The Rarity and Value of Chris Harris' Versatility at Corner

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Harris Jr. is one of a few elite cornerbacks that can play effectively in the slot, as well as on the outside of the defense. Harris' rise from college free agent to one of the best cornerbacks in the league has given the Broncos a rare talent at one of the most key positions in football. Here is why the Broncos' re-signing of their RFA corner was their best move of the 2014 off-season.

On Tuesday, Broncos' cornerback Chris Harris signed his second-round tender, which will see him paid $2.187 million in 2014. The deal guarantees that Harris will spend 2014 in Denver, but does not guarantee anything past that.

While the focus of late has largely been on the Broncos' unrestricted free agent signings, I believe this re-signing of Harris is the Broncos' most integral move of this off-season because of Harris' extremely rare set of abilities at the corner position.

Chris Harris Jr. is not your everyday cornerback. Harris plays effectively in coverage, is a very efficient tackler, and plays the run better than most other players at his position. Harris' versatility at his position is extremely rare in the NFL, and he has risen from being a college free agent to becoming arguably the Denver Broncos' most consistent and valuable defensive player over the past two seasons. While most analysts and fans around the NFL focus on the likes of Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, and even Harris' 2013 teammate, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they often completely overlook the spectacular talent who wears #25 for the orange and blue.

Any member of Broncos Country knows how valuable the Kansas alumni is in the slot, but even within his own fanbase, many fans do not realize the versatile and consistent defensive weapon that Harris has become. A look at the young corner's statistics over the 2012 and 2013 season yields a picture of one of the most talented corners in the league, hands down.

First of all, I'll give a brief description of some of the more advanced stats that this post describes.

Cover snaps per reception is a way to analyze a defensive back's coverage abilities that takes into account the number of pass plays that a given player is on the field for, and the number of those plays that result in a pass being completed to a receiver they are covering. The higher this stat is, the better a defensive back's coverage skills are. For example, Richard Sherman led the NFL in 2013, allowing one reception per 18.3 pass coverage snaps played.

% Caught is a stat that takes into account the number of times an opposing quarterback threw passes to receivers that the defensive back was covering, and the number of times those passes were caught by the receiver. In other words, it is the percentage of passes an opposing quarterback completes against a given defensive back. For example, Joe Flacco attempted eight passes to receivers that Chris Harris was covering in Denver's match-up against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013; of those eight passes, Flacco completed only three, resulting in a 37.5% caught stat for Chris Harris.

QBR simply refers to the quarterback rating of opposing quarterbacks, only taking into account the passes that are thrown at the defensive back that the stat applies to. So, in that Denver vs. Baltimore game, after everything was taken into account, Joe Flacco went 3/8 for 48 yards, with 0 TDs and 1 INT against Chris Harris. After those numbers were plugged into the NFL's quarterback rating equation, Flacco's QBR when throwing to receivers that Harris was covering was a dismal 18.8. The highest possible QBR is 158.3, the lowest is 0.

Now, since that is taken care of, we can proceed within a statistical evaluation of Harris vs. other premier cornerbacks in the NFL.

Of course, anyone who has paid remote attention to the Broncos over the last two seasons knows that Chris Harris has made a name for himself by his stellar play as the slot cornerback. For those who don't know, the slot cornerback lines up inside, or closer to the quarterback than an outside cornerback. Slot corners are often asked to provide more run support than outside corners, in addition to having to cover a wide range of receivers, including tight ends and running backs (something that is hardly ever asked of outside cornerbacks). Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Harris has ranked 5th and 6th respectively in his slot performance. His numbers over those seasons are as follows:


Coverage Snaps Receptions/Targets TDs/INTs Cover Snaps/Reception % Caught QBR
2012 325 29/51 2/3 11.2 56.9 60.0
2013 393 36/56 0/3 10.9 64.3 65.6

These numbers speak for themselves to the quality of Harris' work on slot receivers, and his consistency is in a class of its own; only William Gay of the Cardinals (2012) and Steelers (2013) has ranked in the top 10 slot corners in both of the past two seasons.

This is usually where people stop talking about Harris. "Sure, he's a great guy to have in the slot, but you still need a number one corner to play outside of him." Well, that's where people are wrong; the most impressive thing about Harris is that he is one of the few cornerbacks in the NFL with impressive numbers in both the slot and outside cornerback positions. Since this post takes such a deep look into a number of players' stats in both cornerback positions, I thought it best to focus just on 2013 stats; however, a look at Harris' consistency across the board in 2012 proves that I'm not just selecting an outlier of a season for the Broncos CB.


Coverage Snaps Receptions/Targets TDs/INTs Cover Snaps/Reception % Caught QBR
Slot 325 29/51 2/3 11.2 56.9 60.0
Outside 233 17/30 0/0 13.7 56.7 73.0

That was 2012, this is how Harris' 2013 coverage numbers stacked up against each other:


Coverage Snaps Receptions/Targets TDs/INTs Cover Snaps/Reception % Caught QBR
Slot 393 36/56 0/3 10.9 64.3 65.6
Outside 243 16/36 1/0 15.2 44.4 64.2

Quite the feat, isn't it? Just looking at these numbers alone paints an impressive picture of Harris' skill at the corner position, but looking at others corners' numbers to provide some context makes Harris' play that much more superb. This is where we'll look at some of those big name guys that everyone loves to include in the conversation for best corner in the league. In order to rank the top ten coverage corners, I've used coverage snaps per reception as an indication of coverage skills (the stat used by PFF for their coverage rankings). Harris' totals in coverage were good enough to rank him 20th in the NFL in coverage snaps per reception, allowing one reception for every 11.6 coverage snaps. This seems inappropriate then to call Harris one of the best in the league if 19 players ranked higher than him in our measure of coverage skills, but hear me out. What I found when looking deeper into the top ten cover corners in the league, was that these players typically either don't play well in the slot, or simply are not put in situations where they need to play inside.

Player (League Rnk.) Coverage Snaps Receptions/Targets TDs/INTs Cover Snaps/Reception % Caught QBR
Chris Harris Jr. (20) 393 36/56 0/3 10.9 64.3 65.6
Logan Ryan (6) 128 16/25 2/1 8.0 64.0 100.8
Patrick Peterson (5) 69 9/13 2/0 7.7 69.2 151.3
Alterraun Verner (4) 54 2/6 0/0 27.0 33.3 52.1
Richard Sherman (1) 27 2/5 0/1 13.5 40.0 14.2
Darrelle Revis (2) 26 1/2 0/0 26.0 50.0 56.3
Sean Smith (9) 22 5/6 1/1 4.4 83.3 109.7
Keenan Lewis (7) 19 2/4 0/0 9.5 50.0 95.8
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (3) 17 3/3 1/0 5.7 100.0 145.1
Alan Ball (10) 7 1/2 0/0 7.0 50.0 60.4
Drayton Florence (8) 4 0/0 0/0 0/0 0 0

Now, you can decide for yourself whether it is because they are being sheltered, or simply because they are better suited for the outside, but one thing is indisputable, none of the top ten corners in the league make the transition between the slot and outside as seamlessly as Broncos corner Chris Harris Jr. In the above chart it becomes clear just how rare Harris' talents in the slot are. Not a single one of the top ten cover corners in the league played even half the amount of snaps in the slot as Harris did, and the ones who played more (Ryan and Peterson) showed a severe weakness when they were moved inside. In fact, there wasn't a single other player in the top 30 corners (ranked by coverage snaps/reception), other than Carlos Rogers (30th) of the 49ers, who played more snaps in the slot position than Harris Jr. The only other corner in the top 20 that played comparable amounts of pass coverage snaps in the slot corner position was Nickell Robey of the Bills, yet Robey only played over 80% of his snaps in the slot, while Harris had a more balanced distribution of play at multiple positions. What can be taken away from this is not only how difficult playing slot corner is, but how rare it is for even the most talented slot corners to have a well-rounded coverage game. However, the rarity doesn't stop there; I took the top ten slot corners, and separated the ones who had played at least 100 snaps on the outside (in order to ensure a decent sample size). I then compared these players' numbers to Harris' numbers outside the slot, these were the results (the bolded numbers are ones that were worse than Harris', the italicized numbers indicate a better rating than Harris):

Position

Coverage Snaps

Receptions/Targets

TDs/INTs

Cover Snaps/Reception

% Caught

QBR

Chris Harris Jr.- Denver Broncos- T-7th Slot Perf.

Slot

393

36/56

0/3

10.9

64.3

65.6

Outside

243

16/36

1/0

15.2

44.4

64.2

Kyle Wilson- New York Jets- T-1st Slot Perf.

Slot

279

24/41

0/0

11.6

58.5

73.3

Outside

201

5/11

0/0

40.2

45.5

73.5

Carlos Rogers- San Francisco 49ers- T-1st Slot Perf.

Slot

428

37/62

1/2

11.6

59.7

73.9

Outside

239

22/36

2/0

10.8

61.1

95.9

William Gay- Pittsburgh Steelers T-1st Slot Perf.

Slot

267

23/36

0/1

11.6

63.9

66.2

Outside

299

30/53

1/0

10.0

56.6

79.6

Tyrann Mathieu- Arizona Cardinals- 6th Slot Perf.

Slot

329

29/47

0/2

11.3

61.7

62.0

Outside

154

14/19

3/0

11.0

73.7

108.0

Orlando Scandrick- Dallas Cowboys- 9th Slot Perf.

Slot

362

37/54

3/1

9.8

68.5

94.5

Outside

298

25/47

2/1

11.9

53.2

82.1

As was the case in the early table, which compared the slot and outside play of the top ten corners, it becomes quite clear in this table that it is very hard to play both positions as well as Harris does. Tyrann Mathieu (ARI) and Carlos Rogers (SF) were both excellent in slot coverage, yet were torn apart by quarterbacks when he moved outside in coverage. The only corner in the above table who showed similar inside/outside talents to Harris was Kyle Wilson of the Jets; however, Wilson was only thrown at 11 times in outside coverage which doesn't paint a full picture of his coverage abilities (although it may indicate a reluctance to throw in his direction because of tight coverage). Anyhow, of these players, all of whom ranked in top ten slot coverage and played a significant number of snaps in outside coverage as well, Harris held quarterbacks to the lowest QBR and completion percentage on the outside, and was actually better in almost every category when he was moved outside.

When the Broncos signed Aqib Talib, Harris' former Kansas Jayhawks teammate, questions began about how their secondary would line up in 2014. Would it be Talib and Kayvon Webster on the outside, with Harris remaining in the slot? Or would Talib and Harris occupy the outside, while Webster patrolled the slot? The good thing about this debate is that it's a hard move for the Broncos and defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio to mess up. With a player like Chris Harris, who can move so seamlessly between the inside and outside positions, it provides Del Rio with a number of options, none of which are bad.

Hands down, Chris Harris Jr. is one of the premier players at his position in the entire NFL, despite the fact that he's rarely given credit for it. Harris is a versatile defensive weapon, who can move effortlessly through multiple positions, providing tight coverage anywhere on the field. There may be a few corners who cover better in either the slot or on the outside than Harris does, but there is nobody who can cover both positions at the consistently high level that he does. The Denver Broncos are incredibly lucky to have such a talented defensive player on their roster; as I showed above, a corner who can cover as well as Harris is a very rare commodity in today's pass-driven NFL.

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