Over the past 48 hours, it’s clear the Minnesota Vikings would like to improve the middle of their defensive line. After a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to acquire P.J. Hall fell through, the Vikings have limited options to repair a defense that got obliterated twice (once by the San Francisco 49ers offense and once Michael Pierce‘s decision to opt-out for 2020) in the past seven months.
A popular name to help fill that hole is free agent Damon “Snacks” Harrison. After a stellar showing in New York and an off-year in 2019, it’s fair to wonder if the 31-year old has enough left in the tank to help the Vikings defense. In reality, the Vikings should be hungry to add the 353-pound nose tackle.
What Happened in 2019?
When the Detroit Lions traded for Harrison midway through the 2018 season, it seemed like a missing piece to their defense. With fellow defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, Matt Patricia felt he had the answer to shutting down opponents running game. For the final nine games of that season, the Lions were dead-on in their assessment.
Harrison was already having a solid season in New York when he arrived in Detroit but turned things up a notch once he showed up. As someone who is known for stuffing the run, Harrison lived up to the hype and then some, seeing spikes in several categories per Pro Football Focus.
|2018 w/ Giants (8 games)
|2018 w/ Lions (9 games)
|Overall Defense Grade
|Run Stop %
|Total Run Stops
In part of Harrison’s presence, the Lions ranked in the top-10 in total defense and run defense in 2018. While it didn’t help the Lions win more games, they were at least able to stay competitive in games despite finishing with a 6-10 record and a building block toward 2019.
But that didn’t happen in large part because Harrison’s play tailed off drastically. His overall grade slipped to 64th in the league (63.2) while his run-stop percentage fell to 9.3%, 18th among qualifying tackles. With pass-rushing never being part of his game, his 1.7 pass rusher productivity rating was almost half of the 3.2 PRP rating he put up in 2018 and found itself closer to Shamar Stephen than anyone would like.
For a player that will turn 32 this November, this was chalked up to old age in the same way the Vikings showed Linval Joseph the door this past offseason. However, it could have been for something much different.
Speaking on Chris Long’s “Green Light” podcast, Harrison revealed that a lot of his performance was because he wanted to get out of Detroit by any means necessary:
“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t want to go to Detroit because of some things that I heard from some guys in the past and some guys who were there,” Harrison said on the podcast. “So when I got the call that that’s where I was traded, I didn’t answer the phone for a couple hours. [Lions general manager] Bob Quinn was calling me, and I didn’t pick up the phone because I was trying to figure out a way to get out of it.”
Of course, the initial reluctance produced one of the best stretches in the NFL from the nose tackle position in 2018, but things intensified when Harrison met Patricia and went into his full first offseason with the Lions:
“I wasn’t prepared for the season mentally…I came into camp in shape, but during the first three weeks of camp I think I kind of worked myself out of shape because I wasn’t doing anything. That was a time where, to be honest with you, we were trying to facilitate a trade. I was hell-bent on getting out of there.”
Harrison isn’t the first former Lion to want to shove Patricia’s pencil somewhere other than the pencil sharpener on his desk, but it makes a point. When the Lions acquired Harrison, he was already in full season mode and was probably looking to finish it strong even if it was in Detroit. Once he got into the offseason, he had the same motivation to get ready for the season as I had going back to my super senior year of college. The results just weren’t top-shelf.
Why The Vikings Need Harrison
Without taking the situation into effect, Harrison looks a lot like Joseph. As an aging player that saw a dip in his performance, it would make sense if the Vikings didn’t want to go down that road even for one year. However, Harrison has a better track record than Joseph and can help this team.
In the current glut of defensive lineman, there isn’t a true nose tackle who can push the pile like prime-Joseph or even Pierce can. Although the Vikings could toy with the idea of moving Stephen to nose tackle, his run stop rate (6.7%) doesn’t show a player who can find his way into the backfield often, which is one of the key reasons why Stephen didn’t produce much statistically in 2019.
Even if Harrison is a shell of what he was in his age-32 season, it’s still a massive upgrade over both what Stephen can provide and what Joseph provided last year. As a guy that can use his size and strength to penetrate the opposing offensive line, Harrison could make the Vikings job at 3-tech much easier no matter who is filling that role.
Plus, money shouldn’t be an issue when deciding to bring Harrison aboard. With the recent decision that all prorated bonuses and salary are cleared off the books in the 2020 salary cap, the Vikings gained $5 million in salary-cap space this season. That money could be used on extending Dalvin Cook or Anthony Harris, but the protection of not getting ran over in a NFC playoff game should be enough to upgrade one of their biggest needs on the roster (outside of guard, of course).
If Harrison is motivated and feels like he can help the Vikings, this is a move that should be made instantly. If not, the Vikings will have to hope one of their big defensive lineman can learn a crash course in stopping the run.