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Lions Training Camp Battle: Charles Harris vs James Houston

  • Justin Melo
  • July 26, 2023
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The Detroit Lions are searching for a pass rusher to emerge opposite 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Aidan Hutchinson. Fellow sophomore defender James Houston was a revelation throughout 2022. Houston is now tasked with taking a step toward being a more consistent every-down player. His playing time will be challenged by veteran defensive end Charles Harris.

A sixth-round selection out of Jackson State in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Lions actually waived Houston after the preseason and then signed him back to their practice squad. A string of injuries led to Houston making his professional debut on Thanksgiving He recorded 2.0 sacks and recovered a fumble in just five defensive snaps as a rotational edge rusher in his first game—a shocking preview of what was to come. 

Houston recorded a sack per game in the following three contests. Houston’s consistent efforts culminated with a three-sack performance against the Chicago Bears in a dominant 41-10 victory. All in all, Houston tallied 8.0 sacks despite accumulating just 140 snaps throughout his entire seven-week stint on the active roster.

Expecting Houston to build on that performance is borderline unrealistic, but there’s no denying he possesses the athleticism necessary to develop into a more consistent defender. Houston spent the majority of his collegiate career playing off-ball linebacker due to being undersized at 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds. A position switch to EDGE under Deion Sanders at Jackson State proved to be career-altering.

The Lions must continue tapping into Houston’s game-changing abilities as a pass rusher. That will occur throughout 2023. The real challenge is for Houston to become an every-down defender in base formations as opposed to just a situational pass rusher. In order for Houston to achieve his goals, he must take steps forward as a run-stopping edge-setter and off-ball linebacker, a position that’s eluded him in the past.

On occasion, the Lions utilized five-man fronts against run-heavy offenses in 2022. Houston was a part of that defensive package. It’s a rotational look, however, so displaying an ability to play off-ball linebacker is crucial to Houston’s efforts toward becoming an every-down defender.

Harris poses the biggest threat to Houston’s traditional playing time because he’s an ideal defensive end in base formations. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Harris is a versatile defender that can set the edge and get after quarterbacks. In 2021, Harris recorded a team-high 7.5 sacks and 52 pressures. Harris’ 2022 campaign was derailed by a recurring groin injury that limited him to six appearances. Now back healthy, Harris is eager to reclaim his role opposite Hutchinson.

The Lions are quite deep at EDGE. Harris is Houston’s main competitor, but other talents are jockeying for playing time. Former Kentucky standout Josh Paschal also has designs on showcasing improvement as a sophomore. Romeo Okwara is another year removed from a serious Achilles injury. Okwara hopes to recapture his previous effectiveness. Savvy veteran John Cominsky returns to the Lions after establishing himself as a quality depth piece last season.

Detroit’s defensive front promises to be much improved in 2023. Houston’s development will be crucial to their efforts. Houston’s ability to handle alternative defensive responsibilities will ultimately determine how much playing time he earns. A more seasoned Harris will mix into the lineup.

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Justin Melo