It seems like an oxymoron to say Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. will “breakout” in 2013, considering that he just had a breakout season in 2012.
But in terms of breaking out onto the national scene and receiving recognition from the media and NFL fans across the country, Harris is yet to make a big splash.
Last season, Harris stepped up when starter Tracy Porter went down with seizure-like symptoms. When Porter was cleared again to play, Harris had already firmly established himself as the starter, going on to start the final 12 games of the season.
Harris (23, 5’10″, 190 pounds) is entering his third season with the Broncos after joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas in 2011. A member of the Professional Football Writers of America 2011 All-Rookie team, Harris finished his rookie year with 72 tackles, and an interception, excelling against the run and in slot coverage.
In 2012, Harris recorded 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and three interceptions while also scoring two defensive touchdowns. His strong sophomore performance flew under the radar and went seemingly unnoticed by the mainstream media.
But the Broncos know what they have, as does ProFootballFocus.com.
Harris was ranked as the 64th-best player in the NFL by PFF in April. The site’s Khaled Elsayed wrote the following on Harris:
It’s not easy being a slot corner in the NFL, so Harris deserves extra credit for handling business on the outside and coping extremely well when moving inside in the Broncos’ sub-package defense. The former undrafted free agent took his chance with both hands when Tracy Porter went down hurt, and backed up his excellent coverage work with some fine play in the run game. A complete defender already.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus Tampa Bay, +4.8
Key Stat: Gave up just 0.83 yards per slot coverage snap, sixth-lowest of all defensive backs.
Harris was ranked as the fifth-best cornerback by PFF in 2012, five spots higher than veteran Champ Bailey. It’s not a discredit to Bailey, either, Harris is that good.
PFF was not the only site that took note of Harris’ strong play in 2012, CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco proclaimed in the most underrated player in the NFL:
The most underrated player in the NFL is Denver nickel cornerback Chris Harris. Playing on a team with Champ Bailey can lead to getting targeted and overlooked. Yet Harris did a heck of a job in Denver. Forced into a starting role last season, he still slid inside in the slot on passing downs and was exceptional.
Harris never backed down against the best, and he now gets to spend his practices working against Wes Welker, which will only help him.
In Bailey, Harris and Tony Carter, the Broncos’ corners did a nice job last season. Harris gets my vote as the league’s most underrated player, beating out Lawrence Timmons of the Steelers.
It sounds like the Broncos want to keep Harris in the slot in 2013, a role at which he has excelled. But whether he plays inside or outside, Harris has the coverage skills and tackling ability that makes him worthy of a Pro Bowl nod—and that is precisely what he should earn this season.
With Pro Bowl slot receiver Wes Welker, Harris will have the opportunity to improve every day in practice while going against one of the best in the game.
“Going against him, he’s one of the best slot receivers, and I think I’m one of the best slot corners,” Harris told reporters after a practice last month. “Going against him every day, I know he’s an undrafted guy too—he’s a guy that brings it 100 percent every play. The same with me. Coach has to do a good job with just calming us down (laughing). ”
Watch for Harris to become a household name in 2013. It’s one of the only things he still has to accomplish.
Jon Heath can be found on Twitter, @JHSMDEN.