I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “There’s no rest for the wicked or the Buffalo Bills once free agency starts.” This year that old gem has certainly been accurate. This time, the Bills are working to shore up their line by signing defensive end Eli Harold. Formerly with the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, Harold has four years of NFL experience at outside linebacker. Don’t let the position fool you, with the systems these teams used Harold was mainly performing the role of an end in Buffalo’s defense. Let’s take a look.
Arguably, this should be the finale. Any time an outside linebacker/defensive end has two offensive lineman wedging him in it should be an easy victory for the offensive players. Now being fair to the 49ers, neither lineman initiated contact perfectly. Still, this is somewhat insane for Eli Harold to just drive through them. Harold’s strength and tenacity are off the charts for this play.
If you look long enough, you’ll find a “wow” play for any player in the NFL. So is Harold consistently strong? Well he did this to Joe Staley all day long. Making this all the more incredible is that Harold is undersized for Buffalo’s defense. Per Pro Football Reference, at 243 lbs he’s about a dozen pounds lighter than Jerry Hughes. It’s closer to 20 compared to Eddie Yarbrough and Trent Murphy. And Shaq Lawson is 24 lbs heavier than Harold. The low point of attack helps, but the power still stands out.
Harold attempts a couple techniques that aren’t “running through guys” on this play with mixed results. The initial quick step to the right shows some promise, but the cut-back and swim move are lacking. What appears to have gone awry is that Harold loses momentum and doesn’t drive into Staley. A swim move is intended to help skirt around an opponent in close quarters. The gap left by Harold allows Staley to keep his upper body and arms clean to follow up after the move.
Harold suffered injuries to his shoulder and hip during the year. Both joints are crucial for generating power. The game against San Francisco came before both injuries. This game against the Los Angeles Rams came after Harold was put back into the lineup following the second injury. It did appear that injuries impacted his game to some degree, as Harold wasn’t winning his shoving contests as often as he did early in the season. As we see here, though, he still had his moments.
We see a similar set of circumstances to Eli Harold’s attempt in Play 3. As above, the actual use of hands seems fine, but the gap Harold leaves between himself and the offensive linemen renders the hand fighting ineffective.
Regular readers have probably seen my assertion that it’s fine for offensive lineman to “lose slowly.” Despite Harold’s strength most offensive linemen are still able to hold him off long enough to be called a “slow loss.” Sometimes this happens though. Harold had four sacks last year on only 183 snaps. That works out to about one every 46 snaps. This was his best year by volume and by far his best year for efficiency.
In the games reviewed, Detroit seemed to want to avoid having Eli Harold in coverage. The 49ers weren’t so shy and asked him to work on shorter/medium routes like we see here. This is a fairly good representation of how it went on average. The difference in usage likely helps explain the sack-efficiency difference to some degree, but more than likely Harold will not be able to continue at a pace of one sack every 46 snaps.
Eli Harold places his hand to the side of his opponent’s shoulder and tries to shove him aside. When that doesn’t work, some hand-fighting takes place. It’s not until Harold drives forward that he has any progress. Similar to the pair of plays above, by not leaning in to use the hand techniques the offensive lineman can hold their ground and deal with the hands.
Here’s Eli Harold sacking Tom Brady.
Eli Harold has a high ceiling athletically, especially when it comes to strength. Despite his diminutive weight, a healthy Harold routinely shoves back offensive lineman. Harold still seems to be working on hand fighting and more finesse-based approaches, which would help his game-play drastically. With Lawson, Murphy, Yarbrough, and Hughes all ahead of Harold on the depth chart it will be an uphill battle for him to make an impression. On the other hand, Harold can line up on either side of the formation, adding value. Sean McDermott may also see Harold as part of a “big nickel” defense.