Chris Harris, Jr didn't hear his name called on draft day, 2011. As a 5'10, 200lb defensive back from the University of Kansas, NFL teams didn't quite know what to make of him. Was he a cornerback? Or was he a safety?
This ambiguous classification led to every single team in the league, including the Denver Broncos, passing on him in the draft. However, Harris was obviously on the Broncos radar, as they signed him after the draft to come compete in organized team activites and training camp.
Harris immediately began to set himself apart from the competition in camp and eventually found himself a member of the Broncos final 53-man roster. He has not looked back.
Now in his 4th season, Harris is playing in a contract year. As a restricted free agent (RFA), just this past spring, the Broncos tendered him at the second round level, meaning that any team could offer to sign Harris, but there would be two conditions.
First, the Broncos would get the opportunity to match, or exceed, the offer. Second, if the Broncos chose not to match the offer, the team signing Harris would have to relinquish a second round pick to the Broncos.
In the end, Harris signed his RFA tender, which guaranteed him $2.187M for 2014. In his first three seasons, he was a revelation, and aside from Von Miller, arguably the team's best defensive player.
Whether it's because he's in a contract year, or just the natural evolution of Harris as a cornerback, he has taken his play to the next level this year. On the season, he has played 514 defensive snaps, an impressive feat for a guy who partially tore his ACL this past January.
He initially cracked the Broncos first team defense as their nickel corner. It didn't take him long to become the NFL's best slot cover artist. But the Broncos have relied on him to lock down the outside, more often than not, in 2014.
Harris has been targeted in coverage 45 times, allowing only 22 to be completed. This has resulted in just 185 net passing yards against him and zero touchdowns. That's an average of only 23.1 yards per game.
Quarterbacks who target Harris in coverage have collectively earned a paltry 41.4 rating (QBR). This is elite-level production and it has earned him a cumulative grade of +11.8 via ProFootballFocus, third highest in the NFL (his grade would be higher, but he didn't have a great game last Sunday). He has 11 passes defensed and 2 interceptions, to go along with 26 tackles.
“When they come to Denver, it’s going to be a different game. Plain and simple.”
Most of the media focus and speculation has been on the Broncos contract negotiations with Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas. Demaryius should be the Broncos top offensive priority in free agency. But their second should be Harris.
On the season, the Broncos have given up an average of 254 passing yards per game, good for 14th in the league. Much of that production can be attributed to the Broncos often protecting multiple-score leads, which render the opposing offense one-dimensional, forcing them to throw. Nevertheless, they're a statistically average passing defense.
Now imagine them without Harris. Most members of Broncos Country shudder to think. Forget playing at a Pro Bowl level, Harris is playing at an All-Pro level and if John Elway is wise, he'll get Harris locked up long-term before he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
The Broncos are paying Aqib Talib $9.5M per year. Harris' worth on the open market will be very close to the same. If you can find $20M per year for your quarterback, surely you can justify paying $20M to have two of the NFL's best cornerbacks.
I don't envy Elway and his cap wizard, Michael Sullivan. The Broncos have drafted well under Elway. Some of those chickens are coming home to roost. The team will have to make some tough decisions, as many of their young players finish out their rookie deals. But they'd be crazy not to extend Harris, even if it means letting Julius Thomas go.