The 2022 season is a pivotal one for safety Will Harris.
Heading into his fourth professional season, which marks the last of his rookie contract, Harris has plenty to prove. The defensive back has had his ups-and-downs throughout the early part of his career.
Last season was perhaps the best of his first three campaigns.
After dealing with struggles at the safety position, he stepped up at cornerback, when the position group was decimated. His versatility was rewarding, as he played a vital role down the stretch of the season.
It remains to be seen where he’ll spend the most time in 2022, but his versatility makes him a valuable weapon.
“At this point, I’m just doing whatever I’m asked,” Harris told reporters Thursday. “From last year, I’ve been able to move around a little bit and be able to play different spots on the field. I’m keeping that side open-minded. I’m still in my playbook, still learning safety, still learning corner, nickel, all of that. Pretty much varies on the team needs.”
In 2021, Harris started all 17 games. He broke up four passes, and forced a fumble, to go along with 93 total tackles.
The Boston College product has seen significant action since he was drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft, playing in all 49 possible games since entering the league.
His evolution is worth monitoring, as he’s gone from a role player who's provided depth to a starter. While his versatility is a weapon, it’s the skills that will keep him on a field, in a defense full of young talent.
“It’s pure competition out there,” Harris said. “That’s where you want to be, if you just like to compete.”
Committed to learning
Though Harris is a safety by trade, injuries to Amani Oruwariye, Jerry Jacobs and Jeff Okudah, among others, forced the Lions to ask him to fill in a season ago.
He was serviceable toward the end of the season and relied upon heavily. When the dust cleared and the season ended, he had played 238 snaps as a slot cornerback, 227 as a wide cornerback and 195 as a safety.
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The experience of playing the cornerback position has him wanting more.
“To me, playing (defensive back) is playing (defensive back),” Harris said. “I was able to get a lot of exposure toward the end of the season last year just playing strictly corner, and I feel comfortable doing that. That’s another spot where I think I could just continue getting better at and continue to learn all the intricacies of playing corner.”
Since coming into the league, Harris has seen a gradual uptick in responsibility. Speaking with reporters Thursday, he talked about his growth and evolution as a player since entering the NFL.
“I came in as a rookie and obviously things are moving faster, but then that second year, things start to slow down,” Harris said. “At this point, year four, you’re just starting to put things together quick, way faster. You’re starting to see what the offense is trying to do to you way faster, you’ve just got those reps, those game reps and those game experiences that have all accumulated since my rookie year. Being able to dissect situations and put myself in advantageous situations.”
‘A lot of ballplayers’ on defensive line
The best defenses are the ones in which defensive backs and defensive linemen have symbiotic relationships. The linemen are responsible for putting constant pressure on the quarterbacks, which could result in either errant throws or sacks.
If the men up front can’t get home, they’re relying on the secondary to make a play.
Harris has seen the impact of this dynamic firsthand. Since he’s entered the league, the Lions have consistently been near the bottom of the league in a number of defensive metrics.
Since Dan Campbell has taken over as head coach, the Lions have revamped their defensive line by getting younger. Among the key contributors in the unit are second-year players Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill, along with freshly minted rookie Aidan Hutchinson.
“We’ve got a lot of ballplayers up there, man,” Harris said. “That front-end is sick, and when you give those guys the free range to just go and play fast, it only helps us. We appreciate those guys on the front-end to help us out. We’re all on a string in the back-end.”
With the overhaul in talent, Detroit is hoping that its defense will put forth an improved effort in 2022. As Harris pointed out, each unit will need to pick the other up.
“Sometimes, we’ll get out there, you’ll be covering a guy, and you’ve got your back to the quarterback so you don’t know what’s going on,” Harris said. “It helps knowing that your guys are putting in work up front and those guys already got a sack by the time the receiver gets out of his break. So, it definitely goes hand-in-hand.”