In 2021, Charles Harris was one of the few Detroit Lions players who made the most of his one-year prove it deal from general manager Brad Holmes. A two-year, $14 million pay day was his reward for being Detroit’s most productive pass rusher during Year 1 of the retool. With the Lions, his fifth year in the NFL, Harris was more productive in his single season in Detroit than he had been over four years with two different organizations.
Let’s take a closer look at what happened in Harris’ follow-up to a career season, and more importantly, why the Lions and Harris both agreed this offseason they were right for each other in this next iteration of our 2023 roster preview series.
Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, David Montgomery, Graham Glasgow, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marvin Jones Jr., Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Christian Covington, Craig Reynolds, Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky, Alex Anzalone, Jared Goff, and Jason Cabinda.
Expectations for 2022
The career year Harris had in 2021 was a lone bright spot for a defensive line that dealt with roster turnover (Trey Flowers, Nick Williams, John Penisini), serious injuries (Romeo Okwara, Levi Onwuzurike), and inconsistent play (Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara). But it wasn’t just the best season in a career marred so far by injuries and infrequent usage—Harris played 871 snaps in 2021, he had never played more than 496 in a season. Harris took the opportunity from the Lions, a chance for a former first-round pick to find his footing and fit, and turned-in one of the better, more well-rounded seasons for an EDGE defender in 2021 despite being one of the most double-teamed players at his position. His 7.5 sacks were more than he had accumulated over the first 54 games of his career. He ranked 22nd in quarterback pressures (52), and finished t-16th in run defense stop rate (8.5 percent, league leader was Greg Rousseau at 13.6!).
Detroit spent the second overall pick on Aidan Hutchinson, the 46th pick to select Josh Paschal, and added coveted waiver wire pickup John Cominsky to the mix, showing a concentrated effort and significant investment into just getting better at the position. Harris signed an extension with a sizable pay bump, though, and figured to be Detroit’s best-kept secret that would do nothing but benefit from opposing blockers needing to divide their attention across the Lions defensive front.
Actual role in 2022
6 games (4 starts): 259 snaps on defense (the lowest total of his career)
Stats: 14 tackles, 1.0 sack, 11 pressures, 1 forced fumble
PFF overall grade: 56.4 overall (103rd of 130 EDGE with at least 216 snaps)
Through the first four weeks of the season, Harris didn’t take quite the jump many were hoping he would considering his 2021 campaign. Unfortunately, Harris wouldn’t get more than a quarter of the season to build on the year before. A groin injury suffered in Week 4 against the Seattle Seahawks would cause him to miss three games—and Harris tried to come back—but after a handful of snaps across Week 9 and 10, the team shut him down.
Outlook for 2023
Harris was considered a potential cap casualty after the season ended, but Detroit and Harris came together on a renegotiated deal to the benefit of both parties. Harris gets to stay in a situation where there’s still an opportunity to compete for playing time—and the chance to play in a defense where he’s surrounded by more talent. The Lions get a player still hungry to prove his leap in 2021 was just the beginning and not a blip.
Back in late June, outside linebackers coach David Corrao praised Harris for his veteran leadership and attention to detail, putting things simply: “A healthy Charles Harris is going to make us a much better defense.”
Hutchinson, Paschal, and James Houston all enter their second season with the potential to take their games to another level. If Hutchinson’s play down the second half of the season is any indication of his ceiling, he could be a perennial Pro Bowl player. Houston displayed a special ability to get after the quarterback with his 8.0 sacks and 17 pressures over just 92 pass rush snaps according to PFF, but is he more than a pure pass rusher? Paschal flashed in spots after spending the offseason and first six weeks of the season rehabbing from sports hernia surgery,
Point is: the Lions have plenty of up-and-coming EDGE defenders who will get plenty of playing time because of their upside, but there is always room for a team to have depth at such an important position in today’s NFL. If the 28-year-old Harris can stay on the field this year, the ability he showed as a pass rusher and run defender in his breakout season doesn’t feel like a distant memory, so there’s a real possibility for him to play his way into a significant role for the Lions. When Detroit wants to stack their defensive front with their best pass rushers—popularly referred to as the NASCAR package—Harris could very well be one of those players for the 2023 Lions.
Even though the Lions have been criticized for not adding to their depth chart at EDGE this offseason, it makes sense. Names like Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal, and Charles Harris were part-time players a year ago for a middle of the road pass rush (25th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate), so bringing the band back together might seem like an oversight by Holmes’ preoccupation with turning over the cornerback room. In reality, Harris is in a competition with other EDGE defenders like Romeo Okwara and John Cominsky for playing time, but there’s more than enough room for all of them to contribute and prove that the best is yet to come.