ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Perrish Cox. Jonathan Wilhite. Drayton Florence. Tracy Porter. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?
Chris Harris has had a penchant for beating out veteran cornerbacks ever since joining the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas in 2011.
He rose from the bottom of the depth chart his rookie season, greasing Cox’s release and winning the nickel cornerback job over Wilhite, then fended off free agents Florence and Porter last year to win the starting job on the right side.
Now, here comes Rodgers-Cromartie, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal in Denver this spring and is penciled in to start opposite Champ Bailey with Harris moving back to nickel back.
Not so fast, Harris said.
On the surface, it’s not a demotion. In today’s pass-heavy NFL, teams consider the third cornerback another starter. After all, he’s playing two-thirds of the snaps with the middle linebacker morphing into the situational role instead.
“That position’s become more and more important,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, suggesting the nickel back should be introduced with the starters.
Harris agreed, but he plans on having his name called anyway because he aims to start in the base defense again.
“I know right now penciled in that I’m not starting, that I’m starting at the nickel, but my goal right now is to be a starter,” Harris said. “I know that I am a starter.”
Asked if he preferred playing outside or covering the slot receiver on the inside, Harris retorted, “Both. Starting outside and then when we go nickel, go inside. Just like we did last year.”
Del Rio appreciates the competitive fire that’s burns inside Harris like a pilot light that never flickers.
“That’s how he approached it last year and I expect nothing different. He’s an ultra-competitive guy,” Del Rio said. “He had a really good year for us last year and one of his strengths is the fact that he’s going to compete every day. He doesn’t care where the guy came from, what his pedigree is, he’s going to compete and that’s what makes him who he is.
“And I expect no less. I expect him to battle to want to be out there and at the end of the day our guys all have to give it everything they have and let us make our decisions.”
Rodgers-Cromartie is hoping a change of scenery will jumpstart his career after a rough time in Philadelphia, and he lined up at right cornerback with the starters this week when the Broncos held their first full practices in shorts and helmets.
“Same thing, come in here and compete,” Del Rio said. “That’s what we told him when we signed him, we think there’s a lot of potential for him to come in and be a special player but he’s got to make that decision in his mind and be willing to be coached hard and be willing to push himself hard and be a guy that becomes more consistent. Because he shows flashes of being really special but it’s just not consistent enough. So, that’s what we’re going to work on.”
The Broncos have thrown a lot of money around on veteran cornerbacks over the last few years but Harris, who’s entering the final season of his three-year, $1.398 million rookie deal – keeps proving to be the best bargain on the team.
“You play with the Broncos, they’re bringing in good guys every year, so you always have to be ready to play,” Harris said. “You can never relax.”
Last year, Florence signed a one-year $4.5 million deal and was a training camp casualty. Porter signed a one-year, $4 million contract and was sidelined by illness early on and never won his job back with Harris playing so well.
Harris, who will make $555,000 this season, resolves to fend off all comers once again.
“It definitely matters to me,” Harris said. “I feel like I am a starting corner in this league. Easy starting corner in this league.”
He figures he could make a big difference in those 20 or so snaps he’d miss in the base defense if he only comes in as the third cornerback.
“That’s just my mindset,” Harris said. “I felt like I held my own last year and definitely produced as an outside corner. And I’ve worked extremely hard this offseason.”
He added 10 pounds of muscle to his 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame. He’s thicker in the torso and arms this year and said he’s much stronger and faster as a result of the monthlong boot camp” for defensive backs in Dallas that he attended this spring. He said he also has a better understanding of Del Rio’s defense going into his second season with him and feels his body of work speaks volumes.
Harris sealed Denver’s win at San Diego with a 46-yard TD return that propelled the Broncos to an 11-game winning streak last season, and he added a 98-yard TD return against Baltimore in December. That was the longest pick-6 in franchise history and a big reason the Ravens targeted Bailey in their playoff upset in Denver a month later rather than Harris.
“I’m a lot better going into this season because I’m just more confident,” Harris said. “I’ve worked extremely hard physically and I know the system playing with Jack. So, it’s a lot easier for me.”
The Broncos believe one of the side benefits of signing Wes Welker in the offseason is that he’ll help Harris grow, much like facing teammate Brandon Stokley did for him last year.
“That’ll sharpen his skills for sure,” Del Rio said.
Bailey said he couldn’t wait for the training camp battles between the two undrafted overachievers.
“Chris Harris has his hands full,” Bailey said, shaking his head.
So does Welker, Harris retorted.
“He’s one of the best slot receivers and I think I’m one of the best slot corners,” Harris said. “And going against him every day, he’s an undrafted guy, too, he’s a guy that brings it 100 percent every play. And the same with me. So, the coach has just got to do a good job of calming us down.”
What Harris lacks in size, he makes up for smarts, skills, savvy and hard work.
He was beaten off the line by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on Monday but recovered in time to pick off Peyton Manning’s pass and return it for a score, a reprise of a common site at offseason workouts a year ago.
“I’ve got to prove myself every day,” Harris said. “I mean, I’m undrafted. I have a slim opportunity and I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunity every day.”
So, bring on Welker. Bring on Rodgers-Cromartie.
Harris isn’t backing down, as so many veterans he’s beaten out can attest.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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