With little money to spend in free agency last winter, the Detroit Lions went hunting for deals — and they found one of the best in the NFL in edge rusher Charles Harris.
A first-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2017, Harris never quite lived up to his billing as the 22nd overall pick while playing for two different teams and four different head coaches in his first four seasons.
He had 6.5 sacks as a part-time starter with the Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, but when the Lions dove into his tape they found a lot to like about a player playing out of position with seemingly no complaint.
The Lions signed Harris to a one-year, $1.75 million contract last March and reaped the benefits come fall as Harris thrived in a full-time role, setting career highs with 65 tackles and a team-leading 7.5 sacks, and playing some of the best run defense of his life.
“The first thing that jumps out to you on film when you watch Charles is his effort,” Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said at the Senior Bowl. “In Atlanta, they even had Charles playing in the five technique some. I’m not sure if you guys know that, but that’s an under front. This past year (he) was (playing) the nine. They had him at the five, where Nick Williams and (Michael) Brockers were playing and he never complained about it, I heard. I spoke to people down in Atlanta, he never complained.
“Everybody I talked to always said, ‘Great kid. He’s a little different personality, but once he trusts you, you have him, he’s all-in.’ And that’s exactly what I got.”
The Lions, with the sixth-lowest sack rate in the league last season, have made clear their desire to re-sign Harris before free agency opens next week. They have a significant need for an edge rusher in their revamped even-man front and cannot count on getting Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
If he does test free agency, Harris, who turned 27 last week, will not lack for suitors.
“This is a player that ended up at the end of the season being my highest productive guy. Anytime you’re able to do that, you would love to have that guy back in your room,” Sheppard said. “But I understand. I sat in that seat two, three years ago, this is a chance of a lifetime for a player coming off a career year, and I always tell the guys, ‘Listen, to each his own. Obviously, I would love to have you here, but this is a time’ — I tell you why I do this, to change the trajectory of these guys’ family lives. And he has a chance to do that, so I’ll tip my hat. If he’s a Lion, obviously I’ll be ecstatic. If he goes somewhere else, as long as it’s right for him, I’ll be ecstatic.”
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The Lions, with more resources at their disposal, can be more aggressive in free agency this spring, though general manager Brad Holmes has said multiple times nothing has changed about the type of player he’s looking for.
With that in mind, I tried to identify five pending free agents at a variety of positions who could benefit from a change of scenery and have a Harris-like impact on their next team.
Derek Barnett, edge, Philadelphia Eagles
There are plenty of similarities between Barnett and Harris, from the position they play to the fact many thought they were overdrafted coming out of college. The Eagles took Barnett with the 14th pick of the 2017 draft, eight spots in front of Harris, and got minimal pass rush production out of him in his five seasons in Philadelphia. A solid run defender, Barnett had five sacks as a rookie then missed most of his second season with a shoulder injury. He rebounded with a solid year in 2019, but was ineffective in the Eagles’ new defense last fall. Barnett played for four position coaches in five years in Philadelphia and could end up with a one-year prove-it deal this offseason.
Lorenzo Carter, edge, New York Giants
Carter had 14.5 sacks in four seasons with the Giants, which is more than twice what Harris had before coming to Detroit. More importantly, he flourished down the stretch last season with five sacks in the Giants’ final four games. Carter missed time in 2020 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, so there is some injury history to be wary of. But he’s played on bad teams, in a bad organization, with little talent around him for his entire career. In a better situation, he could have a Harris-type impact on the edge.
Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons
Hurst has one season with more than 30 catches in his career, not coincidentally the only season he started more than five games. A first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, he played his first two years behind Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in Baltimore and was a sidekick to talented rookie Kyle Pitts last season. Hurst turns 29 this fall and is only an adequate blocker, but in the right system he could outperform whatever contract he gets in a crowded market. O.J. Howard, another former first-round tight end, is in a similar boat.
Terrell Edmunds, safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
A four-year starter in Pittsburgh, Edmunds has not lacked opportunity since the Steelers took him with the 28th pick of the 2018 draft. Still, after playing second fiddle to Minkah Fitzpatrick the past three seasons, he is a candidate to blossom in a new defense. For that to happen, Edmunds will need to become a bigger playmaker than he’s been to this point in his career (five interceptions in 64 games). He’s young (he’ll play all of next season at 25 years old) and durable, and in a deep safety market he should have a chance to be a cost-effective starter for some team in 2022.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, edge, Los Angeles Rams
Okoronkwo does not have first-round draft pedigree like Harris and most others on this list, but he’s produced enough in a small sample size to think he’s ready to contribute in a bigger role for his next team. Okoronkwo has 4.5 sacks in three seasons — he missed his rookie year with injury — and played in the shadows of Von Miller and Leonard Floyd last season. He’s more outside linebacker than defensive end, so I’m not sure how well he fits the Lions’ new-look defense. But Holmes was the Rams director of college scouting when L.A. took Okoronkwo in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.
Free agent DL class
On the Lions’ roster for 2021 — Edge: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okawara, Austin Bryant, Eric Banks. DL: Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Michael Brockers, John Penisini, Jashon Cornell, Bruce Hector.
Pending Lions free agents1 — Edge: Charles Harris, Jessie Lemonier (ERFA), Rashod Berry (ERFA). DL: Nick Williams, Joel Heath.
Top free agents — Edge: Von Miller, Rams; Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals; Emmanuel Ogbah, Dolphins. DL Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears; Calais Campbell, Ravens; D.J. Jones, San Francisco 49ers.
Others who may interest Lions — Edge: Melvin Ingram, Kansas City Chiefs; DL Quinton Jefferson, Las Vegas Raiders.
Market watch: Pass rushers are always in high demand in the NFL, which is why teams will be willing to overlook the age, injury and off-field concerns that surround the top of this year’s free agent class. Miller has hinted on social media about a return to Denver after helping the Rams win a Super Bowl, and the Dallas Cowboys’ Randy Gregory appears poised to cash in after overcoming his substance abuse issues. On the homefront, the Lions have yet to make a move on Flowers, whose bloated cap number and recent injury history could put him on the chopping block. There’s enough pass rush in the draft that the Lions do not have to overspend on the position in free agency, but if they can’t re-sign Harris, they need to find a veteran replacement somewhere. One sneaky need for the Lions is interior pass rush, where players like Richardson and B.J. Hill should generate interest.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.