After productive prove-it year, Lions’ Charles Harris ready to ‘prove it again’

Detroit News

Allen Park — Last June, newly signed Detroit Lions edge rusher Charles Harris was, technically, an NFL veteran. By no means, however, was he thought to be a team leader.

This June? Harris, a former first-round pick with the Miami Dolphins in 2017, is preparing for his age-27 season after setting career highs in starts (14), sacks (7½), tackles (65) and forced fumbles (two) during his one-year, prove-it deal with the Lions in 2021.

“We were talking about Charles the other day in the team room. What a great story he was,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Thursday. “This time last year, he’s out there running with the (third team) on the second field, he’s doing all the special teams reps, holding bags like he started all over again and didn’t bat an eye either.”

After signing a two-year contract worth $13 million this past March, Harris is set to make more money over the next two seasons than he’d made in the previous five years of his career, combined. He’s insistent, though, that he’s still somewhat on a prove-it deal.

“I think this year’s the same mentality, it really is. It’s prove it again,” Harris said. “It’s kind of one of those things like, when you reach the mountain, what’s next? I think that’s kind of where I am right now. I’ve done that, I’ve proved it, but I also see what’s ahead of me as well, and there’s another, bigger mountain. And that’s where I’m prepared to climb.”

The Lions added two edge rushers (Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Kentucky’s Josh Paschal) in as many rounds to kick off their NFL Draft haul in April. They added Oklahoma State linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (pick No. 188) and Jackson State pass rusher James Houston (No. 217) in the sixth round.

In a league where jobs can be snatched in a moment’s notice, one might think that the influx of young talent to fill a role Harris specializes in would worry him. It’s clearly not the case. He’s taken it upon himself to help “mold them,” he said, and to communicate expectations effectively. That’s an opportunity that he’s earned as a high-volume producer in last season’s defense.

“(The rookies) have to get along with what we got going on. If you’re not running to the ball, if you’re not being aggressive, if you’re not tackling, if you’re not trying to get the ball out, then you’re not really playing our defense,” Harris said. “You’re a traitor.”

Part of Harris’ confidence to take another step is due to his versatility, something Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have openly admired and know how to utilize.

“He’s that defensive end mold, but we know if we had to have it, he’d go out there and play SAM (strong side) linebacker because he was really one of our OLBs last year,” Campbell said. “He can line up inside, he can twist back inside, he can beat a guard, he can beat a center, he can beat a tackle. There’s value in that versatility, for sure.”

Harris has spent most of the offseasons in his NFL career trying to overcome the fact that things didn’t go as well as he’d hoped the previous year. This offseason, he’s watching film with a different eye; his understanding of where he can specifically improve is more nuanced. He wants to get better at attacking run gaps, dropping as a linebacker, and not letting “almost sacks” get away.

“I’ve been able to go back and watch a lot of film from last year and see the plays that could have gotten made but didn’t get made. I think that’s kind of where I am this year,” Harris said. “It’s like, if I add in everything that could have gotten made, the numbers would be crazy, our success would be crazy. Really just capitalizing on that — the things I didn’t know before, making sure I know them now, and being ready to prepare and succeed in those moments.

“I think efficiency is the right word for what I’m trying to do this year.”

Efficiency and leadership. Harris talked Thursday about leading the young bucks verbally, but according to what Glenn said about Harris a week ago, it sure sounds like he’s also leading them by example in the early stages of OTAs.

“I tell you what, you just watch him right now. He is on tilt, like every freaking play,” Glenn said. “That player, I expect a lot more from that player this year. I’m excited about what he’s going to bring to the table. I’m going to make sure we put him in position to make sure we allow him to do exactly what we feel like he can do going into this season.”

So begins Harris’ journey to shattering expectations for a second year in a row. And if you couldn’t tell by now, that doesn’t just include his own.

“If everybody up front is aggressive, the question is, who do you block? If everybody gets the off the ball, there’s nobody playing back into their man…everybody going to the quarterback, who are you going to block? Who are you going to slide to?” Harris said. “A lot of guys that came into the room are all so versatile and also very good at pass rush.

“So the question is gonna be every single week to the other team, who are you going to block? Who is the threat?”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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