One of the Denver Broncos' strengths over the last decade has been the defensive line. While the era of the huge plugs of run-stuffing defensive tackles may be coming to a close given the devalued nature of the NFL running game, having different types of interior defensive linemen that can win in multiple fronts and alignments has been pretty common for Denver for as long as Bill Kollar has been coaching the unit.
Kollar, widely respected as one of the better D-line coaches in football, has repeatedly shown his developmental prowess over his time in Denver but perhaps no player better exemplifies the veteran coach's development of 'toolsy' tackles that work hard than that of Shelby Harris.
After being drafted by the then-Oakland Raiders in the seventh round out of Illinois State, Harris jumped around the league to the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. Harris found a home in Denver in 2017 displaying his pass rush and batted ball abilities and steadily improved his play year-after-year in the Mile High City.
It was a surprise, given Harris' play in Denver, that the free-agent market for his services was not more robust in the spring of 2020. While the weird COVID free agency offseason undoubtedly played a role, most expected him to land a contract close to or exceeding $10 million per season.
However, when the market didn't materialize, Harris returned to Denver on a one-year deal just north of $3M. He bet on himself by coming back to Denver to play another year in Vic Fangio’s system and he thrived accordingly.
While it’s never a bad thing when a player finds success in Denver, it does make it that much harder to retain him when he's set to hit the open market. Also, with Harris turning 30 years old before the 2021 regular season opens, this likely will be his best chance to cash in and earn life-altering money and financial stability for his family.
If you are hoping for a 'hometown discount', you should probably consider looking elsewhere. Bolstering this reality is 9NEWS' insider Mike Klis, who recently hinted at Harris leaving this offseason as well.
While many were expecting Harris to defect in free agency last year, betting on his market to be relatively dry as it was with an extremely thin interior defensive line free-agent pool and an even worse draft class is likely fool-hearted. As Klis laid out to 9NEWS host Rod Mackey, Harris very well could be playing elsewhere in 2021.
With Jurrell Casey being cut. You have Mike Purcell coming back from a season-ending lisfranc injury. He’s going to be 30 years old. It's not going to be easy for him to get back to full strength. Shelby has been a big part of that defensive line for the last four years, he’s been highly productive. If he’s going to get $10-plus million a year, which is what he tried to get last year. If this year it happens, I think it’s going to be difficult for the Broncos to bring [back] Shelby Harris. So the Broncos will be looking at other free agents, maybe a little bit more team favorably in the financial department, as far as filling gaps along the defensive front.
The Broncos’ interior defensive line does become rather concerning quickly if Denver is unable to retain Harris. With Purcell coming off the same injury that cost former Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady his career, essentially, depending on Purcell presents some risk to the Broncos.
Further, the Broncos are set to lose DeMarcus Walker this offseason as well. While Dre’Mont Jones flashed like crazy in 2020 and DeShawn Williams showed that he possesses more promise than your run-of-the-mill backend rotational defensive lineman, Denver will need to find someone in free agency to help fortify the interior line.
GM George Paton, coming from the Minnesota Vikings, who were laughably bad along the interior defensive line in 2020, should know better than to let Harris walk and not bring in someone to help soften that blow. The question isn’t will Paton look to add another interior defensive lineman if Harris departs, but rather who?
With many players likely to be released across the league due to the constricted 2021 salary cap, there will likely be more names becoming available over the upcoming weeks leading up to free agency (March 17), but without Harris, the Broncos' interior defensive line becomes increasingly concerning entering next season.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!