The signing of Erik Harris during the 2021 offseason didn’t receive much fanfare, but then, what signings did? The fanbase was divided on the prospect of him starting games, but he took the starting job and never looked back, holding the job down for 12 games until an injury unfortunately ended his season.
He’ll be recovering this offseason, but if healthy, there’s no question Harris will get a deal somewhere and a chance to compete for a starting job. Will it be Atlanta?
Roundup: 12 games, 64 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 8 pass deflections, 14.7% missed tackle percentage
Coverage: 28/41, 309 yards allowed, 11 yards per completion, 68.3% opposing completion percentage, 1 touchdown
The case for re-signing Harris
A handful of costly, visible blunders really dented his stock with this fanbase, but the Falcons never stopped believing in Harris. The truth is, he had a solid season.
Our perception of it would be very different if Harris had held on to the handful of interceptions that slipped through his hands. Harris was still someone who frequently made plays on the ball, showed an ability to hang tough in coverage even in unfavorable matchups, and delivered some bone-jarring hits. Harris also chipped in on special teams, where he first made his mark in the league, and was recognized by teammates as a “leader of the defense.” Dean Pees clearly had his favorites this year, but Harris was one of them because he offered a well-rounded game for a retooling team that needed a starter they felt they could rely on.
This team is not going to be in a position anytime soon where they’ll be able to go without solid veteran depth with starting experience. Harris offers that, and he’ll offer it affordably for a team that showed they value what he brings to the table.
The case against re-signing Harris
You would ideally not bring back Harris with the idea that he’s going to be a full-time starter again, because he’d be standing in the way of younger players with more upside.
Most of what I’m going to put in this section is not strictly related to on-field performance so much as the team’s plans and Harris’s injury, but he was beat deep a few times and continued to mix some really impressive hits with a lot of missed tackles. His 14.7% missed tackle rate was the third-highest on the team, behind Jaylinn Hawkins (17.2%) and Dante Fowler (16.3%). Duron Harmon, in comparison, missed under 3% of his tackle opportunities. Harris does a lot of things competently, which is why he was signed in the first place, but ideally the Falcons would be drastically cutting down on the number of tackles they miss in 2022, and Harris has strung together back-to-back seasons where he’s missed a lot.
Budget is an issue, but there’s no question that the Falcons can sign a safety in free agency with a much higher ceiling than Harris, whether that’s Marcus Mayes, Marcus Williams, Terrell Edmunds or even an older option like Devin McCourty. In addition, if the Falcons do add to their safety room via the draft, the
Harris is also coming off a major injury that cost him the final few games of the season, and may or may not be 100% by the time the season rolls around. That’s fine if you’re counting on him ramping up and relying on him for a handful of snaps and 10-20 special teams snaps per game, but if he’s pressed into action as a starter, it’s a very different story.
The verdict: Maybe?
I’m deeply uncertain as to whether Erik Harris, Duron Harmon, or both will return to Atlanta in 2022, probably less certain than I am with any other free agents. Both had their moments in 2021, with Harris performing better earlier in the year and Harmon coming on strong at the end. With the Falcons having Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins on hand, with Shawn Williams getting time down the stretch and looking like an affordable re-signing, and with an opportunity to draft some of the top safeties in this class, it’s just not clear to me whether the Falcons will feel they need either veteran back in Atlanta for 2022.
There’s very little downside to signing Harris for the veteran minimum again, because you know if healthy he is a terrific veteran reserve who can start in a pinch for as long as you need him to. The Falcons had an abysmal defense, though, and should obviously be looking to upgrade at multiple spots. Safety is among them.
My hunch would be Harmon will return and Harris will not, but that’s not based on anything concrete, just Harmon’s late season rise and the fact that Harris is coming off an injury. Once healthy, Harris will provide some team with a veteran presence and the ability to plug in as a starter when called upon. It’s just not at all clear whether it’ll be the Falcons.