Why Denver can’t afford to let Chris Harris walk via free agency

Nearly halfway though the season, Denver is playing like the champions they intend to be. It’s an amazing privilege to watch Peyton Manning rewrite the record books. The question of the week tends to be what other Broncos played like champs. There’s always a list.

We talk about the importance of the lines, the guys in the trenches, and rightfully so. Terrance Knighton in particular has been a force of nature. It’s good to see Derek Wolfe playing so well after his last season. The secondary has played well. The Broncos have even held on goal line stands.

We can marvel at the kinds of financial choices Denver will face next offseason. They have Emmanuel Sanders locked up, but the Thomases and a slew of others to sign.

Most importantly, we stare in amazement or shout with delight at the way this team is playing. It’s a rare thing to see. Moreover, they’re getting even better.

The defense, in particular, has changed for the better since last year. Creating greater balance was key to the offseason. Denver’s done it again. Players like Brandon Marshall are street free agents until they’re with Denver. Players like DeMarcus Ware and Terrance Knighton have become revitalized. Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward have strengthened the secondary. Each year, at least one undrafted free agent makes the team. Due to a focus on development, low draft picks are turning into stars.

But often of late, people are talking about letting one of the keystones of the franchise walk. I’d like to make a case for what I think is a better approach.

Coaches enjoy friendly arguments about which positions are the most important in building a team. Some positions, like left tackle, have changed over the years. One that hasn’t is cornerback. It’s always high on the list of what positions you’d fill first. John Madden had it ranked second - back in the 1970s.

Chris Harris, as an undrafted free agent, came out of the University of Kansas, where he was a redshirt freshman. In 2007, playing his first game for the Jayhawks, he had nine tackles. He started 10 games that year, both as the right corner and as the nickelback. He had back-to-back games with double-digit tackles. That caught the attention of the coaches.

The secondary was shuffled the next year, but Harris played nickelback and right corner again. In 2009 he had 94 tackles. When your corners are making that many tackles, your guys up front aren’t getting it done. Moreover, Harris had 6.5 tackles for loss, so he had played well against the run. Few other players did, that year.

The Jayhawks had a poor defense other than Harris and a couple of other players. That was a factor in Harris being passed over for the combine. There was also some confusion on whether Harris was a free safety or not. The truth was, he’s never played that position. It was just someone’s paperwork mistake. But in the end, Harris had to come out as a CFA. Denver was glad to give him a shot. Once he got on the field, they didn’t want to take him off it.

Champ Bailey was asked when he knew Harris was for real. “Training camp,” Bailey said. “You could just tell by the way he competes.” He still competes like that. He also inspires the players around him. Harris has a serious minded, try-and-beat-me attitude while he’s on the field. It’s infectious.

Fast forward a few seasons, and Harris is one of the cornerstones of the Denver defense. He’s played on the edge - usually on the right, but he’s played both sides. He’s played in the middle. Everything he’s done, he’s done well. After Harris’s rookie year, TJ wrote,

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.

Harris is a linebacker in a corner's body. He’s a 5’10”, 199 lb slab of chiseled Rocky Mountain granite. He’s a hard-hitting player who likes to get physical. He can reach around and tap away a pass without touching the receiver, ala Champ. In a league where the pass is king, Harris is a kingslayer. There aren’t many. Denver has Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in addition to Harris. None will come cheap. All are worth it. We’re seeing that right now. Here’s how:

The defense always wants to turn the opponent one-dimensional by stopping the run. When you do, you can let the hounds loose on the quarterback. The only potential downside is that you have to be able to keep coverage on all the wideouts and tight ends while you chase the quarterback. If you don’t, the outlet routes will kill you.

Right now, Denver has the cornerbacks to handle the higher number of receivers and tight ends that a one dimensional offense brings. Empty backfields mean that your coverage is going to be stretched thinly. That’s a big reason that stopping the opponents is working so well. When Harris was injured last season, it may have been the biggest loss to Denver that year. You could see how it affected the Super Bowl. Harris is a big part of what makes this defense so insolvable. If you lose him, you lose that edge.

After 2014, his contract will be up. Cornerbacks aren’t cheap, and Harris will cost the Broncos. On the other hand, truly skilled corners are as rare as hen’s teeth. Denver managed to pay Champ Bailey for all those years. They need to find the same money for Harris. He’s the second highest rated defensive player on the team, according to PFF. Von Miller is #1.

Why the importance of paying Harris? Look at his stats from this year, since he improves yearly. He’s only allowed 16 receptions on 38 targets. That’s a 42.1% completion rate, which is incredibly low. Opposing QBs have a cumulative rating of 30.4 against him. He’s contributed 22 tackles, 20 of them solo. This is not a player you let get away. Heaven help the Broncos if a divisional rival picks him up.

As Andrew Mason points out in his video mailbag, Harris is going to draw a lot of interest and a lot of money if he hits the market. Denver would be a lot better off knowing that Harris, Roby, and Talib will continue to patrol the secondary for the next few years.

It’s a passing league. You put your money into creating a passing offense and a balanced defense. You need talented, hostile, fast players to adapt to whatever your opponent tries. Chris can handle all of it. Few players can.

Denver does have some excellent linebackers who are fairly inexpensive. Players like Brandon Marshall, Corey Nelson, and Lerentee McCray help keep the money in balance. They are a bit smaller and faster than many linebackers. They’re more skilled in coverage than many linebackers are, too. That’s good. Against a tight end, one back, and three wideouts, it will take five or six players in coverage if you blitz. Sending five at the QB means using at least three corners in coverage. Del Rio has talked of the importance of having four dependable corners for similar situations.

I believe that Kayvon Webster can develop, but he is still something of a target. Tony Carter can’t even get on the field. T.J. Ward isn’t that strong in coverage.

Next spring, granted, Denver should have compensatory picks plus their usual allotment. They can take a corner early, but they also need to fix the offensive line for a reasonable cost. Michael Schofield will help at right tackle or left guard if Orlando Franklin leaves, but it’s still an unsettled situation.

What isn’t unsettled is that the odds of finding another Chris Harris are poor. They’re practically nonexistent.

I’m not blue-skying what the cornerbacks will cost nor who else needs their payday. What I’m concerned with is what it could cost the team to not spend what it takes. There’s a place for another Lombardi Trophy or three at Dove Valley. A top secondary is essential to getting there.

Chris and his wife, Leah, just had a baby girl, to whom they gave the beautiful name of Aria. Leah’s pregnancy was on Chris's mind in the first half of the San Diego game. At halftime he gave himself a talking to about focusing and making a play. Three plays into the second half, he intercepted Philip Rivers.

Harris is just that good. On the interception, Harris knew that Keenan Allen likes dig routes. Chris always does his film work, so he was familiar with the tendency. He'd seen that play run from that formation. He used that knowledge to get into optimal positioning and jumped the route perfectly. That’s typical work from him. He understands both the physical and the cognitive. He hasn’t give up a touchdown all year.

If Denver wants to maintain their status as one of the top teams in the NFL, Harris is a key component. The front office might even want to nail down his contract before taking on the slew of other free agents. Peyton Manning, the Thomases, and Franklin may be the only players that have the impact that Harris does. You have to find a way to keep those kinds of players.

I hope they do.

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

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