Last year, Charles Harris was one of the biggest feathers in the Detroit Lions coaching staff’s cap. The former first-round pick failed to make much of an impact in the first four seasons in his NFL career.
Despite those struggles, Harris thrived in 2021. Opportunity opened up for the defensive end in Detroit, and he took full advantage, eventually leading a new contract with the Lions this offseason.
The good news doesn’t end there for Harris, though, because 2022 is lining up to be an even bigger year for the 27-year-old edge defender. I’ll explain why in the latest installment of our 2022 Lions roster preview series.
Expectations heading into 2021
Signing a former first-round pick whose career fizzled out is a common practice for NFL teams. The hope is that they’ll be able to pull out the potential the previous coaching staff failed to. Oftentimes, despite the offseason hype from media and fans, it doesn’t work out.
The Lions signed Harris hoping to be the rare success story in this scenario, but there was no guarantee he’d even make the final roster. His deal was for one year and was worth $1.75 million fully guaranteed. But with Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers clearly ahead of him, and young, promising talent in Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant in the reserves, Harris was going to have to fight even for a rotational role in 2021.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 17 games (14 starts): 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 16 QB hits
PFF grade: 68.3 (26th out of 55 qualifying edge defenders)
- 78.7 pass rush grade (12th)
- 60.7 run defense grade (31st)
It’s safe to say that Harris completely blew expectations out of the water. With both Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers both missing significant time due to injury, Harris was thrust into a major role in this defense—without much of a supporting cast—and he absolutely thrived. He was not only the team’s best and most efficient defensive lineman, but he was arguably the best defender.
Harris was specifically great towards the end of the season. From Week 10 and beyond, Harris earned a 79.8 PFF grade, which was 10th among all NFL edge defenders. Over that time period, he only produced 3.5 of his 7.5 sacks, but his 26 pressures ranked sixth and his run defense took a massive jump (77.6 grade, fourth-best). In fact, Harris finished the season ranked sixth in ESPN’s run stop win rate among edge defenders.
Outlook for 2022
The Lions re-signed Harris to an economically-sound two-year deal, and there are several reasons to believe he can not only prove 2021 wasn’t a fluke but could play even better in 2022.
To begin with, the Lions are moving to more four-man fronts, which fits exactly what Harris was mostly doing for the Lions anyways. Last year, he took more defensive snaps as a down defensive end (465) than as an outside linebacker (369). So despite the schematic tweak, he doesn’t believe his game will be altered much.
“(There’s) nothing that I specifically need to change,” Harris said this offseason. “It’s just opportunities that are gonna be there that I need to capitalize on.”
Additionally, Harris will benefit from an improved Lions defensive front. Last year, Detroit’s defensive line was devastated by injury. With a lack of depth around Harris, offensive lines double-teamed the former first-round pick more than almost any other edge defender in the league. Don’t believe me? Check out this chart.
In addition to being 2nd in the NFL with 18.0 sacks, #Bears LB Robert Quinn is T-7th in pass-rush win rate and above average in double team rate.— Jacob Infante (@jacobinfante24) January 5, 2022
His comeback season has been fantastic to watch. pic.twitter.com/MPAZUYWe4A
You’ll see Charles Harris’ name as the third or fourth most right name, with a double team rate of around 23 percent. Despite that, he still managed to have an above-average pass rush win rate.
This year, teams shouldn’t be able to key in on Harris so frequently. The addition of Aidan Hutchinson alone should lift some of the burden from Harris’ shoulders. Add in Josh Paschal, the eventual return of Romeo Okwara from injury, and the potential Year 2 jump from defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike, and Detroit’s defensive front—on paper—should be much better this year.
To be fair, it’s possible his role decreases a bit with the more crowded room—especially when Romeo returns from injury. Still, given his efficiency in the scheme last year, a more fresh Charles Harris could very well mean a more efficient one.
With the confidence of a successful year, a coaching staff who trusts him and knows how to play to his strengths, and a support system that will draw attention away from him, Harris could very well top his performance from 2021 this upcoming season.