Coming out of Missouri, Harris (6-foot-3, 253 pounds) was projected to be a 3-4 linebacker who had the range to put in hand in the dirt in a 4-3 scheme. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and was asked to play end in their four-man front. After three seasons, he only produced three sacks and was traded to the Atlanta Falcons for a seventh-round pick.
In Atlanta, Harris played almost exclusively on the edge but he lined up both with his hand in the dirt and as a standing pass rusher. The Falcons mainly used him as a depth player who could give starters at multiple edge positions a rest. He played on roughly 27 percent of the Falcons defensive snaps.
Harris is an outside-the-offensive-tackle box player who is best served when he starts the snap with distance between him and the offensive blocker. He has a nice first step and lateral quickness, but his calling card has always been his spin move. Unfortunately, beyond the spin, Harris still needs to define his pass-rushing technique.
Harris has been ineffective when an offensive tackle gets a hold of him, which is part of the reason why he has struggled in the NFL, as he has often lined up too close to the offensive lineman. In Atlanta last season, they still used him in a traditional edge role, but they also used him in a wide-9 position, which afforded him more time to use his athleticism to avoid blocks and execute assignments. He only recorded three sacks in 2020, but that doubled his career output from his time in Miami.
In Detroit, I expect the Lions to keep him outside the tackle box and allow him space to rush the passer in situations that best fit his skills. By keeping him on the outside, the Lions can also use Harris to disguise their intentions. He isn’t a player who you want to put one-on-one in coverage with an offensive skill player, but he is capable of dropping into a zone and using his lateral quickness to cover ground.
Here’s an example of Harris lining up at right defensive end at the wide-9, dropping into coverage, recognizing the quarterback (Taysom Hill) flee from the pocket, and attacking the ball to register a sack.
It doesn’t matter if he plays with his hand in the dirt or from a standing position, he still has the range to complete the drop without a problem.
He’s not going to start, and may not even be in the two deep rotation to open camp—he’ll be competing with Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, and Austin Bryant for snaps—but he is a decent insurance policy on the edge, and a potential lottery ticket if developed properly.
It’s not unusual for edge rushers to take time to develop—hello, Romeo Okwara—and it’s highly possible the Lions are trying to see if they can unlock a level of play that originally got his selected 22nd overall.