Two of the biggest moves the Detroit Lions made this free agency period involved re-signing their own players. Last week we broke down one of those moves—grading the Tracy Walker re-signing. Today, let’s talk about the other: handing edge defender Charles Harris a two-year, $13 million deal.
Last year, the Lions signed Harris to an unassuming one-year, $1.75 million deal, hoping to realize some of the potential the former first-round pick hadn’t yet discovered in the first four years of his NFL career. The strategy worked, as Harris was arguably the Lions’ best defender in 2021, notching 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.
But was re-signing the 27-year-old edge defender the right choice? Or should they have let Harris cash in elsewhere and potentially recoup a compensatory pick?
Let’s take a closer look at the decision to bring back Harris.
Previous free agency grades: Josh Reynolds, DJ Chark, Tim Boyle, Evan Brown, Alex Anzalone, Tracy Walker
When Harris came out of college at Missouri, he was hailed as a player with all the physical tools who could still use some refinement. A late start to football—he started playing as a high school junior—showed up as inconsistency in college.
Through his first four years in the NFL, Harris never really realized that potential. In Miami, he started just eight games in three seasons for the Dolphins and finished with just 3.5 sacks over that time. Things only got mildly better when the Falcons acquired him for a season via trade. There, he tallied 3.0 sacks in a single season but was used sparingly, averaging just 22 snaps per game in his 13 appearances.
In Detroit, however, he thrived. It’s a credit to the Lions’ coaching staff, but it was also a marriage of player and scheme fit.
“First and foremost is the talent has always been there,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of Harris midway through the season. “A lot of times as a coach, you have to make sure you can match that talent with a scheme that allows him to go out there and be successful, and that’s one thing we as coaches pride ourselves on is to make sure that as much as we can, each player makes sure whatever they do best, you put them in those positions to be able to (be) successful, and we try to do that with Charles.”
Harris was drafted by a Dolphins team that changed coaches two years in and ran an entirely different two-gapping scheme that didn’t play to his strengths. Atlanta gave him a shot and he improved, but his opportunities were fairly limited.
Detroit provided Harris with both a proper fit and the stage to showcase his talent, and Harris thrived. Was he a top-tier edge rusher in the league? No. But Harris was able to both realize his potential as a pass rusher (ranked seventh in the NFL in PFF’s pass rush win rate) and developed as a run defender (sixth among edge defenders in ESPN’s run stop win rate).
It is only one year of production, though, so it’s hard to call Harris a top-20 edge player like he played last year. However, we do know the potential is there now, and it’s entirely possible he can become the player he flashed as in 2021.
It will be interesting to see how Harris responds to Detroit’s shift to more four-down sets. Harris appears to be better suited for a 3-4 scheme—that’s part of the reason he was so good last year—but this shift actually won’t be much of a change for Harris. Last year, he actually played slightly more snaps with his hand in the dirt (392 at right end) vs. as an outside linebacker (319). Those numbers were even more skewed towards being a down defender in the final six weeks of the season (197 down-lineman snaps vs. 132 as an outside linebacker).
In other words, there should be little-to-no concern about Harris’ fit. He proved being in Detroit is where he can thrive.
PFF called Harris’ two-year, $13 million deal with the Lions one of the biggest free agency value signings this offseason. Of course, that’s likely because their initial valuation of Harris estimated him inking a three-year, $27 million contract. OverTheCap had him at just over $10 million a year. Our own projection of Harris was a little more modest, estimating him in the $7-10 million range.
So any way you look at this, the deal is a perceived bargain for the Lions. Even better, the Lions could realistically get out of Harris’ contract if 2022 turns out to be a disaster. That would, in essence, turn Harris’ contract into a one-year, $7 million deal instead of two years, $13 million.
Thanks to a voided year in 2024, Harris’ cap hit will be just north of $3 million this season. For reference, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Devon Kennard will cost more against the cap with their respective teams. That number jumps to about $8 million next year, and if you throw in the $2 million dead cap from 2024, Harris’ $10 million cap hit does place him just outside the top-20 edge defenders. Even that could be a great value next year.
The contract, in other words, was expertly done. The fact that Harris even agreed to it is likely a testament to Detroit’s culture and Harris’ desire to stay with the Lions.
Initially, I was a bit lukewarm on this re-signing. But after digging into the numbers and really diving into not only the contract details, but how effective Harris truly was last year, this was a home run of a re-signing. Sure, there’s a real risk that Harris doesn’t play at the level he did last year. But I don’t really believe in the “contract year” bump, and it’s only a mild cost to the Lions if it doesn’t work out.
The truth is that when a pass rusher has the kind of season that Harris did in 2021, they typically cash in with monster contracts pushing $10 million a year. The Lions were able to keep him in house on the lower end of any estimates. That kind of stability and economic spending is why Lions general manager Brad Holmes has been confident in his free agent strategy. Grade: A.
What grade do you give the Lions’ re-signing of Charles Harris?
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