There may not be a player on the Detroit Lions roster who has been written off more than safety Will Harris. The 2019 third-round pick has struggled mightily in his two years in the NFL, but he’d be the first to admit it.
“I’ve got to trust myself more, and I just got to play more freely,” Harris said after his rookie season.
But under head coach Matt Patricia, there is rarely the opportunity to truly play freely. You have an assigned role, and if you stray from it, the whole thing falls apart and you get an earful from coach.
All offseason, we’ve talked about Detroit’s new coaching staff and how the Lions defense is likely to benefit from former players like Aaron Glenn coaching them up—especially the secondary. But for whatever reason, Will Harris is rarely included in that conversation. Is it possible Harris could turn his career around with a new coaching staff?
Previous roster previews:
- Amani Oruwariye’s make-or-break season
- Can Romeo Okwara elevate his game again?
- Can David Blough contend for the backup job?
- Can Austin Bryant stay on the field?
Expectations heading into 2020
The Detroit Lions went out and traded for veteran safety Duron Harmon and signed Jayron Kearse, which seemed like a direct reaction to Harris’ disappointing rookie season. With Harmon and Tracy Walker set to start, Harris was expected to have a subpackage role in 2020. That being said, Patricia is known for utilizing three safeties on the field often, so Harris was still going to have a significant role.
Harris believed the presence of Harmon, who came with experience and leadership, was going to help vault him into a valuable role player.
“I’ve been in his left pocket every day, everywhere he goes,” Harris said of Harmon. “I’ve asked him countless questions up ‘til now, and it’ll be countless more moving forward. If I could look back 7-8 years from now and I have a career like his, that would be a blessing.”
As training camp kicked off, it became clear that Harris wasn’t just going to be a role player. He started taking first-team reps ahead of Walker, suggesting either Walker was in the doghouse or Harris had taken some considerable steps in his first complete offseason.
Actual role in 2020
2020 stats: 16 games (5 starts): 35 tackles 1 pass defended
PFF grade: 50.5 (84th out of 94th safeties)
Harris, indeed, entered the 2020 season as the starter alongside Harmon, to almost everyone’s surprise. Unfortunately, the improvement the Lions were hoping for was just not there yet. After just three games, Walker took over as the starter, and in Week 6 through 8—after Kearse returned from his suspension—Harris played in just nine total defensive snaps.
He would regain a small role during the second half of the season, but it’s clear the Lions had lost trust in Harris. With the season long over and Kearse sent packing, Harris would end up notching 68 total snaps in the final two weeks of the season, but he managed just two tackles and a pass defended in those games.
Playing mostly as a box safety, Harris didn’t make much of a positive impact in any facet of the game. His PFF coverage grade (55.5) was barely better than his run defense grade (51.6). Per PFF, he allowed a passer rating of 117.7 in coverage.
Outlook for 2021
Contract status: Signed through 2022
Unlike last year, the Detroit Lions did not choose add a bunch of talent at the safety position. They replaced Harmon and Kearse with just Dean Marlowe—a player with seven total starts in his five-year career. So, the opportunity is there for the taking if Harris can make a Year 3 jump. In minicamp, Harris split time with Marlowe with the first-team defense, indicating that this coaching staff is giving Harris the opportunity to win that job. He took advantage early in camp by being the first player to pick of Jared Goff during seven-on-seven goal line drills.
In Detroit’s new split-safety scheme, which will allow Harris to play a little more freely as he previously desired, there’s a chance for the young safety to turn his fortunes around. For whatever reason, when the Lions added both Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, the focus has been solely on improving the play of Jeff Okudah and Walker. But Harris stands to benefit just as much.
Of course, the big difference here is that Harris has yet to show what he’s capable of at the NFL level. Okudah still has high expectations as the third-overall pick, and Walker has series of games in which he looked like the real deal. Harris has a lot more to prove, and it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Still, if the 25-year-old safety is going to turn his career around, this is the year it could happen.