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GIF Horse - The Fifth Most Valuable Bronco is Shelby Harris

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Vic Fangio could make Shelby Harris into an All-Pro in 2019. The Denver Broncos defensive line will be even better.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals
Shelby Harris was a secret superstar last year. It’s time to unleash him on the league.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio is the head coach, Ed Donatell is coming on as the defensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello will coordinate the offense and Mike Munchak will coach the offensive line. With big parts of the coaching staff in place, I continued my look at Denver’s roster. What players mean the most to the team?

Obviously some could move up or down based on how the schemes change. That means this is as much art as science, but to be as transparent as possible I wanted to lay out how I made my list. There are 3 main aspects I considered.

1. Their value to this year’s team and past performance.

2. Positional value

3. Salary compared to both past & expected future performance.

All three factors are important, but obviously this isn’t an exact science, so I look forward to seeing how Broncos Country disagrees with me.

Check out players 45-35 here.

Check out players 25-34 here.

Check out players 16-24 here.

Check out players 7-15 here.

Check out #6 here.

Let’s get started.

My Orange Planet Theory

If you’re unfamiliar with Bill Parcells’ belief in “planet theory” it boils down to the idea that there is a relative scarcity of large human beings who are also really athletic, so they’re inherently valuable.

How that applies to this Broncos roster is that for two years now their best defensive lineman has been Shelby Harris. I truly realized this for the first time last year when I dug into the tape to see how big a fluke his 5.5 sacks were. The study became one of my first editions of GIF Horse.

GIF Horse - Shelby Harris, DL, Denver Broncos - Mile High Report

No player is perfect, and Harris could surely improve at anchoring, as well as fighting double teams, but what he lacks in bulk he makes up for in spades. He’s a devastating penetrator in the run game and makes play after play in pursuit off the backside. Here’s hoping Elway recognizes the diamond he’s found in Shelby Harris, he’s a keeper.

In 2019 his sack total declined, but his impact on each game took a jump.

Remember the Chris Harris Pick that led to a Broncos touchdown?

Harris may not have gotten home for a sack here, but the fact of the matter is Roethlisberger had an easy completion, if only he had the time to find it.

If 96 isn’t on the field for either Roethlisberger interception, there’s little chance the Broncos upset the Steelers. Then I realized that Shelby Harris played just 36.21% of the Broncos defensive snaps last year, which just seems insane given his productivity.

It’s true though. In fact, unless you consider DeMarcus Walker (who logged all of 21 snaps on D), there is not a single defensive lineman who played less last season. It’s sort of remarkable that he played so seldomly, since he was the best defensive lineman in the AFC West.

One reason for the limited snaps is that Harris played the majority of his snaps for the 2018 Broncos at nose tackle while Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, and Zach Kerr logged the majority of the defensive end snaps. I believe due in part to his size (289lbs) Harris played behind Domata Peko (325 lbs), despite being the far superior player. It still confounds me how the 4th year veteran so consistently popped off the tape and still had games where he saw less than 20 snaps.

Harris routinely stands out against lateral blocking schemes.

One area of growth from 2017 to last year is how Harris has improved at the point of attack, especially against zone blocking teams. Part of this is that his quickness allows him the chance to get into a blocker before they’re fully ready for him.

As you can see in the play above, Harris doesn’t allow Rams center John Sullivan to wall him off, he effectively keeps moving to fill the playside A gap, but stays free enough so he could make a play in the backside if necessary. By moving to fill backside upon Gurley, he forces the back to take what he can. Only once Gurley fully commits does Harris disengage from the blocker and make the tackle. Not a flashy play, but the Rams gained minimal yardage on one of their staple concepts. It wasn’t an isolated incident either.

Harris moving to fill the playside A forces Gurley back into traffic.

Harris saw all of 18 defensive snaps against the Rams.

Peko saw more than twice that.

This isn’t to suggest that Peko didn’t have his moments last year. After all, he came in at 26 on my MVB list and could be a passable role player if the Broncos pivot from their current stance and resign him. I also didn’t bring up Peko to ignore the fact that a healthy Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, and Zach Kerr made the competition for snaps a tight one.

Rather, I bring up the snap counts to shine a light on one area where the 2019 Broncos defense can drastically improve under Vic Fangio.

The Best Players Play. Alot.

One of my favorite parts about trying to predict how Harris would look next year in the new system was trying to project how he fit. That required a bunch of time looking at the 2018 Bears defense. This led a ton of tape study watching Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman.

Hicks (96) was an underrated superstar for the Bears last year.

The two were complete monsters along the line of scrimmage last year and Fangio rode them without mercy. Hicks played 780 defensive snaps, Goldman 552. No other Bears lineman finished with more than 353. That got me wondering how typical that kind of usage was in the Fangio defense, so I dug into the snap numbers since the Broncos head coach was coordinating Jim Harbaugh’s 49er defenses.

Every year but 2016 there were two defensive lineman that were heavily featured. Even the outlier year had Mitch Unrein stepping in for an injured Goldman to log 436 snaps, but it also stands out as the year Hicks almost broke 1,000. The role player’s snap counts varied far more widely based on the depth chart and their talent. For example, in 2013 only 4 Niners lineman saw significant snaps. In 2016 seven different Bears lineman played more than 120 defensive snaps, but only 2 saw more than 400.

Fangio’s Scheme Fits for the Broncos

As I looked at the Bears tape it became quickly apparent that a 2 linemen, 4 backer nickel front is the personnel group Fangio prefers for dealing with 3 receiver sets. There are times when a one or three linemen formation was utilized, but the 2-4-5 serves as the base nickel.

Often times the Bears stuck with this formation in situations where the offense was as likely to run as pass. Fangio trusted his defensive linemen to hold their ground and still create plays, even if they were outnumbered inside. One way the defense made up for this is that Fangio didn’t hesitate to send one of the inside backers on a blitz.

That same 2-4 grouping cropped up as I looked back at old 49er tape. It’s a central part of the Fangio’s system that leans heavily on his linebackers to work as the Swiss Army knives of his D. If you look back at Fangio’s defenses over the years, you’ll notice that dating back to the Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman days, his linebackers tend to rack up a lot of QB hits, pass defenses, and tackles. Its a system built for them to create havoc.

What it means going forward with the Broncos is that Wolfe, Gotsis, Harris and whoever else makes it through cuts come camp time will see significant playing time out of what are called the 2i, 3, 4i and 5 techniques.

Techniques explain where a DL lines up based on the OL.

I fully expect Harris to see a significant uptick in time outside of the nose tackle position he played for Vance Joseph. This is will be a bit of an adjustment, as he played most of his snaps shaded off of, or directly across from centers in 2018. The good news is he looked effective rushing from farther outside, as his quick burst allowed him to abuse guards when given the opportunity.

Harris will often use his hands to disrupt passes even when he can’t get to the QB.

Where the Broncos personnel go outside of the 2-4-5 is a bit more of a guess right now. With the Bears, Fangio mixed in 3-3-5 and 1 linemen sets in longer yardage situations. Often times his single defensive lineman was Roy Robertson-Harris, a player who is similar to Shelby in weight, but much longer at 6’7”.

On running downs, Harris would be an undersized nose compared to Glenn Dorsey, or Isaac Sopoaga, who both had success with Fangio in San Francisco. This lends merit to the rumors that Elway and the Broncos front office are looking to add Johnathan Hankins. The 325 lb defensive tackle would be a huge upgrade over Peko in the passing game, as the latter is more limited as a one dimensional run stuffer.

I plan to look at Fangio’s formations and personnel usage more later this offseason, but can confidently say that the Broncos best defensive players will be put into position to do what they’re best at far more often in the new system. For Harris that means shooting gaps and creating chaos in the backfield with his quickness and deceptive hands.

Summary

So why is Shelby Harris #5? The big reason is his contract uncertainty. In a complete vacuum, Harris was one of the three best players Denver employed last year. My hope is that Elway and Fangio see what he could become going forward and retain him long term, but he’s a restricted free agent. That means after the 2019 season, he’s set to cash in for the first time in his career.

Hopefully it’s with the Broncos, but only Elway knows.