You may not have noticed it, but there was more to the 2011 Denver Broncos than a certain polarizing quarterback, who shall remain nameless. No, the Broncos of last year were built on a creative offensive game plan that flattered a sub-standard running game, and a defense that had enough talent, and made enough plays, to keep it tight.
It was a formula that worked well enough to get them to the playoffs, but with Peyton Manning now taking over at the quarterback spot, things are changing. If his time in Indianapolis has taught us anything it’s that we won’t be seeing an option offense, and the Broncos won’t find themselves playing catch-up quite so often. Last year they spent 57.34% of plays with at least five defensive backs on the field. As teams try to go toe-to-toe with a legitimate quarterback, it’s hard to see that number dropping.
The good news for Denver is that the player currently listed as their fifth defensive back, the man who will typically line up in the slot, looks like a good one. I am of course referring to Chris Harris, our Denver Broncos Secret Superstar.
Undrafted, Unwanted, Unperturbed
The NFL lockout that made season 2011 so difficult for that year’s incoming draft class offered even greater hurdles to hopefuls such as Harris who went undrafted. The former starting cornerback for the University of Kansas had to spend his summer waiting for the lockout to end before he could get to work, not knowing which team would make a move for him. With the lockout over, he found himself with the Denver Broncos, and facing an uphill task to make the final roster.
Harris did make the roster, and proved himself a contributor from Week 1 on special teams. While it was an achievement to make the roster, we wouldn’t be calling Harris a secret superstar just for his work on special teams. No, Harris was soon able to force his way into the lineup as the team’s primary slot cornerback. Week 7 proved a pivotal moment in the career of the undrafted free agent.
Former Patriot Jonathan Wilhite was enduring something of an unspectacular start to the 2011 season for Denver. He was giving up some receptions without generally being too much of a liability. That changed in Week 7 when he was targeted relentlessly, and was the man in primary coverage on 13 of 32 Miami pass attempts, giving up half (11) of all the completions the Dolphins picked up. It earned him a benching and Harris an opportunity. The undrafted man responded by, allowing no completions on two targets and making an athletic pass break-up that earned inspired more confidence than had ever been invested in the man ahead of him on the depth chart. Wilhite managed just 46 more snaps the remainder of the season as Harris set about making the position his own.
A few days ago I wrote about Brice McCain of the Houston Texans and his ability as a slot cornerback. A lot of what was said in that article holds true for Chris Harris. Playing in the slot requires a special skill set that isn’t just comparable to playing outside, but (in some ways) more complete. You might not be tracking a team’s top receiver, but you’ve got your hands full with myriad problems. You’ve got to deal with a two-way-go, accept larger responsibilities in run defense, and often work your way through a congested middle of the field. NFL teams are catching onto the mismatch (31.4% of all wide receiver yardage came from the slot in 2011) so finding guys who can hold up in this area is turning into something of a priority in a league where 52.17% of plays have at least five defensive backs on the field.
It’s a tricky position to fill, and it’s even trickier for a rookie who joined the club just six weeks before the start of the season. All this makes how Harris played all the more remarkable. There were some rough moments (he graded negatively in coverage three times, most notably in the divisional playoff against New England), but on the whole he stood up to the challenge of playing a demanding position with little preparation. He finished the regular season with our 11th highest overall coverage grade, aided by intercepting one pass, breaking-up five others and giving up just one touchdown. He gave an glimpse of his talent against the Chiefs in Week 10, by matching up with the hard to handle Steve Breaston in the slot and, outside of one 17 yard completion, doing a very good job in limiting him to 30 total yards on five targets while breaking up a pass.
While Harris did grade positively and does look like an undrafted steal, if he’s going to live up to the tag of secret superstar he will need to become more consistent. There were mistakes that you could generously attribute to his being a rookie, but next year he’ll need to cut these out. We’ve seen enough sophomore slumps to offer a warning that things can get harder when teams have more NFL tape on you and get a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses.
If Harris can continue the development he showed as a rookie then the Broncos have found themselves the type of player who can handle one of the trickiest positions in the NFL. That would make the overlooked and undrafted Chris Harris a secret superstar.