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Proving He Belongs

Posted Dec 2, 2011

Rookie cornerback Chris Harris wasn't invited to the scouting combine. He wasn't drafted. But the Broncos gave Harris a chance as a college free agent and he's made the most of it, becoming an impact player for the Denver defense.


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Calvin Johnson, Antonio Gates, Santonio Holmes – these are NFL stars Chris Harris was expected to merely watch on television once he graduated college.

Instead, the undrafted cornerback from Kansas University is lining up across from them.

He’s running stride-for-stride with them. Tackling them. Denying passes intended for them.

And proving every day he belongs on the same field as them.

Harris -- the Broncos nickel corner who signed as a college free agent -- is second among all Denver defensive backs with 39 tackles in his first season. He’s also defended four passes and recorded his first career interception in Week 9 against the Raiders.

“I always had confidence I could do this,” Harris said.

Few others did.

Few knew he was even giving it a shot.

***

When it comes to draft prospects, perhaps no one is more informed than NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.

Mayock watches countless hours of tape, studying as many prospects as he can to best analyze the hundreds of selections that take place on draft day.

But if you asked him about Chris Harris leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, Mayock disappointingly admits he wouldn’t have much to offer.

“I'm mad at myself,” Mayock said. “He was way off radar screens. Matter of fact, he wasn't invited to the combine. I did no tape work on the kid whatsoever because he was not listed as a draftable player.”

“So here he is out of nowhere, starting in the nickel package, making plays, prominent on special teams -- I couldn't be happier for this kid.”

Mayock was so intrigued by the 5-foot-10, 190-pound cornerback that he made it his personal mission to find out more about Harris when he came to Denver in Week 11 to broadcast the Jets matchup on Thursday Night Football.

“I'm going to spend the next couple days trying to figure out who this kid is,” Mayock said when he arrived at Broncos practice facility. “What did I miss? What did other teams miss?”

Harris, along with his teammates and coaches, can help fill in the gaps.

***

Broncos rookie safety Quinton Carter played against Harris and the Jayhawks for four years in the Big 12 conference.

The former Oklahoma star was selected by Denver in the fourth round and when he heard Harris had signed as an undrafted free agent, he knew the organization added another promising young defensive back.

“I knew what a great player he was,” Carter said, adding that he was surprised Harris didn’t hear his name called on draft day.

Harris started all four years at Kansas and was a team captain, tasked with covering the opponent’s top target throughout his college career. Still, he went unnoticed and wasn’t invited to appear at the scouting combine.

"He fell through the cracks of the NFL system," General Manager Brian Xanders said. "He's one that overcame it."

Harris has what scouts and stop-watches are incapable of measuring -- competitive drive.

And to make a team as an undrafted college free agent, that trait is essential.  

“He has something,” secondary coach Ron Milus said. “He has a competitive spirit that he brings to the table.”

“I just try to be consistent,” Harris said. “And try to show the coaches that I’m the man for the job.”

That determined work ethic made an impression with one of the Broncos team captains -- 10-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. When asked to recall when he realized Harris could contribute to the defense, Bailey didn’t hesitate to reply.

“Training camp,” Bailey said. “You could just tell by the way he competes.”

"Immediately the first day, he flashed toughness, competitiveness, finishing effort, fiestiness, special teams play," Xanders said. "He did a great job of creating his role on this team. Nobody gives you a job in this league and you're evaluated every day. He did a great job of creating a role for himself." 

Harris makes sure he’s never outworked at practice, and that mindset helped him secure a spot on the active roster.

“He comes and competes every day,” Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen added. “When you do that, as long as you’re above the line athletically—which obviously he is—you’re going to have a chance to play.”

***

Harris got his first chance as a member of the Broncos special teams unit.

And in the preseason finale in Arizona, with roster cuts looming, Harris’ showcased his playmaking potential.

“I knew going into that game I had to finish strong,” Harris said.

As a gunner on the punt-team, Harris flew down the field and drilled Cardinals returner Andre Roberts immediately after he gained possession.

Harris finished with five total tackles on the night and his final audition for a roster spot received a high grade when the coaching staff reviewed the tape.

“He was phenomenal,” Milus said.

Harris ultimately became the only undrafted free agent to make the team.

He continued to play a substantial role on special teams, but in Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins, Harris got his first opportunity to perform in the Denver secondary.

“We gave him a chance to play against the Miami Dolphins and it may have only been a handful of snaps,” Milus said. "But he ended up making great plays.”

Harris defended passes intended for Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess to force two late incompletions and he added two more special teams tackles as Denver emerged with an 18-15 overtime victory.

“Being an undrafted free agent, you’re not going to get too many opportunities,” Harris said. “So when the time does come, you have to go out there and play great.”

Miami was Harris’ first chance to contribute in the defensive backfield. He hasn’t looked back since.

“We gave him an opportunity at that point,” Milus said, referring to Harris’ performance against the Dolphins. “And he’s kind of taken it and run.”

***

After an impressive outing in Miami, the coaching staff felt Harris could handle an increased workload -- one that happened to include assignments in the slot against some of the league’s most dynamic pass-catchers.

Following the win over the Dolphins, the Broncos played Detroit and Harris worked primarily against the Lions slot receiver. More often than not, that meant Harris was covering 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson.

A week later in Oakland, Harris covered a multitude of receivers and provided support against the run, tallying a team-high 10 tackles and hauling in his first interception. In Week 11 he battled Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes several times in the slot.

Last Sunday, Harris once again went toe-to-toe with a Pro Bowler. This time it was Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who the team held to just 49 yards on six catches.

What is it about Harris that allows the coaching staff to trust him against these top-flight targets, especially those with noticeable size advantages?

“They know I’m a smart player. They know I’m going to battle,” Harris said. “I won’t back down to whoever I’m guarding. … They expect me to make plays.”

Week after week, Harris shows that he can and will hold his own.

His opponents may not know his name. But he’s not worried about theirs either.

“He doesn’t care about their names. He just knows someone showed up in an area he’s supposed to guard,” Milus explained. “And he’s going to do his best to get it done.”

***

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. That’s a lesson all rookies learn quickly, especially the undrafted ones.

But it’s a reality Harris embraces.

With each chance he gets to put on the pads and step onto the field at an NFL stadium, Harris sees it as another audition. Another chance to display his ability. Another chance to prove he can compete with the world’s best.

“That’s how the NFL is. It doesn’t matter who you are,” Harris said -- whose calm, confident demeanor hasn’t changed since day one. “You can be the greatest player in the league, but you’ve still got to prove yourself every week. You’ve got to set standards for how you play.

“I’m trying to prove every week that I can play at this high level.”

While Harris is in his first year at this level, Broncos Head Coach John Fox is currently in his 23rd NFL season. That’s a lot of drafts, a lot of roster cuts, a lot of experience.

And in Harris, Fox doesn’t see an undrafted player. He sees a contributor to his defense with an unyielding competiveness.

He sees what he always hoped he would when the Broncos signed Harris.

A playmaker.

“In this business you’re not prejudiced,” Fox said. “You’re not where you’re drafted, how much money you make. You just notice guys that make plays.

“And he’s done that.”

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