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Replacing Chris Harris Jr.

Posted Jan 13, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason gives his take on the Broncos' task of replacing cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was lost for the season to a torn ACL.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Chris Harris, Jr. doesn't get the national attention of teammates like Von Miller and Ryan Clady, both of whom have "All-Pro" on their resumes. But the season-ending injury to the third-year cornerback could have just as much an effect on the team as the losses of Clady and Miller in Weeks 2 and 15, respectively.

"It's terrible news," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "You hate to see a guy having a great year, going into a contract year, have that happen."

In the offseason, Harris' future will become the discussion point, since he is due to become a restricted free agent. For now, the Broncos' focus is on picking up the mood of their fallen teammate, and in planning for life without him.

The effect of Harris' injury was immediate.

"Yeah, it was. And it was obvious," said safety Mike Adams. "When Chris went down, things started to unravel a little bit on the back end."

That's in part a testament to Harris' proficiency. His growth as a cover cornerback -- particularly in man-to-man coverage -- helped that position remain a strength of the team the last two years, even as intended first-teamers Tracy Porter and Champ Bailey missed lengthy stretches with their own injury issues.

At this late point in the season, a major schematic change is unlikely.

"I don't see it changing too much," said Adams, adding, "I don't think we're going to do things to adjust so we don't get exposed there."

So if the scheme and tactics don't change, only the personnel does, which leads to the obvious question: who fills the void?

"It's a long list," said Head Coach John Fox. "If I knew right now, I wouldn't say anyway."

But the possibilities are obvious, from the remaining collection of cornerbacks: Bailey, Quentin Jammer, Kayvon Webster and Tony Carter.

The ideal scenario appears to involve more snaps for Bailey, who Harris spelled for most of the season. This could depend on the condition of Bailey's left foot, which he sprained on Aug. 17 and aggravated against Indianapolis on Oct. 20. Bailey has worked as the slot cornerback the last three games, entering the game on nickel, dime and seven-defensive back packages.

"You’re more comfortable when you have a Champ Bailey behind you," said Knighton. "It makes things a lot easier for the D-line – rushing the quarterback and things like that. It also makes it hard for the quarterback. They’re not going to throw to his side most of the time and he basically shuts down half the field so it helps out everybody."

When Fox was asked whether Bailey was capable of handling more snaps, he kept matters close to the vest. But if Bailey is physically capable of playing every snap, that would appear to be the best option, even though he could continue to work inside as a slot cornerback when the Broncos go into their sub packages. If that happens, then Bailey would have exactly the same job as Harris did, a dual role that takes advantage of the cerebral strengths each one possesses.

"I would love to see Champ back out there every play, if you’re asking me that. Yes, I would love to see that," said Adams. "But that is yet to be determined."

Whether Bailey returns to the every-down role or not, someone else will likely see their workload increase, and that leaves Webster, Carter and Jammer.

Sunday, the replacement was Jammer. After he entered the game, Philip Rivers targeted him -- just as he did Webster in Week 15. Rivers found Keenan Allen twice for 65 yards in catches, including a 16-yard touchdown, and hit Eddie Royal once for a 30-yard gain in front of Jammer.

"Myself, I made mental errors that led to three big plays," Jammer said.

The one that rankled him most was the 49-yard pass to Allen on fourth-and-5 with 7:38 remaining. A stop on the play could have effectively iced the game; the Broncos led 24-7 at the time. Instead, when Jammer put his left arm out toward Allen nine yards past the line to gain, Allen sprinted past him and had two yards of separation by the time Philip Rivers' pass arrived.

"I over-thought everything," Jammer admitted. "And me being a veteran player, it's fourth-and-3, going against the wind, I'm thinking, 'a curl (route),' just something to get the first down and keep the chains moving, and I let the guy run right by me."

That followed a possession in which Jammer was beaten by Royal and Allen. On the 16-yard touchdown to Allen, Jammer was beaten after Allen rocked back and forth at the snap, then took off on a fade route. His move was enough to get the separation he needed.

"There's a lot that we can clean up, and there's a lot that I need to clean up," Jammer said.

"It's just little technique things that he can fix," added Adams. "Jam, I'm not worried about at all."

Webster would seem to be an obvious option, given that he has already worked as a third cornerback during the regular season. But he underwent surgery for a fractured thumb on Dec. 13, and although he returned Sunday, he played just one snap on defense and seven on special teams.

For Webster, the issue is the cast he must wear on his right arm until the end of the season, and how it affects his ability to make contact with opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and intercept passes, if he has the opportunity.

Finally, there is Tony Carter, who was inactive yesterday. Carter played 228 snaps in Weeks 1-5, but has seen just 38 snaps since after a difficult game in Dallas in which he was pressed into service and beaten deep for an 82-yard touchdown, the longest play allowed by the Broncos this year.

Carter was the No. 3 cornerback for much of the 2012 season and again this past September. But since his pick-six at Carolina in Week 10 of the 2012 season, he has snared just one interception. Carter is also an ex-Patriot, playing two games for New England in 2010, so Bill Belichick and his staff likely have a strong grasp of his strengths and weaknesses, just as the Chargers did with Jammer on Sunday.

There are options for replacing Harris. But which one the Broncos choose could be based on the health and potential durability of those options, and learning about those might take some time.

"That’s why we practice," Fox said.

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