The Detroit Lions added some much needed depth to their linebacking corps on Thursday morning when they finalized a trade that brought in the San Francisco 49ers’ Eli Harold for a conditional seventh-round pick. Harold is entering his fourth year in the NFL after spending the first three with the 49ers who drafted him in the third round of the 2015 draft. The former Virginia Cavalier played in all 16 games last season and started in 11 of them. He recorded 34 total tackles in 2017 along with two sacks.
Harold lined up primarily as a strong side linebacker in San Francisco and filled a hybrid role between outside linebacker and defensive end.
When watching him on film it becomes immediately apparent why the Lions traded for him. Detroit had a terrible run defense in 2017 and much of it was due to the inability of the team’s edge defenders to contain runs on the inside. These issues have haunted Detroit so far in preseason, as they’ve been continuously gashed by the likes of UDFA running back Chris Warren and even New York Giants third string quarterback Kyle Lauletta.
Harold’s most valuable skill is his ability to set the edge and force runs back inside, which he showed on this play against the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
Eagles, and now Detroit Lions, running back LeGarrette Blount takes the hand off out of the backfield and tries to take the run to the left edge. Harold strongly forces his way into his opponent’s backfield and blocks off the running back’s lane. Blount is forced to cut back as his primary read is snuffed out, and the 49ers defense rushes him down for a 4-yard loss on the play.
Harold was great at getting outside positioning on the opposing team’s tackle and causing a traffic jam to force the running back somewhere else. He was very disciplined against play action as well and rarely was caught chasing ghosts in the backfield.
The Lions run defense has been devastatingly bad so far this season and this infusion of talent should help the front seven greatly.
While Harold is a great run defender, he does not bring much else to the table. In a league as pass heavy as the NFL, being able to rush and put pressure on the passer is more valuable than anything. The linebacker has the speed and burst necessary to be a good pass rusher, and he shows it on occasion.
If Harold is given any sort of free run at the opposing quarterback, then he can storm into the backfield for a sack. The issue is that it’s rare that opposing teams make it that easy for him.
The linebacker does not really have any pass rushing moves in his arsenal and relies entirely on pinning his ears back and speed rushing the quarterback. If he runs into a blocker and he can’t just brute force his way through the man in front of him, then he generally just gives up on the play.
He is a very raw pass rusher and the fact that he still has not developed much at all after three years in the NFL is a worrying sign for his long-term future. If he cannot fill the most important role of his position, then there is no way that he can be a regular contributor in this league long term.
One of the biggest flaws the Lions linebacking corps has had the past few years is their failures in pass coverage. While a strong side linebacker generally does not take as much responsibility for pass coverage as the middle or weakside linebackers, he still needs to do better their as well.
The 49ers rarely used Harold in man coverage (and when they did he wasn’t very good) and primarily sent him to cover the flats and shallower routes in zone coverage when he was in the game on pass plays. He struggles getting out there at times, though, and would often get caught ball watching and let the man he was assigned to cover slip right by him.
His failures as both a pass rusher and in coverage caused the 49ers to take him off the field on passing downs. He was specifically in the game to defend the run, and if he ever happened to be in the game on a pass play, he was assigned to cover a zone where his mistakes would have the least impact. Despite his listed role as a starter he only played over 50 percent of the team’s weekly defensive snaps four times in 2017.
While Harold provides Detroit with much needed utility against the run, there is a reason they were able to snag him for only a conditional seventh-round pick. He will most likely back up Devon Kennard this season and only take the field to relieve Kennard when he needs rest. It is hard to see him as a part of the long-term plans in the Motor City, but with such a low price tag it is hard to expect much more anyways.