Chris Harris: Underrated and Elite
Sometimes you just aren’t going to get your due. The NFL often operates around a year behind the times in terms of recognizing a player’s real performance level, but in the case of Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr., even that train has been delayed.
Despite getting a new contract from the Broncos, Harris remains arguably the league’s most underrated and underappreciated player. He remains underpaid. He didn’t even feature on the NFL’s Top 100 list of players as voted for by his peers.
Chris Harris was No. 4 on the PFF Top 101. The list went JJ Watt (enough said?), Aaron Rodgers (the league’s best quarterback), Justin Houston (sacked the QB 23 times), Chris Harris.
That’s the kind of performance Harris put in during the 2014 season, but when you try and compare him to the likes of Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and the other perceived best corners in football you’re met with significant resistance. You’ll even find people telling you Harris isn’t even the top corner on his own team, that Aqib Talib takes that role. Here’s where we run into a problem that needs to be looked at.
The Role Debate
The concept of No. 1, No. 2, etc. is largely outdated in today’s NFL. Calvin Johnson may be a clear No. 1 in Detroit, but who is the Patriots’ No. 1 receiver? Or the Seahawks’? Those two teams contested the Super Bowl. Today’s NFL is about matchups, and often times your ‘best’ player at receiver or corner isn’t the guy you want lining up against the corresponding ‘best’ player.
When the Jets had Revis and Cromartie the first time around, Cromartie would regularly cover the ‘No. 1’ receiver while Revis tracked another all across the field. The Jets didn’t do this because they thought Cromartie was better than Revis, they did it because the No. 1 receiver was typically the vertical threat (where Cromartie is best) while another receiver was more dangerous underneath and isolated in space – where Revis could best neutralize him.
The Broncos take this attitude with Harris and Talib. They don’t just put their best cover guy on the ‘best’ receiver they face, they look to see what their best matchup is.
The idea that Aqib Talib draws the harder assignments for the Broncos is one I’m not buying. If you look through Denver’s season you’ll find Harris covering T.Y. Hilton, Keenan Allen, Jarvis Landry, all arguably the best receiver on their teams.
The Broncos did use Talib to track A.J. Green, but I’m not sold on that being a case of Denver believing Talib is better than Harris, more that they just liked his length better to matchup to that of Green.
What is worth noting though when looking through Harris’ season is the relative dearth of really elite quarterbacks and receivers on his schedule. He certainly faced a few top-level passers and receivers, but not many. That’s hardly surprising coming from a division where you’re facing Oakland and Kansas City four times over the season, but it’s worth putting out there as a minor note on his incredible season.
In the pantheon of top corners across the NFL most of the top guys do something above and beyond the regular cookie cutter role of starting corner. Richard Sherman doesn’t track receivers often, but he is left completely on an island regularly as the Seahawks lean coverage away from him. Something like this:
Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden and Darrelle Revis regularly track or have tracked top receivers all across the field.
Vontae Davis is the interesting exception among top corners because he does neither, and in fact he usually just plays right cornerback, the ‘easier’ side because it is the side traditionally targeted less often by right handed quarterbacks.
Harris may not track the top receiver all the time and he doesn’t get left on the kind of island that Sherman does within the defensive scheme, but what Harris brings to the table is versatility and consistency.
Across the Board
He can play left corner, right corner, slot corner, in man coverage, zone coverage, or against the run, and do it all to an extremely high level, consistently, without giving anything big away. That’s an easy thing to overlook when we get caught up in who you’re covering and how tough your scheme is to play in. Those things are important, but they’re like the frosting on top of a cake – definitely worth considering, but without the cake itself, you’ve just got a bowl of goop.
Harris does the basics of cornerback play as well as anybody in football, and that’s far more important than who he is doing it against. If you find somebody playing at the same high level but doing it against tougher opposition or with a far tougher role in the defensive scheme, than I think you can make the argument that he wins the tie breaker between the two, but the role isn’t enough to overcome the gulf in play between Harris and some of the other perceived top corners.
Harris has given up three touchdowns in three years, none in 2014. Joe Haden has surrendered 16 touchdowns over that same span. Patrick Peterson 21. Both players have arguably a tougher role, but it doesn’t explain those numbers. Yes, Peterson has been battling injuries and illness, but even healthy he has never put together the kind of season Harris just has.
Let’s just scan the numbers:
• Allowed 51.7% completion percentage from his 89 targets
• Was beaten for just 7.7 yards per reception (best mark in NFL)
• Allowed 0 touchdowns all year.
• The longest reception he gave up all year was 22 yards.
• Allowed a passer rating into his coverage of just 47.8
• Posted a PFF coverage grade of +27.2, best mark we have seen outside of Revis in 2009.
The Matter of Size
Part of the reason I think some are reluctant to pass Harris as a ‘No. 1’ corner is because of his size. If Sherman is the new poster-boy for big, long cornerbacks, Harris looks like a small slot corner by comparison. The NFL is back looking for corners that are over six foot tall to combat these huge wide outs that have come along down the years. Harris is just 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. Of course, Revis is only 5-foot-11 and 198, so I’m going to say that the difference in an inch in height and eight pounds in weight isn’t the difference between shutdown and non-viable on the outside.
In fact, when you watch the tape, Harris isn’t struggling for his size, and often wins out against far bigger receivers because he’s in great position and playing with great technique.
Take a look at this play against the Cardinals and Michael Floyd. On this play Harris is going up against a 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver, giving away 35 pounds in weight and a whole lot of length, but it doesn’t matter because he never loses prime position on the pass and is there to swat it away comfortably.
That’s not an isolated, rare play. Harris had 10 passes defensed this year along with his three interceptions. Given he was only targeted 89 times that’s almost 15% of the balls sent his way getting batted away or picked off.
What I particularly love seeing are corners make plays against bubble screens. All too often people think about coverage in terms of down the field or in the intermediate level of the defense, but games can be won and lost a few yards from the line of scrimmage. Think of the Patriots systematically killing the Seahawks with a thousand papercuts in the Super Bowl, picking up short gain after short gain with their quick, small receivers too much for Seattle’s corners to handle.
This is coverage too, though all too often people aren’t interested in including it.
Here Harris quickly reads a wide receiver screen to Anquan Boldin and beats the block of Vernon Davis to marmalize Bolden as soon as he has caught the ball for a loss on the play. It’s a nice play, and all too often that corner is content with just setting the edge and being a non-factor on the play while getting blocked. Harris makes an impact on these plays more than many corners, and it’s just another facet of his game that he excels in.
So what is the bottom line in all of this?
If you looked at cornerback play in the abstract, Chris Harris is playing the best of anybody in the NFL right now. He was the league’s best cover guy in 2014, and did it coming off an ACL injury suffered in the playoffs the year before. That’s staggering. He’s among the league’s more versatile corners, and has no real holes in his game.
The only slight you can throw his way is that there are corners in the league with tougher assignments than he typically gets. Other corners are left on more of an island as the coverage is rolled away from them, other corners are used to track the best opposing receiver with more regularity, and other corners faced a tougher slate of passing combinations than Harris did in 2014.
None of those are Harris’s fault however, and the bottom line is you can only cover what lines up in front of you. Down to down he did that better than anybody. As for how much value the rest of those factors have for cornerbacks – that is the great intangible and unanswered question. Maybe they are enough for me to rank Sherman alongside Harris or even in front of him, but probably not anybody else. Acknowledge those big-picture factors all you want, but don’t use them to dismiss the elite play we’ve seen from Harris, because they just don’t have the juice to get that done.
We are looking at one of the league’s best cornerbacks – get used to it.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam