While four teams prepare for the Conference Championships on Sunday and several others look to fill coaching vacancies, all is quiet on the Detroit Lions front. They are likely spending the next few days preparing for their trip down to Mobile, Alabama for Senior Bowl week. But they also have another task they have to decide on in the next month or two: whether or not to re-sign their free agents.
So now is a great time to kick off our 2021 Roster Review series. Here we’ll take a look at the Lions roster from last season, analyze how individual players performed compared to their expectations, and break down what it means for that player’s future in Detroit.
We’ll start, like we do every year, with the players set to become unrestricted free agents, because those are the players the Lions will need to evaluate first. The Lions have 13 players that are set to hit free agency this March, but there’s a good chance somewhere near a handful of them will return.
Let’s begin with one player that will definitely have some discussion with Detroit’s front office: edge defender Charles Harris.
Expectations heading into 2021
Harris came to Detroit on just a one-year, $1.75 million contract. He was a name that everyone recognized, seeing as he was first-round draft pick in 2017, but he had been firmly tagged with the “bust” label for the first four years of his career. He had never tallied more than 23 tackles or 3.0 sacks in a season. With his drafted team—the Miami Dolphins—he started just eight games in three total seasons and amassed just 3.5 sacks over that entire time.
In Detroit, it wasn’t even clear there was a role for him. With Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers holding firm spots as starters and developmental options in Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant, expectations for Harris were, at best, as a rotational player. Although it’s worth noting that Harris’ entire contract was guaranteed at signing, so it was clear the Lions had a role for him.
Actual role in 2021
17 games (14 starts): 65 tackles (10 for loss), 7.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles
PFF grade: 68.2 (42nd out of 125 qualifying edge defenders)
To say Harris outperformed expectations is a huge understatement. The Lions were dealt a tough blow when Romeo Okwara and Flowers suffered serious injuries that cost the two a collective 23 games.
Harris immediately stepped up, though, and played to the potential of his draft status. Detroit’s pass rush wasn’t good in 2021, but that’s only because Harris was the only player consistently producing. Per PFF, Harris produced 30 pressures on the season. The next closest Lions’ defender was Julian Okwara, with 15.
Harris led the Lions in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and had 15 more tackles than any other defensive lineman.
And while he was hailed for his sack and pressure totals, he was also a force in the running game, too. Harris finished sixth in ESPN’s run stop win rate among all edge defenders.
Outlook for 2022
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
Harris has undoubtedly earned himself a significant pay raise after quite literally proving it on his prove-it deal in Detroit. The soon-to-be 27-year-old defender has expressed some interest in returning to Detroit. On MLive’s podcast “Dungeon of Doom,” he said that he’ll be looking for stability, a coaching staff that trusts him, and a team that can win some football games in free agency. When asked if the Lions check those boxes, he said yes.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” Harris said. “In terms of leadership, I think (head coach Dan Campbell) is just a great head coach. (Anthony Glenn) as a DC, from the top-down, it’s a great organization that’s done a great job having one message, one goal: that’s grit.”
Lions general manager Brad Holmes also spoke highly of Harris in his end-of-season press conference.
“He had his best year, in my opinion,” Holmes said. “A guy that was just in a better place. Just speaking with him, he just loved it here, so we’ll just see where it goes. But, those guys were fits, they fit what we’re about, and those guys played well for us.”
The question is how much a guy like Harris would cost the Lions. Edge defenders don’t come cheap, and with how tough his career has been thus far, you have to imagine Harris will want to capitalize on his big season.
But what is the going rate for a player with just one good season under his belt in five years? It could be a tough market for an inconsistent player like Harris when other players currently set to be unrestricted free agents include the likes of Von Miller, Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre Paul, Emmanuel Ogbah, Melvin Ingram. Granted, a lot of those options are aging players while Harris brings relative youth.
For whatever it’s worth, Spotrac lists his market value at $8.6 million per year, projecting as big as a four-year, $34.7 million contract in the future for Harris. However, I believe that to be a little too high for a player with so much still left to prove. And considering the Lions just handed a three-year, $37 million deal to Romeo Okwara last offseason, that kind of deal is likely off the table for Detroit.
I think teams would be wise to hand a shorter deal to Harris as a sign of precaution. Let’s look back at the 2020 free agent edge market to see what kind of deals were out there for players like Harris (we’re skipping 2021 due to tight salary cap issues).
- Rodney Gunter (28 years old): three years, $18 million — 3.0 sacks previous year
- Stephen Weatherly (26): two years, $12.5 million — 3.0 sacks previous year
- Shaq Lawson (25): three years, $30 million — 6.5 sacks previous year
- Jason Pierre-Paul (31): two years, $25 million — 8.5 sacks previous year
- Dante Fowler Jr. (25): three years, $45 million — 11.5 sacks previous year
As you can see, a lot of players around Harris’ production did indeed sign shorter deals than the Harris projection, but the average per year does seem to be around that $7-10 million range. But here’s the thing about every single one of the players above: none of them played significantly better after signing their free agent deal. Gunter retired before playing another snap. Weatherly has 2.5 sacks since his deal. Lawson has 5.0. Pierre-Paul had just 2.5 this past year, and Fowler has 7.5 sacks in the two seasons combined since signing that big deal.
In other words, if the Lions can’t get Harris at a reasonable $6-8 million per year deal, it may not be worth the investment. It may not be worth it anyways. Instead, they could let Harris walk and hope that he cashes in a big enough deal to land a compensatory pick in 2023.
Should the Lions re-sign Charles Harris?
This poll is closed
Yes, spend whatever it takes
Yes, but only if he accepts $6-8M/year deal
No, let him cash in elsewhere