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Third Cornerback Still a Starter

Posted May 21, 2013

Though the nickel cornerback might not get to run through the tunnel during the introduction of the starters, the position is still a starter in the pass-happy NFL.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There's the starting lineup that is introduced to fireworks and fanfare when the Broncos run through the southwest tunnel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Then there's the actual 11 men that start and end up playing a majority of the snaps.

Nowadays, these groupings are not one and the same.

Last year, the starting offense introduced before home games usually included fullback Chris Gronkowski. Of course, he never actually started a game, because his position was marginalized in the offense. The Broncos opened seven games in a one-running back, two-tight end set, eight in a one-back, three-wide receiver package and one with an empty backfield, two tight ends and three receivers. Gronkowski never played more than six offensive snaps in a game. Slot receiver Brandon Stokley and No. 2 tight end Jacob Tamme played far more often. Even third-string tight end Virgil Green played four times as many snaps.

When the defense was introduced, it included three linebackers. That didn't prove as incongruous as it was with fullback, since Von Miller moved to defensive end in nickel and dime sub packages and middle linebackers Joe Mays and Keith Brooking combined to play 69.7 percent of the snaps last year. But with the nickel formation the most-frequently used alignment in 2012 -- then shouldn't three cornerbacks be among the 11 who run through the tunnel?

"I think so," said cornerback Chris Harris, who obviously has a stake in the issue. "I mean, I play just as many snaps -- probably more snaps -- than the linebackers. That's how they do it. I'm not really too worried about that too much. I mean, I think the nickel should be introduced, though. What do y'all think?"

What I think is irrelevant. Now Harris' boss, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, sees where the third-year cornerback is coming from.

"Our sub packages of at least three corners, we took up, I believe, 65, 66 percent of our snaps last year. So you're talking about a guy that's playing the majority of the snaps as opposed to a third linebacker. The third corner is playing more like a starter now," Del Rio said. "You still trot out your starters before the game, and the nickel typically doesn't run out (of the tunnel), but if they start in 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers), he will. So that position has become more and more important."

That partially explains the Broncos' heavy emphasis on stocking the position the last two years. In 2012, the Broncos signed two free agents (Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence) and drafted Omar Bolden in the fourth round. Porter and Florence didn't work out, but the Broncos were saved by Harris and Tony Carter, unheralded, undrafted players who beat out their more decorated competitors.The same situation applies this year; Denver signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and picked Kayvon Webster in the third round.

"You play with the Broncos, they're bringing in good guys every year, so you always have to be ready to play, you can never relax," Harris said.

It would come as no surprise if six cornerbacks made the 53-man roster. But with nickel being the true base defense, and dime packages used far more often than four-linebacker sets, keeping six cornerbacks would seem more logical than retaining six linebackers.

No matter how many cornerbacks the Broncos keep, Harris' play the last two seasons makes him a near-certainty to stick on the final 53. But where he fits is the question. Assuming Champ Bailey stays healthy, there's only room for one more "starting" cornerback, and Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie are the two top contenders.

Both will play. But Harris wants more. He wants the role he had much of last season, when he started at right cornerback, but moved inside to slot cornerback when the Broncos went into their nickel packages.

"I really see myself as a true corner that can play slot," Harris said. "The reason why I’m good at slot is because I know what I’m doing. I know the defense. I know the system. That’s where I can communicate with linebackers, communicate with the safeties and put everybody in the right coverage. That’s something that really sets me apart compared to a lot of DBs."

And one can argue that in practice, Harris has the hardest assignment: facing off with slot receiver Wes Welker, who has redefined the ceiling of the position.

"That'll sharpen his skills, for sure," Del Rio said. "Wes is a handful."

If he can flourish against Welker, Harris will have again shown that he can play well against any type of receiver, inside and out. Of course, he did that last year, when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns, broke up 12 passes, missed few tackles and finished as the No. 5 cornerback in the NFL in the metrics used by ProFootballFocus.com.

Harris will play a starter's level of snaps in 2013, whether he's introduced before home games or not. But he wants the first-team designation.

"It definitely matters to me," he said. "I feel like I am a starting corner in this league."

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