'A man on a mission': Charles Harris racks up the sacks, gets career on track with Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions didn't make any long-term commitments in free agency this past offseason. Outside of running back Jamaal Williams, every player the Lions signed was to a one-year contract. 

In the earliest stages of the team's rebuild, there was little reason to approach it any differently. But general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell also sought a specific type of player when they were perusing the market for bargains. They targeted the misfits and rejects, players coming off injury and those who had failed to live up to outside expectations. 

“Probably the best thing about all of these guys we’ve signed is I think they’ve all got something to prove," Campbell said in March. "They’ve got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, whether it’s, ‘I’m coming off an injury’ or ‘They were trying to reduce my salary’ or ‘I’m a guy that they didn’t want anymore’ or ‘I’m a guy they think is washed up.’ All these guys have something to prove and, man, so do we.”

Through five games, Lions outside linebacker Charles Harris has already set a career high with four sacks.

For one reason or another, many of those additions haven't panned out. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, for example, couldn't even crack the 53-man roster out of training camp, while another veteran receiver, Tyrell Williams, hasn't played since Week 1 because of a concussion, a year after he missed an entire season due to injury. 

Others, like wide receiver Kalif Raymond, have done well with an expanded opportunity.

But no one on the roster has proven more than outside linebacker Charles Harris. 

Coming out of Missouri in 2017, Harris had failed to live up to the lofty expectations that come with being a first-round pick. He flamed out in Miami — the team that selected him No. 22 overall that year — after three seasons, recording just 3½ sacks in 41 games. 

He was a bit better in Atlanta last season, nearly matching his output from the previous three years with three sacks in more of a situational role, but that did little to help him shake the label of "bust." 

Yet, Harris has found himself in Detroit. When he came into the building to sign his contract, owner Sheila Ford Hamp stopped in and gave him a simple demand: "Go get the quarterback."

And despite showing little ability to consistently do that his first four seasons, Harris is finally starting to look like the edge-rushing force he was in college. 

After serving as the first man off the bench the first two games, the Lions turned to Harris when starters Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara suffered injuries. Harris responded in the most surprising way and heading into Sunday's game with Cincinnati, he's already set a career-high with four sacks, riding a four-game streak of getting to the opposing quarterback. 

"First and foremost, it's primarily 99 percent him," position coach Kelvin Sheppard said. "I think we all know his story about the NFL, came in as a first-round pick. We had a very open conversation about him (being) viewed as kind of an underachiever.

"But the No. 1 thing is, since Day 1 of training camp since Charles Harris walked in these doors, he's been a man on a mission. It was clear in everything to this entire staff that he was out to prove something, to not only us, but to the entire league. And from Day 1, he's done everything asked of him."

Sheppard conceded the remaining 1% was about putting the player in a better position to succeed with his skill set. The coach noted previous teams had asked Harris to do things he wasn't built for, such as play some more interior defensive line alignments.

"I think he's fit to be a true outside linebacker, edge player," Sheppard said. "You saw previously, guys worked him inside, five-technique, even in some systems all the way down to the 4i (technique), and that's not what he's built to do. He's built, in my opinion, everybody's different, but to play on the edge.

"He's a very physical, quick-twitchy player. So he gets on and off the blocks well and he does things that a lot of other people — you have to have a motor to do a lot of things that Charles Harris does on tape, and it's nonstop from the first whistle to the last." 

Harris acknowledged he probably subconsciously questioned what he was asked to do at times during his career, but he also said his mentality always focused on doing what he was asked to do to the best of his ability. It's a mindset ingrained in most NFL players. 

That said, he understands the way the Lions are utilizing him now, including the daily preparation on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, has him playing his best football. 

"Indeed, I definitely do," Harris said. 

And just like the Lions sought players with something to prove, Harris said he spurred other opportunities in free agency because he felt a connection with this franchise, and this city, as the right fit to get his career on track. 

"I wanted to be here," Harris said. "I had other considerations, but this is where I wanted to be. Me and my agent talked about it and this city fits me. The fit is kinda similar to (my hometown) Kansas City, a rugged city — not in a negative way, but just a city that's been through a lot, a team that's been through a lot, an organization that's trying to build something from the ground up.

"That kind of fits my own identity, being at the bottom, in terms of being somebody at the bottom of the barrel trying to scratch your way back out. I think that tenacity, that grit that (Campbell) always talks about, that fits me and fits my motor very well."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers