Rogers: Lions pull off masterful move in snagging Damon Harrison

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Damon Harrison

Allen Park – Former Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew famously worked toward a law degree at Georgetown while still playing in the NFL. His successor, Bob Quinn, might be moonlighting as a magician.

Quinn pulled a 355-pound rabbit out of a hat on Wednesday, snagging Damon "Snacks" Harrison, the NFL’s premier run-stuffing defensive tackle, in a pre-deadline deal with the New York Giants. The move effectively alters the narrative that the team’s defense had been neglected during Quinn’s three-year bolstering of the Detroit offense.

The addition of Harrison crosses off what would have been the top item on Quinn’s offseason shopping list, a truly dominant nose tackle for coach Matt Patricia’s defense. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest Harrison could be Detroit’s version of Vince Wilfork, the longtime man in the middle of New England’s defense.

Like Wilfork, Harrison is dominant defending the run. According to Pro Football Focus, no interior defensive lineman has been more effective the past four seasons. He’s led his position in run stops each of the past three years and ranks second in 2018.

More: What they're saying about Lions' acquisition of Damon Harrison

It doesn't hurt that he hasn't missed a game the past five seasons. 

Meanwhile, Detroit’s defensive struggles this season start with the team’s trouble stopping the run. Big plays have been a big problem, and the significant factor in the team’s league-worst 5.3 yards per carry allowed. Not that overall efficiency has been much better.

Harrison is capable of changing everything in short order. Paired with A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, two individually effective run defenders, moving the ball on the ground against the Lions suddenly becomes a far more difficult task.

And here’s the kicker, or kickers, if you will. The cost to add Harrison was next to nothing, a fifth-round pick. Quinn was able to masterfully capitalize on the Giants’ misery, a 1-6 start to the season that has hammered home the franchise’s need to fully embrace a rebuild.

It's not apples to apples, but in the last week the Giants netted a fourth- and seventh-round selection for a far less accomplished talent in cornerback Eli Apple. And the Raiders managed to score a first-rounder for talented but struggling wide receiver Amari Cooper. 

Plus, unlike many trades this time of year, Harrison isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two seasons beyond this one, at a reasonable price, averaging just over $8 million per year over that stretch. Factoring in inflation, that’s not much more than the two-year extension the team committed to Haloti Ngata two years ago, when he was well past his prime. Harrison, on the other hand, turns 30 in November and has yet to show signs of slowing down.

What a coup. Just ask Detroit’s upcoming opponent, the Seattle Seahawks.

“Snacks has been a big-timer for a long time,” Seahawks coach Pete Carrol said. “We caught him back in the Jets days when he was unheralded and he came to the surface as a play-maker. Then, of course he went to the Giants and carried it on there. He’s a good football player. Big presence, really good in the running game and disruptive in the pass rush, too. So, it’s a great get for them.”

More: Detroit News NFL picks: Week 8

Naturally, Harrison will also make players around him better. He’ll be a true space eater for the Lions up front who will command a steady diet of double teams. In Patricia’s scheme that frees up Detroit’s linebackers to make more plays.

It was an entirely difference scheme, but it's easy to remember the way Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley impacted Detroit’s linebackers a few years back. Opponents had to commit so many resources into controlling Detroit’s front that it freed up Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and company up to rack up the counting stats.

It’s also going to allow the Lions better manage Hand’s playing time. The fourth-rounder out of Alabama has been a revelation this season, rapidly picking up the scheme and executing at a high level. That’s caused the Lions to lean on him hard in recent weeks. He’s played nearly 75 percent of snaps the past three games, a heavy workload for any interior lineman, let alone a rookie.

Lions coach Matt Patricia preemptively cut off questions about Harrison prior to his Wednesday news conference, since the deal was yet to be made official, but did acknowledge the importance of monitoring Hand’s workload as the season progresses.

Harrison’s addition could also impact how the Lions use Hand. In dialing back his snap count, they could also use him more on at defensive end, where he’s played sparingly to this point, but would further bolster the defense’s ability to play the run with the athletic 300-pounder setting the edge.

Overall, Quinn has done a marvelous job building out Detroit’s offense. His three-year overhaul of the offensive line, which saw a replacement of all five spots, is paying clear dividends. The team is allowing pass-rush pressure at the lowest rate in the league, complementing a ground game that has gone from worst in the NFL to top-five in yards per carry.

Draft picks Frank Ragnow, Kerryon Johnson, Graham Glasgow and Kenny Golladay all look like long-term building blocks and big-money free-agent additions such as Marvin Jones, Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang have largely exceeded expectations in relation to cost.

The general manager has spent more prudently on his defensive additions over the years, and he certainly didn’t commit the anticipated resources this offseason, given the schematic overhaul brought about by Patricia’s hire.

Harrison has the potential to be the gap-closing catalyst between the units, in turn making the Lions a more complete team. He signifies both a brighter future for the defense and an immediate commitment the current roster is ready to compete for bigger things, after winning three of the past four.

Not a bad haul for a fifth-round pick.