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Chris Harris Jr. is the fourth most valuable Bronco

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Chris Harris Jr. has been one of the most valuable Denver Broncos since he came into the league as an undrafted free agent.

NFL: Pro Bowl
Have we seen the last of Harris in Broncos orange and blue?
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

So after a long break for free agency and the draft, it’s time to turn our attention back to the Most Valuable Broncos. The scheme changes, draft, and free agency may change some of the final list.

Remember that 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 three main aspects I considered:

1. Value to the 2018 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.

Check out #5 here.

This one may come as a bit of a shocker. I’ll admit on my initial MVB list back in January I had Chris Harris as high as number 2. However, the current uncertainty over Harris’ long-term status with the Broncos and rumors that he would net something as low as a 2020 third round pick in a trade hurts his ranking.

I mean this not as a slight to Harris the player, who remains the second best player on the Broncos by a considerable margin, it’s just that every little thing matters this far down the MVB list.

What about Harris on the field?

If Chris Harris Jr. is not, in fact, the best corner in the league, he is on a very short list. One of the things that immediately stands out when watching his tape is how the Broncos have used him up until now. In 4 of the 5 games I watched for this study, he is primarily the slot corner whenever the Broncos are in nickel personnel. At the same time, when Vance Joseph and Joe Woods called for base personnel, he played outside. At first glance, this seems simple, but there’s a reason so few corners do it.

A nickel corner has to be able to defend both the inside and outside route trees, as there is no sideline to use as a crutch. Oftentimes they will have real run responsibilities because of positioning. In the 2018 Broncos scheme, the nickel was often tasked with straight man to man coverage, as Woods and Joseph utilized a heavy dose of cover 1. That meant Chris Harris rarely had help in his assignments. With how offenses have begun to move all sorts of different pass catchers into the slot, that may mean covering someone like Keenen Allen on one snap and Travis Kelce on the next.

When tasked with outside responsibility, the job doesn’t become any easier, just different. Deeper routes become a much bigger threat and Harris had to run with his assignment farther downfield. That required him to be able to open up and run with guys like A.J. Green, Tyrell Williams, Tyreek Hill, and Brandon Cooks.

One of the things that makes CHJ so special is how he can lock up receivers of all shapes and sizes.

Plays like this one really show how special CHJ is. He’s giving up 7 inches and about 60 lbs to Travis Kelce, but remains on him like a fly on poo and bats down the pass against a receiver who caught almost 70% of his targets last year. That’s special.

One of the things I hope to do as I continue writing GIF Horse is break down what a player does down to positional traits. It isn’t enough to say that Chris Harris is good. Anyone with eyes knows that. Beyond his versatility, where does he shine brightest?

Route Recognition

You won’t survive long in the slot if you can’t learn to anticipate what opposing receivers are trying to do to you. Because there’s so many possible outcomes, a player has to become adept at reading his opponent. Harris has been doing it so long it looks like second nature to him. Take this play against the Steelers, for example:

This play has been forgotten because of another of Harris’ interceptions, but the Broncos don’t beat Pittsburgh if this goes any other way.

Now take a second to really look at what Harris saw when he broke on the ball, knowing that Ben Roethlisberger was going to throw to Antonio Brown:

That’s just the most stark example I’ve come across, mind you. There’s plenty of times Harris does this same thing and it doesn’t end in an interception. What’s more important to keep in mind is how this ability to anticipate plays will translate to a Fangio defense that asks corners to play with their eyes on the action rather than turning to run with their assignments. If the pass rush can threaten opposing quarterbacks like it did in 2018, Harris could easily surpass his 3 interceptions from a year ago.

Tackling

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Chris Harris Jr. was one of the better tacklers on the Broncos a year ago. In fact, prior to Elway’s decision to sign Kareem Jackson there had long been speculation that Harris could eventually move to safety if need be in order to prolong his NFL career. I have my doubts he’ll ever need to, but one reason that could make sense for him as he ages is the fact that he’s both strong against the run when called upon and such a fundamentally sound tackler.

There aren’t many corners who play the ball carrier as well as Harris.

Athleticism

It is fair to wonder if Harris will start to show signs of his years in the league. As others have repeated time and again this off-season, he isn’t 25 anymore. That said, he shows few signs of a decline on tape.

In the games I’ve studied, he has elite hip fluidity and enough long speed to keep up with the Rams’ Brandon Cooks 40 yards down the field. Click and close is something you often hear about cornerbacks come draft time, and what it really refers to is a player’s ability to both diagnose (click= recognition) and react (close= athleticism to make a play) to the action going on in front of them. Harris’ advanced ability to click and close is extremely rare in NFL history. It’s one reason I’ve long considered him Hall of Fame talent.

Harris is a very rare talent.

The Fangio Defense

One of my big questions as I started watching Harris last week is how his skills will translate to a new system. Under both Wade Phillips and Vance Joseph, the defense has been one of the more man-heavy systems in the league. It’s one reason arguments about the No-Fly Zone being every bit the Legion of Boom’s equal should include scheme and assignments.

I wondered if moving to more zone coverage would dull one of the sharper edges Harris has over most other corners in the league. I strongly advise you look to Jeffery Essary’s article later this week for an in-depth look at that, but I’m inclined to say no. As I mentioned earlier, giving Harris more opportunities to make plays on the ball in the air should provide him more opportunities to show two of the biggest strengths of his game. It will also help him and the rest of the secondary against trips formations, motion, and pick plays. All were issues in the games I watched from 2018.

In both KC games, Andy Reid outfoxed Vance Joseph, neutralizing Harris for the most part.

Plays like this really illustrate the limitations of the old Broncos system. Harris is one of the best slot coverage guys in the league, so Andy Reid made Hill a decoy, motioning him into the backfield and sending him out in the flat. This isolated Shane Ray, who Patrick Mahomes was more than happy to attack in coverage. The end result is the Broncos giving up a huge play because Hunt is wide open. Of course plays like this can happen against elite offenses, but the problem far too often comes down to the lack of adjustments in place for what should have been expected in the 2018 D. That’s a coaching failure more than anything else.

Contract Numbers

If you haven’t read this exceptional piece by MHR’s Ozark Orange, you should take a long look at it. We’re in pretty close agreement on a fair deal to Chris Harris that would minimize the Broncos long term risk.

High dollar cornerback contracts and the Chris Harris Jr. conundrum - Mile High Report

What I came up with was a 3 year extension for $40.9M (13.633M average per year) with $29.5M guaranteed at signing, and $35M in total guarantees. There is a $10M signing bonus that prorates at $2.5M per year over the years 2019-2022. The 2019 and 2020 salaries and $5M of the 2021 salary are guaranteed at signing. The remaining $5.5M of the 2021 salary guarantees if CHJ is on the roster on the 5th day of the 2021 League Year in March. Time to break it down, year by year.

Reports late last week suggested the Broncos may be leaning towards a 2019 pay bump for Harris and allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency in 2020.

My perspective on this is a bit skewed, admittedly. Harris’ contract is one of the more underrated reasons for the formation of the No Fly Zone, as Elway had the cap space to add Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and T.J. Ward’s contracts. The 5-year, $42 M extension has long been considered one of the biggest bargains in the league. I don’t fault him at all for seeking out fair compensation and I believe he deserves it. It also seems the 2019 pay bump is as much a gesture of good will as anything else. Some have criticized it on social media, but if the Broncos are able to make the cap math work, I think it sends a message that resonates far deeper than the deal alone would.

What concerns me is what all this means for the future Ring of Famer in 2020 and beyond. As I said in my opening statement, there is no doubt in my mind he’s the second best player on this Broncos roster. Here’s hoping Elway finds a way help him retire without ever donning another team’s jersey.