Aside From Money, There's One Big Deciding Factor on Where Chris Harris, Jr. Signs
In 2019, Chris Harris, Jr. started all 16 games for the 7-9 Denver Broncos. Harris played 638 total snaps in coverage against the pass.
Of all those coverage snaps Harris saw, only 30 of them came from the slot. And that's a problem for him.
After all, Harris built his four-time Pro Bowl career on playing in the slot. He established himself as the preeminent slot corner in the NFL circa 2014 — his fourth year in the league.
The Broncos understood absolutely his expertise in the slot. So why did 95% of his coverage snaps in 2019 come on the outside instead of the slot?
It's simple. Bryce Callahan got hurt. An aspect of the team's grand design in signing Callahan to a three-year, $21 million deal last sping was the versatility in being able to rotate both him and Harris from outside the numbers into the slot.
In theory, it would have given Vic Fangio a phenomenal trump card and it would have resulted in Harris playing significantly more to his strengths in the slot. But when Callahan went down in training camp, never to return to the lineup, and Isaac Yiadom failed to turn the corner as an outside-the-numbers defensive back, it left Fangio and Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell with few options.
Harris is a talent. And he was the only proven cornerback the Broncos had on the roster in 2019. The Broncos could have kept Harris predominantly in the slot regardless of the depth issues at cornerback and rolled the dice. But it was a true Catch 22, especially after the promising emergence of De'Vante Bausby was snuffed out in Week 5.
The fact is, with Harris now poised to become an unrestricted free agent, he'll be in a position to be choosy and make demands. As he cleaned out his locker last week for perhaps the last time as a Bronco, he let everyone in on what is likely to be his biggest demand outside of money.
“Definitely how they’re going to use me," Harris said. "This is my first season not playing the slot. That’s where I know I’m the best in the league in the slot. I’d definitely love to play both. When I’m just playing outside, you only see one aspect of my game. Next year, being able to do both is kind of getting back to normal.”
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Harris wants to get paid. He wants to win. And he wants a return to normalcy.
Every player has a comfort zone and the truth is, Harris has more-than-earned the right to demand his from any NFL team. Considering that Harris played the entire season out of position, is it any wonder he had arguably his worst year as a pro?
Again, it's not like the Broncos didn't want to play Harris to his strengths last season. It was simply a comedy of factors, most of which were outside the team's control, that led to Harris lining up opposite of the opponent's No. 1 wideout and shadowing him around the field.
“Yeah, playing slot here is a big possibility," Harris said with regards to what the future could hold in Denver. "Coach Fangio, they love me in the slot here. They know what I can do here, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources for me to play there this year. I’d go crazy in the slot in this system because they allowed me to do everything. A lot of the defenses, he didn’t call because I wasn’t in there so he couldn’t really call his whole system.”
And there's the rub. Many fans agonized over why the Broncos defense failed to play up to the high expectations of Fangio's schemes of yore. It came down to, as Harris said, the Broncos not "having the [personnel] resources."
All throughout the offseason, after Harris ended his hold-out and before Callahan got hurt, Harris talked about how excited he was to play in Fangio's scheme because the vision Fangio had for Harris didn't require him to take the "hard down" on every snap, like the previous regime had demanded in 2018.
But when Callahan went down, that all went out the window. Fangio had to clip the wings of his scheme, not only because of Callahan, but because Bradley Chubb went down, Bausby went down, Shelby Harris didn't work out at nose tackle, Yiadom didn't develop, and eventually, the Broncos lost their leading sack artist — Derek Wolfe — with still a quarter of the season left to play.
It's a wonder the Broncos were as competitive as they were. That's a credit to Fangio and to the role players who had to step up and bridge a less-than-ideal gap. But the injury bug also led to the emergence of diamonds in the rough like Bausby, as well as LB Alexander Johnson — both of whom figure to fit in big-time to the Broncos' future in 2020 and beyond.
In the offseason, the pieces were in place. But there's no accounting for injuries. That bug is no respecter of persons (or teams) and can strike at any time.
The upshot for the Broncos is this; with year one under his belt, Fangio now has a grasp of what his personnel can and can't do. The team can attack the offseason in pursuit of those defensive pieces that will complete the puzzle, and give Fangio the ammunition he needs to field a defense in the flesh that's on the same level as the scheme itself.
It's as much about the Jimmies and Joes as it is the Xs and Os, although that runs slightly counter to the NFL cliche. Part of the battle will be getting Callahan back and also stanching the exodus of veteran free-agents the Broncos have poised to hit the open market.
Chris Harris, Jr. is arguably the most pressing of those free agents, next to S Justin Simmons. But Simmons is a guy the Broncos will be willing to use the franchise tag on if a long-term deal can't be struck.
Harris wants to come back. But not only does the money have to be right, he wants assurances that he'll be utilized to his strengths.
“I’d love to [come back]," Harris said. "We’re getting the right pieces back—definitely need some more pieces around me to just do what I do. That’s one thing I’m looking at in the offseason. My family loves it here. Of course, my kids growing up here—I grew up here. It’s definitely my first home for sure.”