When Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell met with the media last week, he was asked what role he envisioned for defensive back Will Harris this season, and his response was on par which what you’d expect from the charismatic coach:
“He’s a cafety,” Campbell explained.
What Campbell is cleverly alluding to, in his own Dan Campbell way, is a position-flexible player capable of playing both “safety” and “corner”. Some refer to this position as a “free nickel” or quite simply a “hybrid” defensive back.
“Yeah, he’s a hybrid,” Campbell continued. “He really is. He’s a jack of all trades. I think Will—part of his strength is his versatility. That’s one of his greatest attributes, which we came to find out last year.”
What Campbell was referring to was the idea that after a 2021 season that asked Harris to play at multiple spots in the secondary—due to COVID protocols and injuries—his role has expanded into a much larger dynamic than most had anticipated.
So what is his future role for 2022?
“We’re still talking right now,” Campbell said. “You just go out day one, do you put him at corner or do you put him at safety? I’ll be honest, we haven’t just locked that down right now. We’re still kinda talking about it. That’s not a bad thing.”
It’s not a bad thing. And if we’re being honest, there’s no reason they should limit him to just one position either. If there is anyone in the NFL who would know how to maximize a hybrid back-end defender, it would be Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who has a history of developing such players.
“Will Harris has a lot of value as far as a player just in general because he’s playing every position in the backend that you can imagine,” Glenn said in January. “And, there is a lot of value to that because—now, I had a guy like this named P.J. Williams with the Saints and he was just like Will. Actually, he wasn’t as good of an athlete as Will, but the one thing that he was, he was very smart. At the drop of a hat, we could put him in that position that he didn’t get a lot of reps in that week. And, you see Will doing the same thing.”
In 2020 when Glenn was with the Saints, Williams played primarily a safety role, but twice that season was called upon to start at corner.
Similarly, in 2021, Harris operated the first seven weeks as one half of the Lions’ split safety duo, but in Week 8 an injury to nickel corner A.J. Parker forced the Lions to call on Harris to start in the slot. A few weeks later, Parker landed on injured reserve, and once again the Lions leaned on Harris to start at slot corner for Weeks 12-14.
Parker returned in Week 15, and it was just in time, because the Lions lost outside corners Jerry Jacobs (to season-ending injured reserve in Week 14), Ifeatu Melifonwu (COVID in Week 15), and Amani Oruwariye (season-ending injured reserve in Week 15), forcing Harris into an outside corner role for the remainder of the season.
“Mentally, this week, I’m a corner,” Harris said in late December. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s whatever this team needs me to do. That’s something I’ve been very vocal about since I’ve been here... Something I try to reiterate a lot is that I’m here to do a job, whatever that job is, whatever they need me to do, I’m here to do it. Whether that’s corner, nickel, safety, I’m up for the task.”
But it’s not just Harris’ willingness to play multiple positions that make this transition a smart move, there was also a marked uptick in production as well. In the first two and a half years Harris played at safety, he only recorded four pass breakups. When switching to corner, he had four PBUs in his first four weeks at the position (one each in Weeks 12, 13, 14, and 15).
It’s not the box score where Harris has improved. The positional movement has played to his strengths and taken him out of spots that accentuate his weaknesses. Harris has typically struggled in space and can often get flat-footed when he needs to react to the play in front of him.
By moving him into matchup football, he is allowed to get closer to his man and use his physicality to set the tone for the play. Additionally, when asked to play in phase with the offensive player, he is consistently in the moment and playing on instincts rather than asking him to react and react.
By keeping him free of role restrictions, the Lions can put Harris into spots as a matchup specialist. He can run with running backs (Harris ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash), isn’t intimidated by tight end’s size (he is 6-foot-1, 207 pounds), can physically lean on slot receivers, and can be an option as a blitzer.
And best of all, Harris has proven that he can take on the challenge of an ever-changing role, adapting quickly to the assignment in front of him.
“Will is a guy that says, ‘Listen, Coach, whatever you need me to do, we’ll do it,” Glenn concluded. “So, there is a lot of value in that player. So, I can’t just say that he’s going to be this or that. He’s that piece that we can put anywhere we need to at the drop of a hat, we need him.”