.

"I'm not just studying the receivers. I'm studying No. 64, too," Harrison said. "If his butt is low and his forearms are blasting, he's coming for Bruschi, it's a freaking run. Let's come and get it."

Next he'd watch the quarterback.

From former teammate Junior Seau, he learned that some QBs either licked their fingers or patted their right hands on their butts before a run. From experience he knew that if the QB didn't scan the secondary, that meant run, too.

"Even (Tom) Brady, when I first got there, he used to come to the line of scrimmage and if he didn't look up at me at the safety, I knew it was run all day," Harrison said. "And to this day I can still watch tape and I can look, if a quarterback comes up, I can tell run or pass just based off of is he scanning the field, looking at the safeties, trying to figure out what coverage guys are in, or is he just going to come up, take a quick glance and then all of a sudden hike the ball and hand it off."

Harrison paid close attention to the running back. One grinding his mouthpiece and gritting his teeth looked ready to take a handoff. One with his head up searching for potential blitzers told Harrison to expect a pass.

Some runners telegraphed more than they realized.

"When we played against Buffalo, Travis Henry would stare left or right," Harrison said. "When a running back stares to one side, he's telling you where he's going. And he wasn't the only one guilty of it. I played against a lot of great ones who did. Ricky Watters took a look. All these dudes, they look. They're anxious. Ezekiel Elliott does it. Saquon Barkley does a good job, he'll look to the left and right. Christian McCaffrey does a good job, too. Some running backs get so caught up in their assignment, it just happens."

Armed with this knowledge, Harrison could fly to the ball. He recorded at least 100 tackles seven times between 1996 and 2004, and he's one of only two players with at least 30 sacks and 30 interceptions, alongside Baltimore Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.

"The instincts, the smarts, that's the thing that really separates the good safeties from the great ones," he said.

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

VOCAL LEADERSHIP: 'QUIET MOUTHS DON'T GET FED'

Harrison considered constant communication one of his most essential jobs, and on Super Bowl defenses that included cerebral standouts like Ty Law, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Willie McGinest, that talk wasn't wasted.

In the Patriots' defense, Bruschi would get the call and then relay it to Harrison, who informed the rest of the secondary.

"I'm always talking," Harrison added. "Quiet mouths don't get fed."

On one play, he might remind Law he's in man-to-man with no safety help. On another, he might tell Bruschi he's coming down in support to follow a man in motion. On another, he might yell, "Bracket!" to a fellow DB in a double-team. Shouting, "Sky!" at McGinest in Cover-3 run force meant he'd take any swing or flare passes outside the numbers.

"It's constant communication," Harrison said. "I'm giving these dudes all these reminders, 'If he goes in motion, you go with him and get your ass outside. I got you. If he comes across the middle, I'm going to knock his head off.'

"It would be things we saw on tape. 'Hey guys, if they come out in empty, we're going Rain, we're blitzing their ass.' They can come out two backs and then shift to empty, and I've already given the reminder. So everyone sees empty and says, 'All right, we're going, we've got man to man coverage. Let's bring some heat.' That's how we talk. And that's why we were (expletive) champions."

Recognizing tells, the constant communication, it's all pre-snap. What comes next requires putting those plans into action.

POST-SNAP: READING THE EYES

You hear it constantly, that a defensive back read a quarterback's eyes. Can a DB actually see them from 40 yards downfield, though, or is he simply watching the movement of the helmet?

Harrison could read eyes, but the great ones made that a dangerous game. He singles out Brady and Drew Brees as two quarterbacks particularly skilled at glancing one way before throwing another.

"I could tell from watching film that when Peyton Manning opens up his shoulders, he's passing that way," Harrison said. "Guys like Brady and Brees, they use their eyes so well, you can't necessarily believe what their eyes have told you. Until they open up that hip and take that step and bring that ball, you almost can't break. Those two guys are veterans. Tom knows exactly where the safety is at, Drew knows exactly where the safety is at. Patrick Mahomes does such a good job of looking one way, taking the safety out of the box, and coming back to the guy that's going to eventually be where the safety should've been."

Then there's recognition. Harrison intercepted a team-record seven passes in the playoffs during his Patriots career, including game-clinchers against the Eagles, Colts, and Jaguars.

The last, on fourth down against David Garrard in the 2007 divisional round, showcased Harrison at his best. He jumped a curl in front of receiver Matt Jones after running back Maurice Jones-Drew went to the flat.

"It wasn't that I saw it specifically on film," Harrison said. "It was just over the years, seeing that pattern combination, it becomes second nature. Those are the instincts you have. You can just feel it. You see all these plays over the years and you see these formations and routes and react and that's why the great ones make plays."

LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Harrison did not operate in a vacuum. Properly reading and reacting means nothing if he can't shed a block, beat a man to the spot, or make a tackle.

"To me, playing safety is actually an advantage," he said. "You play linebacker, you've got to look at the guards and you've got to get tangled up with all those guys. If I'm the strong safety coming down and even playing in coverage, I feel like I get a chance to see everything as it happens, so I get a big wide view of what's going on."

Strong safeties need to be forces against the run. That means taking on pulling guards, tight ends, and tackles. Harrison played at a rugged 6-1, 220 pounds, but he still often surrendered 100 pounds to would-be blockers. So how did he approach them?

My No. 1 thing was leverage. No matter how big they are, offensive linemen and anybody that plays in the National Football League, they're all afraid of one thing. You know what that is? Getting hit low, in their knees.

Harrison used that threat to his advantage, because even a feint could create just enough hesitation to race around them and make a tackle.

"Or I would come up and juke them, act like I'm going left or right, and then just run them right over, because once you get a lineman on his heels, you can knock his ass out, and that's what I used to do," Harrison said.

For example, dig up the 2003 divisional round win over the Titans, played on a frigid night in Foxboro, and watch Tennessee's fifth play from scrimmage. Eddie George takes a toss to the left, where massive tackle Brad Hopkins is one-on-one with Harrison, who makes a subtle move outside. Hopkins straightens up for a millisecond and that's all Harrison needs to lower his left shoulder and drop him like a jackhammer. (11:10 mark of clip below)

"I (expletive) blasted him," Harrison said, pride still evident. "It was one of my highlights. It's a clear example. He came around pulling. I gave him a move, he stopped, he hesitated, I lowered my shoulder and knocked him flat on his ass. It was unbelievable."

Harrison considers himself one of the best tackling safeties ever, and the best blitzing safety ever. His 30.5 career sacks remain a record for a defensive back, and his total almost certainly would've been higher had he played somewhere other than New England. Head coach Bill Belichick once joked that Harrison would've finished with 75 sacks if he had blitzed him more.

"Running backs couldn't block me," Harrison said.

More essential to his job was being a sure tackler, and it felt like Harrison could go entire seasons without missing a tackle. He was particularly adept at diving and scooping an opponent's ankles when it looked like he might be beaten.

"I worked on that specific thing as a kid growing up, playing against older kids who were faster than me," he said. "In order for me to catch them, I would have to time them up. That was a patented move that I did as a kid. And my brother and I, we laugh to this day when we're watching highlights, 'Hey man look at this, you would always just scoop and smack their leg and trip them up.' I remember doing it plenty of times against Dallas (Clark), against so many different people. That was a technique I used, something I used at a really early age and kept."

That said, delivering big hits was Harrison's stock in trade. It earned him the reputation as a dirty player, and he fought to clean up his image in New England. Still, the intimidation factor served a purpose.

"I was a big hitter and I knew people were afraid," he said. "When you get receivers coming up — 'Hey man, we good Rod?' — when they start saying stuff like that, you know we've got you."

Harrison looks at today's NFL and sees worthy successors in San Diego's Derwin James and the Jets' Jamal Adams. "These dudes have it," he said. "They have the instincts. They have the characteristics that make a great safety."

He also knows that whether he ever reaches Canton, he has no regrets.

"People think I was just this vicious player," he said. "I just played with a lot of intensity because I was hungry and I was passionate. When you grow up and you have people telling you that you can't do certain things, when a team like the sorry-ass San Diego Chargers gives up on you and other people say you can't play, that's going to motivate you. Yeah, I was physically a good athlete, but not many people could match my mental toughness."

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast: