It’s officially February, which means we are just over a month away until the start of free agency. It’s going to sneak up on you like it does every year.
The Detroit Lions have 28 players who could potentially become free agents by the new league year (March 15). So for every single day of February, we’re going to profile one of those free agents, recap how they performed in 2022, and discuss the options the Lions have for the player’s future.
We’re going to kick off this 28-part series with one of the more interesting cases the Lions face this offseason. What do the Lions do with former third-round pick Will Harris, who has had a constantly-shifting role with the Lions.
Let’s take a closer look.
Expectations heading into 2022
It wasn’t exactly clear what Harris’ role would be going into last season. In 2021, he was a jack of all trades for Detroit. He played a little safety, but filled in at both nickel and outside cornerback when AJ Parker and Jerry Jacobs went down with injury, respectively.
The Lions didn’t do a ton to shore up their secondary in the offseason, adding just Kerby Joseph and DeShon Elliott at safety and Mike Hughes at corner. Those additions hinted that Harris’ move to cornerback late in the 2021 season could be permanent, but there wasn’t a clear route to a contributing role there, as Hughes and Parker were expected to compete for the starting nickel job, while Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah seemed to have the starting outside cornerback job on lock.
In other words, Harris was simply expected to be a utility guy who could fill in just about anywhere in the secondary. But considering Harris had struggled just about everywhere he had played, he was not considered a key piece to the defense.
Actual role in 2022
15 games (10 starts): 57 tackles (2 for loss), 4 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
PFF grade: 65.1 (37th out of 64 safeties playing at least 50% of snaps)
Snap breakdown (per PFF):
- 68% nickel
- 15% outside corner
- 15% box safety
- 2% free safety
Surprisingly, Harris entered training camp as part of the mix for a starting outside cornerback job, and early on, he was actually playing quite well.
“We feel pretty good about keeping Will outside right now and just letting him compete out there, knowing that if we ever need him in the back end, he can do that, and so let him continue to grow at corner,” coach Dan Campbell said during the first week of training camp.
However, Okudah eventually jumped him decisively on the depth chart by the end of the preseason, and Harris was back to a reserve role.
For the first half of the season, he was exactly what most expected him to be. He started at outside cornerback in Week 2 when Amani Oruwariye was injured, but mostly played on special teams and certain subpackages.
Things changed midway through the season. Starting in Week 9 against the Packers, Harris became the full-time starter at nickel, replacing Mike Hughes as part of a major shakeup in the secondary. Amani Oruwariye was replaced by a combination of Hughes/Jacobs on the outside.
Harris was an immediate hit at nickel.
“Man, he really stepped in there and played well,” coach Dan Campbell said after that Packers game. “You guys know Will’s our Swiss army knife. Man, he can do a lot of things for us. We needed him to play nickel and I thought he really stepped up and played a physical game, run and pass.”
Not only did Harris play some of the best football we’ve seen out of him, but the secondary overall suddenly looked more than capable of slowing opposing passing attacks. Check out the stats from pre-Will Harris at nickel vs. post-Will Harris at nickel.
Weeks 1-8: 160-of-231 (69.3%) for 1,937 yards (8.4 Y/A), 12 TDs, 2 INTs, 108.5 passer rating
Week 9-18: 194-of-329 (59.0%) for 2,417 yards (7.3 Y/A), 14 TDs, 10 INTs, 83.4 passer rating
It would be foolish to attribute all of this—or even most of it—to Harris’ performance. However, his presence certainly provided some stability to a position that had struggled for the first half of the season.
Outlook for 2023
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
Harris has reached the end of his rookie contract, and it certainly feels like he’s at a crossroads of his career. Not only has he been in and out of the lineup for his four years in Detroit, but he’s been jumping from position to position. It would be completely understandable if all the instability was too much for Harris to move forward as a Lion. Searching for a new place to start makes a lot of sense for him. But if he’s happy with the culture here and is encouraged by the team’s progress last season, he could very well stick around.
From the Lions’ point of view, it’s hard to know what to do with Harris. This coaching staff—just like every coaching staff that has crossed paths with Harris—has praised his professionalism and versatility. He’s a culture fit, and a good depth player to have. Additionally, this Lions secondary remains incredibly young. Having a player like Harris around—even if it’s not in a starting role—could be valuable if Detroit plans on drafting a defensive back at literally any position.
It’s hard to imagine it would be too costly to bring Harris back, given that he has yet to consistently hold down a starting job in his four years in the NFL.
That said, Detroit is in a position where they should be looking to upgrade at just about every position in the secondary. Harris was the team’s highest-graded corner, but he also graded in the lower half of the entire league. Brad Holmes has invested heavily in positions of need before (see: wide receiver, defensive end). Maybe this is the year he overthrows the secondary.
What should the Lions do with Will Harris?
This poll is closed
Let him walk in free agency
Sign him to a short, small deal
Sign him to an affordable multi-year deal
Other (explain in comments)