We're well into the 2015 offseason now, with the draft quickly approaching. But I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Chris Harris Jr. on his special 2014 campaign. Among other things, Chris won a place on the AP’s All-Pro second team and PFF’s All-Pro first team. That adds to his Pro Bowl status. Rarely has a player deserved an honor more.
The undrafted fourth-year defensive back out of Kansas played 1,004 snaps in the 2014 regular season. He allowed 46 receptions on 89 targets for 356 yards and did not give up a single touchdown. He stole three interceptions, permitting a 47.8 opposing quarterback rating, per Pro Football Focus' metrics. He had 54 tackles, 50 of them solo.
Among corners who played at least 50% of their team's defensive snaps, only Indianapolis' Vontae Davis (38.8) had a lower overall passer rating.
In the slot, Harris was by far the league's best. He allowed 20 catches on 32 targets for 143 yards. He permitted no touchdowns, grabbed an interception, and allowed a league-leading 59.8 opposing quarterback rating. Green Bay's Casey Heyward and Pittsburgh's Brice McCain tied for a distant second in opposing quarterback rating in the slot, at 70.5.
A lot of cornerbacks are uncomfortable moving either inside or outside. In Chris, the Broncos have two cornerbacks in one; he's only uncomfortable if you try to take him off the field.
Chris has allowed just one passing touchdown in total over the past two seasons. He has been one of the Broncos' best acquisitions. While they were aggressive about bringing him in as an undrafted rookie four years ago, Harris never wanted to play anywhere else. Draftniks like Mike Mayock describe him as one of the biggest misses that they’ve ever made. I’d agree.
When you consider where he came from and what he's accomplished, it's unique. He was ranked 30th in NFLDraftScout.com's rankings for his position in the 2011 draft class. Oddly, they had him listed as a free safety. He can also play there. John Elway said,
You look at what Chris did last year and one of the things that kind of goes unsung is the fact he’s probably been the fastest guy to ever come back off an ACL. You look at what he did, the time that he spent this offseason, to get healthy and be ready to go, and be ready to start the regular season. I’m not sure anybody has ever come back as fast as he’s come back, so that kind of tells you what kind of guy he is.
It’s what won him the Broncos' Ed Block Courage Award for 2014.
One of Harris's best on-field attributes is his closing speed. It’s what you need to eliminate yards after the catch. The faster you tackle, the less YAC. That’s a crucial skill for any slot corner. They frequently face receivers with openings up the middle on intermediate routes. Enjoying being physical is a necessity. Nickel/slot corners see a lot of runs.
Every player should get what they feel they deserve if someone will pay it. That said, I loved Harris showing the rest of the league how you treat the team with the respect you want from them. It’s the team that took him from undrafted to All-Pro, just as Elway said they would be doing. A lot of those guys wind up on teams where they never get enough reps to show if they can outplay a cabbage. Harris's versatility, his equality of production at slot/nickel, right or left corner is rare enough to be unique in the league. His work ethic is Manning-esque and he's a gentleman in public. In addition to being a monster on the field, I don't recall a single instance where he’s played dirty.
Aqib Talib taught him a lot at Kansas, where they overlapped for a year. Ron Milus taught him a lot when he reached the NFL. Jack Del Rio did the same, perhaps more so. Harris has learned from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, whom he’s surpassed. Cory Undlin and Peyton Manning have worked with him. He's taken advice from Champ Bailey, and Brian Dawkins, among others. Chris has had a who’s who of mentors.
Harris has been fortunate in that respect, but there’s a reason he’s absorbed the information. His own work ethic is incessant. Natural talent can get you on the field. Special teams play can get you noticed by the coaches. Humility, focus, and production will get you the respect of your teammates.
Working through a major injury is different. You’re living in the film room and trying to overstay your welcome at Luke Richesson's domain. Then you’re spending time after practice running endurance sprints. You’re getting players and working on plays after practice with your teammates. It’s a challenge. You can use it as motivation or excuse. It can make a very talented player into an All-Pro. Harris is proving it.
He's on my short list of the NFL's Hard Hat Players. They’re the ones who have a true Rod Smith attitude. Smith still says that he snuck up on his locker daily, peeking to see if his name plate was still on the door. It's apparently not an apocryphal tale. Smith took that attitude to work each day. He knew that someone was just behind him. He knew that man was willing to put in the extra time, practice, and study. It would be someone with a chip on their professional shoulder, a love of the game. Someone who tells their agent that they’re home, professionally, so get the contract out of the way. Someone who sees anything but winning and giving back to the community as pointless distractions.
Chris Harris, Jr. is exactly the kind of player Rod exemplifies. Add his remarkable natural skillset and you’ve got a player who defines the term ‘All-Pro’.
Congratulations to the kind of player who keeps me watching this game.