John Crist: When Chris Harris originally went from the Windy City to Tobacco Road, he was considered a solid starting safety but unspectacular in every fashion. All of a sudden, he blossomed as a Panther and topped the league in forced fumbles in 2007. Were the Bears simply employing him improperly all along?
Michael Lombardo: I think it was a matter of opportunity. Sometimes, players can't demonstrate their ability without a proper platform. When Harris was originally traded to Carolina in 2007, the Bears already had Mike Brown and Adam Archuleta at safety, so Harris' impact was going to be muted.
The Panthers probably did a better job of putting Harris in position to be successful. He was utilized near the line of scrimmage more often, which helped him lead the league in forced fumbles, and allowed to rely on his instincts in a less rigid defensive scheme. But overall, I think the increased opportunity is what yielded the increased production.
This seems to be the week of do-overs in the NFL. First, Bryant McFadden is traded from the Cardinals back to the Steelers. Then, Harris is traded from the Panthers back to the Bears. Is this the Bears admitting they undervalued Harris when they shipped him off the first time? Or is their safety situation just worse off now than it was back then?
JC: I think this has less to do with the Bears admitting a mistake – this regime simply doesn't do that – and more to do with a desperate need at both safety positions, as all the free and strong safeties combined to produce a grand total of one interception last season. It's not like the Bears suddenly believe his departure is the reason whey their defense has slumped back to the middle of the pack, as opposed to the top-five unit it used to be when Harris was around in 2005-06. However, the fact that he knows the scheme, knows the locker room and knows the city makes it easier to plug him back into the lineup right away.
Dumping Harris looked particularly bad for Chicago since he was essentially moved to make room for Archuleta, who was a complete disaster for one season and out of the league entirely shortly thereafter.
It's been three years since Harris was a Bear, and Thomas Wolfe didn't write a novel called "You Can't Go Home Again" for nothing. Is he still the same safety that did so well in 2007, or has he already reached his ceiling and likely to disappoint in Chicago the second time around?
ML: The Panthers believe Harris, 27, started to decline last season. He did intercept three passes, matching a career high he set as a rookie with the Bears back in 2005, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Teams began to expose his weaknesses in coverage. Also, he forced fewer turnovers in 2008-09 combined than he did during that impressive 2007 campaign.
Harris can still be successful, if deployed the right way. If used near the line of scrimmage and protected in space, he can give you 75 total tackles and a handful of turnovers. He doesn't deliver dynamic plays like the game's elite safeties, but the Bears know that as well as anybody.
It's kind of like breaking up with a really attractive girlfriend because you're so convinced you can do better. Then you see her with some other guy and think, Damn, what was I thinking? So you trade a backup linebacker to get her back.
Player-for-player trades are a rarity in the NFL. So are any swaps that happen just after the draft, rather than before or during the event. Because of that, is it safe to assume this trade was "Plan B" for both teams? Why do you think this Harris-for-Jamar Williams deal went down the peculiar way that it did?
JC: First of all, Williams didn't sign his tender offer until Apr. 21, the day before Round 1, so even though the likely plan was to trade him all along, there was a small window of opportunity to do so. Both coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo have talked very candidly all offseason long that they had to get better at safety, which led to the selection of Florida's Major Wright at No. 75 overall in Round 3 – their top pick in the draft. Recent draftees Danieal Manning (2006), Kevin Payne (2007), Craig Steltz (2008) and Al Afalava (2009) have all disappointed to some degree, so none of them warranted a spot in the starting lineup opposite Wright.
Williams is a good player and had value as a backup linebacker, but he couldn't help but be expendable with Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa in town, plus Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach have extensive starting experience.
While Harris was a leader in the locker room and a fan favorite, rumors are swirling that the Panthers were anxious to get rid of him. Perhaps his contract extension had something to do with it. Additionally, I hear he got into hot water with the organization because of his Twitter activity. True?
ML: Harris talks a little too freely on his Twitter page, as evidenced by the fact that he used the social-networking phenomenon to break news of this trade in the first place. And while the Panthers have a history of shipping off players who shine the spotlight on themselves, I don't believe that was the case here.
Carolina is undergoing a massive youth movement this offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Harris is the fifth defensive starter who will not return next season. Plus, the Panthers have some young safeties they are eager to get out onto the field. Second-year pro Sherrod Martin will supplant Harris in the starting lineup. Free-agent acquisition Aaron Francisco and sixth-round pick Jordan Pugh will also be in the mix.
Was Williams known to be on the outs in Chicago? What was his projected role for the new season, and do you anticipate him filling in the same capacity in Carolina?
JC: It's not like the Bears were dying to get rid of Williams, because if that were the case, they wouldn't have bothered to place an original-round tender on him that guaranteed $1.176 million. On defense, he's versatile enough to be a quality backup at all three positions in a 4-3, and he is a very good fit on the weak side from a skill-set perspective because he's fast and a sound tackler – he had 18 tackles in one game against the Rams last season subbing for a banged-up Briggs. And then on special teams, I can all but promise you that he will be one of Carolina's best performers on the coverage units right away.
While I can't speak intelligently about the Panthers and their depth chart at linebacker, I've always felt Williams has the tools to be a starter in the NFL. He was never going to get that opportunity in Chicago, not with Briggs in front of him. But when Briggs was a free agent in 2008 and his exit seemed imminent, in-the-know Bears fans would have been fine with that because Williams looked like a suitable replacement.
Williams is also a smart young man, a team-first player and quite media-friendly, so Panthers fans will like him.
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Trade Analysis: Harris for Williams
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