Broncography: Chris Harris

Pro Football Weekly’s All-Rookie Team came out this past week. Everyone knew that Von Miller would be on it. What people didn’t expect was that undrafted nickelback Chris Harris would be joining him. I’ve talked a lot about Miller, so I’ll pass for today - but what do you know about Chris Harris, other than his coming out of ‘nowhere’ and nailing down the starting nickel corner position after ripping it out of the hands of veteran Jonathan Wilhite?

The Broncos not only went from 4-12 to 8-8 and from the bottom of the division to the top this season, but they had a lot of players who got some well-deserved recognition for their play at season’s end. There have been no shortage of awards and compliments, and it’s been a while since that’s been true. The one that I got the most enjoyment from is probably the one that no one saw coming, and that was Harris' honor. A supposedly too-short (at 5’9 and a quarter inch but 192 chiseled lb.) cornerback who has been talked about as a free safety out of Kansas, even a brief glance through his college record makes the fact that the Combine overlooked him even stranger.

From TJ last week:

What we know--Broncos nickel back Chris Harris made Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie Team, along with fellow Bronco, Von Miller.

What we don't know--how 32 teams passed Harris over for seven rounds in the draft last year.

Perhaps it's due to the fact that Harris is five feet, nine inches tall.  Perhaps it's because he didn't play in the SEC.  Perhaps it's because this guy had him as the 48th best cornerback coming out.  Whatever the reason, it just goes to prove that nobody knows anything when it comes to the NFL draft, a league where 1st-round picks bust with regularity and undrafted free agents are named Defensive Player of the Year.

TJ, as usual, nailed it. The more time I put into researching Harris, the more shocked I became that he flew under the radar.

High School

Despite the impression folks have, Harris really didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s one of the things that makes his Combine and draft snubs all the more perplexing.

Chris was born and grew up in Bixby, Oklahoma as the son of and Lisa and Chris Harris, Sr.; he has two sisters and went to high school there in his hometown. CBS Sports ran a brief list of his accomplishments, and they beg the question of why he wasn’t better known. To make this simple, here’s a sample of just his HS achievements:

Named all-state at defensive back as well as District Player of the Year as a senior after helping the Spartans to the district title in 2006 … A first-team all-metro selection after his junior and senior seasons … Earned honorable-mention all-state honors as a junior … Collected 61 total tackles, four interceptions and seven pass break-ups in 2006 … Had 23 receptions for 839 yards during his senior campaign … Helped BHS to second place in the 2005 state football championship … Earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track … Coached in football by Pat McGrew … A member of the academic state champions team in 2005 and 2006 … Named a 2006 leader (top 50 students at Bixby) by the Bixby Optimist Club

Well, that last one obviously isn’t a stretch - he’s as optimistic as anyone you’ll meet. His intellect is also matched by his intensity, his work ethic, his belief in himself and his natural skill, all of which have made it possible. So far, it looks like the path that a lot of similarly talented players generally follow through the Combine and onto a team. Harris took a different route.

College

It’s not like Kansas is a true small-town college with no major football program. Harris came there as a true freshman in 2006, redshirted and began his college career in 2007. He started his career memorably by posting nine tackles in his first game of the season. He would also start 10 games that year, beginning at nickelback and then moving to right corner. He had back-to-back double-digit tackle games before finishing the season third on the team with 65 tackles. It got the coaches' attention.

He followed that in 2008, a year in which the secondary was re-shuffled: this time he started out at cornerback and then moved back to nickel, his natural position. It’s true that he’s only 5’9.25 inches and 190 lb, but that doesn’t measure heart, talent or skill. Ever versatile, he started the first game of 2009 at nickel again and then spent the rest of the year at right cornerback, racking up 84 tackles. When your corners or safeties are making that many tackles, your guys up front usually aren’t getting it done, and that may have played into overlooking him; the Jayhawks weren’t known for their defense. There was more to it, though - he also had 6.5 tackles for loss, so he was active in the run game as well. He played both positions as a senior as well, and was a vocal leader on the Jayhawks defense. He was also extremely durable, and played through pain regarding whatever injuries he did have.

While Chris didn’t get invited to Combine (and while college numbers are notably inaccurate), Harris has been timed at 4.42 in the 40, and he plays like it as well. Probably as a nod to his toughness, a lot of sites carried him as a free safety rather than a cornerback (a position he never played in college and isn’t listed at in HS) which probably played into the confusion that seemed to center around him, predraft. Who was he? Was he a corner or a safety? Did he want to change positions? (No) He was listed as the 30th of 83 free safeties by NFLDraftScout.com. They weren’t the only site to say that he had no chance of being picked up unless he was interested in moving to free safety. I’m not sure that he couldn’t handle that position well, to be honest, but given the modern passing attack, nickelbacks are a treasured quantity in the NFL. I doubt Denver will move him.

His Broncos Start

Someone asked Champ Bailey when he became aware that Harris could contribute to the defense. Bailey didn’t hesitate:

Training camp. You could just tell by the way he competes.

Brian Xanders followed suit on the same question:

Immediately the first day, he flashed toughness, competitiveness, finishing effort, feistiness, special teams play. He did a great job of creating his role on this team.

That’s what they found out about him in Kansas, too. He was never outworked in practice, the weight or the film room. He was incessant about preparation and he was a constant bright light in a defense that struggled during chunks of the time he was there. That can carry over, and players from schools with struggling teams can easily be overlooked by NFL scouts who, being human, tend to group their players together. But Dennis Allen succinctly covered the circumstance:

He comes and competes every day. When you do that, as long as you’re above the line athletically—which obviously he is—you’re going to have a chance to play.

He’s made the most of it.

His Play

Folks may remember that Harris, who was already playing well on special teams for Denver, (where he would go on to six solo tackles and an assist for the season) was inserted into the lineup in Week 4 when Denver, and especially Cassius Vaughn, were being royally toasted by Green Bay’s take-no-prisoners offense. His first play was a stretch run by James Starks, and Harris came up, read the play and followed it perfectly, making the stop for only a yard’s gain. He had as his first target the unenviable combination of Aaron Rodgers throwing to Greg Jennings on the outside in the red zone. Harris read the play perfectly, though; while Jennings made the catch, Harris immediately took him down.

He was put in again against Miami in Week 7, and his diving pass defense against Davone Bess in overtime helped to secure a Broncos victory (he ended with two pass defenses in OT). The Broncos gave up on Jonathan Wilhite at that point, minimized Cassius Vaughn’s play and gave the nickelback job to Chris. He repaid that with a solid performance typical of much higher-rated players. In fact, Seattle's Richard Sherman, according to PFF, was the only CB from the class of 2011 that was more productive than Harris. Sherman’s completion rate was far superior, but Harris had 30 completions for 340 yards against him, while Sherman had 32 completions for 403 yards. Clearly, there’s the impact of the fact that Harris is ensconced at nickelback, not running the sidelines, so the comparison isn’t exact. But it does gives you an idea of Harris’ worth to the Broncos.

After his work against the Dolphins, John Fox was quoted as saying,

He's proved that to us over time as far as his competitive nature on the field and his work ethic to get better every day, and he has. He's starting to reap some of those benefits.

As far as Harris’ UDFA status?

In this profession you're not prejudiced. You're not where you're drafted, how much money you make. You just notice guys that make plays, and he's done that.

He kept on giving his best, all season long. He got burned as a rookie, too - but that’s how every rookie learns. Most CBs take a couple of years to develop. He’s doing things in one year that many drafted much higher struggle to achieve in two or three. He only had two penalties over his snaps in the 2011 season.

2011 Accomplishments

The official site ran a short synopsis of what Harris has achieved during the season. It’s a great reminder of all the ways that a lesser-known player can have an immediate impact on the games, including leading the team in ST tackles during both of his first two games. Here’s what they had:

2011 Season Highlights:

  • vs. Cincinnati (9/18): Led the team with two special teams tackles.
  • at Tennessee (9/25): Led the team with two special teams tackles for the second consecutive week.
  • at Green Bay (10/2): Saw action on the defense for the first time and recorded four tackles.
  • at Miami (10/23): Led the team with two special teams tackles for the third time this season and recorded the only two pass breakups by the team which were both in overtime.
  • vs. Detroit (10/30): Led the team with nine tackles (six solo) in his NFL starting debut
  • at Oakland (11/6): Led the team for the second consecutive week with 11 tackles (nine solo) and added a pass breakup... His 11 tackles tied for the fifth most by a cornerback in team history according to press box totals and tied for the 11th most by an undrafted cornerback in league history... Had his first career interception in his second straight start... His interception of Raiders QB Carson Palmer with Denver down by seven
  • points in the third quarter led to a Willis McGahee 60-yard game-tying
  • touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage.
  • at Kansas City (11/13): His eight tackles tied for second most on the team... He also finished had a pass breakup and a QB hit.
  • at Minnesota (12/4): Had a QB hit in Minnesota’s first offensive drive of the game.
  • vs. Chicago (12/11): Recorded a pass breakup that forced an incomplete pass on a third down in the second quarter by Bears QB Caleb Hanie that forced Chicago to punt the ball away.
  • vs. New England (12/18): Logged his fourth start and led the team with nine solo tackles including a tackle for loss as he stopped Patriots RB Stevan Ridley in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-3.
  • at Buffalo (12/24): Had a team high eight tackles (seven solo).

I’m adding to it his achievement of making PFW's All-Rookie Team. Congratulations to him - he earned it.

That collection of accomplishments would be an impressive year’s contribution for a lot of veterans. For those who concern themselves with Harris’ ability to handle the run at his smaller size, it’s worth noting that he had 16 defensive stops in run support over 331 snaps - and 25 stops total. Only one other cornerback in the NFL had better numbers in that area, and that was Antoine Winfield.

Harris is an impressive young player who looks to have a very bright future with the Broncos. Given the importance of nickel and dime packages in the NFL, having a bright young light jump up at nickelback when the team was struggling was perfect timing. One thing to work on - Harris did miss five tackles over his 573 snaps. On the other hand, that’s 1% and he made 72 solo tackles (according to PFF, including playoffs). Those are very good numbers for a rookie who can clearly stop the run as well as handle the nickel.

By the way - the Broncos missed 104 tackles this year, according to PFF. Joe Mays, as much as I love him as a player, missed 21 of those. In the modern game, the nickelback is one of the key pieces of creating a stronger middle for the defense, a fact that’s often missed when talking about the game. The more obvious one is the MLB. Whether 2011 third-rounder Nate Irving steps up or whether the Broncos bring in another option (Luke Kuechly from Boston College should be on the board for Denver in the first round), a top-tackling MLB that also supports the middle is essential. D.J. Williams also missed on 10 tackles (as did Champ Bailey in an unusual season). In shortened playing time, but usually in centerfield, Rahim Moore missed 11. Tackling fundamentals are essential, and guarding the center from the DL to the FS is one of the keys to a strong D.

Conclusion

Every year I make a point of writing up some of the UDFA/PS players for Denver. Every year there will be comments on the threads that follow about how we need to get real, that these guys won’t make the team and on the minuscule chances such players have to make an impact. You know what? They’re right - but on which ones? I missed out on Harris too, much as I wish I’d written his story earlier, but players like him are why I comb the roster for his kind of story. They’re fun to write because I don’t know anyone in our culture who doesn’t tend to root for the underdog, and I’m the same way. Harris probably was one in a sense, but that was never what was in his mind or his heart. As the starter, as long has he holds that job it’s behind him now. With his level of focus on playing at his own highest level, Harris has impressed the other players, the coaches, the league and even the pundits. Not a bad haul for a guy who couldn’t even pull a Combine invite.

Congratulations to him - he’s deserved it.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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