Chris Harris, Jr. is coming off a forgettable year as a cornerback. Tasked with playing outside on 95% of his defensive snaps, instead of the slot where he forged an elite reputation, the Denver Broncos four-time Pro Bowler was about the only cornerback Vic Fangio could rely on in coverage with Kareem Jackson moved to safety and Bryce Callahan injured.
It wasn't a great year for Harris playing in Fangio's scheme and it came on the heels of an offseason holdout that resulted in the Broncos' front office adding more than $3 million to his 2019 salary. It was an extremely unusual way for a team to end a holdout, sweetening the player's single-season salary without adding additional years to the term.
It was assumed that it was Harris who didn't want to re-sign long-term with the Broncos. But from the sounds of it, it might have been GM John Elway who was a little leery last spring to extend Harris on a multi-year deal. More on that shortly.
It's also been assumed that a rift exists between Elway and Harris, but according to the player, that couldn't be further from the truth, despite the two being postured as adversaries over contracts and money.
“I love Elway, man. That’s my dawg," Harris told Rich Eisen earlier this week. "We talked this year a lot, man. Got a lot of communication from where I was confused at during the year.”
On the heels of the Broncos giving Jackson a three-year, $33M deal and Callahan a three-year, $21M deal, Harris wanted to know where he fit into the team's plans, especially considering that he was entering the final year of his contract. That confusion led to a holdout but the communication between he and Elway eventually helped Harris understand where the bear squats in the woods.
“Just the whole offseason, man," Harris told Eisen in regards to what confused him. "Seeing if they wanted me, things like that. How I had to hold out to—I tried to get a long-term deal here but it didn’t work out. So just trying to see where the organization was with me. It kind of cleared it up for me.”
Harris is keeping his cards close to the vest and is being very careful with his choice of words. But it's interesting to hear him say that he actually was seeking a long-term extension with the Broncos last spring. But for whatever reason, Elway dragged his feet.
Likely, it had something to do with the front office wanting to see how the defense performed in year one under Fangio, as well as with Callahan being a part of the secondary. But the latter never worked out because Callahan aggravated a foot injury during training camp and would go on to miss every single defensive snap of the season.
By the time the trade deadline rolled around, Elway realized how dire the Broncos' situation was at cornerback. Callahan was hurt. Isaac Yiadom had failed to turn the corner. And the offseason diamond Elway found in the rough — De'Vante Bausby — suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 6 just as he was beginning to make an impact.
Harris was the only competent cornerback the Broncos could trust. And so, just before the trade deadline, Elway went back to the drawing board, offering Harris a three-year, $36M deal to stay in Denver. But only the first year was guaranteed.
But by then, Harris' mindset had perhaps changed. He felt like the implication was, 'accept this three-year deal that will pay an average of $12M per year, or we might trade you.' Plus, there's still that part of him that wants to test free agency and see if he can become the highest-paid corner in the NFL. And so, he declined the offer and for the first time in his nine-year NFL career, Harris will hit unrestricted free agency.
“First time [being an UFA]," Harris said. "It’s just figuring out what’s the best fit for me, the best situation for me and what teams really want me. So I’m interested and excited to get that. Me playing in the league nine years, I’ve got coaches all over the NFL that’s coached me, who I’ve worked with. They know what type of person I am, what type of player I am, so things are going to work out very well.”
But don't write off the Broncos as a suitor in the Harris sweepstakes. According to him, the team who took a chance on him as an undrafted rookie free agent, developed him into one of the best corners in the league and got him a Super Bowl ring, is still very much in the conversation.
“Yeah, there is a chance, there is, man," Harris said about a return to Denver. "We know that they definitely need corners there, so I definitely know I’m probably high on their list for sure.”
Sick burn. Harris can see how bad the Broncos' situation is a cornerback and can thus negotiate from a position of strength. The team can't count on Callahan returning to form and without Harris... I shudder to think.
Elway is likely kicking himself for looking this particular gift-horse in the mouth while he was still in the barn. It might have cost him an extra million or two per year more than he wanted to pay, but choosing to kick the Harris can down the road last spring could very well come back to haunt Elway. Pro Bowl-caliber corners don't grow on trees.
And even the blue-chip corners in the draft take time to develop into impact players, even with the best of coaches. The Broncos currently are projected to have about $63M in cap space for free agency, and that's before any dead weight is cut from the salary cap.
Once the Broncos move on as expected from QB Joe Flacco and OG Ronald Leary, that'll free up another $18.5M on the cap. However, the Broncos not only have the Harris issue to decide, but also S Justin Simmons, Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris, Adam Gotsis and Will Parks.
Of course, Elway could simply choose to cut his losses on Harris and go after an outside free-agent corner, like a Logan Ryan, Byron Jones or a James Bradberry. But signing any one of those guys will come at a premium.
The worst possible scenario would be Harris signing with the Division-rival Kansas City Chiefs. He's open to it as a possibility, though the Chiefs are expected to have just $22M in cap space and their own big-named free agents to re-sign, like DL Chris Jones. Rich Eisen explored the notion of Harris landing in Kansas City in 2020.
“I’m listening to everybody," Harris said. "I’m listening to everybody for sure. Kansas, I went to school there so that’s like another home for me, too. [I’ve got] a big following there. So I’m definitely looking at everybody, man. But like you said, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a good fit.”
Cross your fingers, Broncos Country. Seeing Harris in Red and Gold would be a tough pill to swallow.
However, we've seen Elway make nice with players before when it comes to contract negotiations that take on a pessimistic tone. Perhaps he has one more two-minute drive as a front-office czar left in the tank. Keeping Harris in Orange and Blue, while he still clearly has gas left in the tank, would be an achievement considering all that's transpired over the last year.