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Why did the Falcons trade for Charles Harris?

A player they had their eye on in the 2017 draft joins up for several reasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

I don’t think any of us expected to see the Falcons ship out a 7th round pick for a pass rusher before we even finished our morning coffee, but such is the way of this team. The swap for Charles Harris gives up a 7th rounder in a draft class where the Falcons are expected to land three compensatory selections is a low-cost gamble, but why are the Falcons giving up anything for a player with 3.5 sacks in three seasons?

Let’s run down some logical reasons.

They liked him in 2017

The Falcons moved up for Takk McKinley at #26 because they wanted him, but I’ve always wondered whether Derek Barnett, Jonathan Allen, or Charles Harris were priorities and simply went earlier than the Falcons were willing to move for. It’s impossible to confirm that, of course, but the interest in Harris now suggests the Falcons were interested in him then. It’s not a stretch to suggest it.

It follows logically that if Atlanta saw enough from Harris to consider drafting him in the early rounds of the 2017 draft, their interest would not have completely petered out over the past three years despite his production. He was highly touted coming out of Missouri because of his excellent first step, athleticism, and solid all-around game, and Atlanta likely saw a player who wasn’t maximized in a pretty sorry Miami defensive line. That’s probably also why they didn’t bother snagging Taco Charlton when he shook free, because they passed him up by trading up for Takk back then.

They know sacks don’t tell the whole story

Harris has been disappointing, full stop. He’s had just 1.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits over the past two seasons, and even his more productive rookie year saw him get just two sacks. He was a part-time player on a Miami team that wasn’t exactly great at rushing the passer, which says a lot about what he’s done to this point.

As is the case with Takk, though, sacks don’t tell you the entire story of Harris’s career. His 2017 rookie season was quietly quite productive, as he had 31 pressures that year overall, which matches Takk’s 2019 total and was just shy of the 32 he produced in 2017. His production has fallen off a cliff since then, with 17 pressures in 2018 and just 10 last year, but he’s also been playing less and blitzed just once over the past two seasons. In Atlanta he won’t have the same kind of roadblocks to playing time, especially if he flashes some early promise.

Harris has also dabbled on special teams, playing around 10% of snaps there for Miami over the last three seasons, and can likely take on a larger role there if required. That’s a vanishingly small piece of this acquisition but I thought I’d mention it.

It doesn’t cost much to take the chance

The Falcons just used their 2020 7th rounder on a punter. I think Sterling Hofrichter is probably going to be a good one, but Atlanta’s simply not done a ton of stellar work with 7ths in the Dan Quinn era, with Devin Fuller, Jake Rodgers, and Akeem King all washing out of Atlanta in short order. They hadn’t made a 7th round selection in three years before taking Hofrichter, so it tells you they don’t really value those picks all that highly.

In that case, turning a 7th into a 25-year-old pass rusher isn’t a bad little move at all. The Falcons were going to pay a lot more in salary to snag someone on the open market, but they’ll also be limited in terms of who they can actually add until June when the Desmond Trufant money comes off the books. Even then, they’re not going to have Jadeveon Clowney money, and likely would’ve been settling for a mid-tier option.

I would’ve preferred they do that—there are worthwhile players out there with much better track records than Harris—but the Falcons get a project they were likely interested in coming out of college for not much in terms of money or draft compensation. If he works out, they can likely re-sign him on a deal that won’t break the bank. If he doesn’t, they move on in 2021 out just a 7th rounder. That’s worth it for an athlete with upside, which Harris certainly is.

The Falcons need help, period

We noted recently that the Falcons were going to add another pass rusher who could play defensive end. That wasn’t based on any insider knowledge of the team in this instance, but purely on need.

Beyond Dante Fowler and Takk, the Falcons have no proven pass rushing options at defensive end. All the same reasons I said Taco Charlton might be of interest to the team yesterday apply to Harris, except he’s definitely a better athlete and has been considerably less productive in terms of sacks. He has started games in the NFL, he’s got that first step the team salivates over, and he happens to be young and relatively affordable ($1.9 million this year). I think they could’ve done better than Harris, certainly, but if he even improves a little bit he’ll probably offer more than what the Falcons were considering trotting out behind their starters. Allen Bailey is a better player but isn’t much of a pass rusher, and especially wasn’t this past season.

If Harris can play 33% of the snaps in Atlanta, as he did in Miami, and win more of his matchups the Falcons will welcome him with open arms.

The Falcons think they can fix him

Atlanta’s belief in its coaching staff is admirable but rarely works out quite the way you hope it will. As I mentioned above, Beasley and Takk never entirely took off, Deadrin Senat is in mothballs, and no one’s quite sure what we have with John Cominsky just yet. Things have gone better at linebacker and in the secondary in terms of player development, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence that the Falcons’ coaching along the defensive line has made their players considerably better, with Grady Jarrett being the lone exception who isn’t an exception because of his evident talent and the likelihood that he would’ve worked out just about anywhere.

Despite that, the Falcons clearly think they can get Harris on track. They’ll look at that solid 2017 season, consider the fact that Harris was mothballed by Miami last year during their quasi-teardown, and know that he’s 25 and still has his athletic tools and think some molding will make him at least a decent rotational option. The Falcons have never really stopped betting on themselves to maximize what they have, and with Harris they get a fairly affordable bite at the apple after generally choosing to add more polished players in free agency and the draft.

There’s no guarantee any top free agents would still be available in June

At the end of the day, this move probably doesn’t change any plans for the Falcons. If they were chasing a big-name free agent pass rusher in June, they’re probably still going to do that. But there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of the top remaining names will still be around. Everson Griffen, Markus Golden, and Cameron Wake could all have found new teams by then, leaving Atlanta high-and-dry in terms of adding another pass rusher.

This move is simply the Falcons hedging their bets on a low-risk, high-reward player. Will Charles Harris provide the production of a Griffen or Golden in 2020? Almost certainly not, but he was available to the team right now, and cost significantly less. There’s always a chance a change of scenery helps him get his career back on track, too. Harris certainly has the talent to turn into a productive #3 pass rusher, which would be tremendous for this team. Also, if he does manage to have a strong season in 2020, the Falcons could be in line for a 2022 comp pick of some kind if he signs elsewhere.

Will this work out? Again, it’s fair and just to be dubious here, as Harris quite simply was a bust for Miami. I’d expect that a healthy Harris on this defense can be a 3-6 sack player if the team can work on some of his hand usage issues and tendency to hesitate while the play’s moving quickly around him. For the price that’d be a solid little upgrade and addition, but expecting more than that—indeed, expecting even the high end of that—is probably foolish until (or if) we see Harris improve before our eyes.