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'They gave me my first chance': After difficult path to Denver, emotional Shelby Harris overwhelmed to remain with Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A season ago, Shelby Harris entered the free-agent market and met an unexpected and undesired result.

After a six-sack, 49-tackle season, Harris' market did not materialize, and he returned to Denver on a one-year deal.

In 2020, the former seventh-round pick ensured he would earn a deal to stay in Denver for the long term.

"I would say, just not being denied," Harris said Friday of his mindset in 2020. "I felt like I had a good year [in 2019], but obviously, not good enough. So, I had to go out and put the work in. If you ever have a question, just go put some more work in. I wasn't happy with how free agency went last year. I went and kept working. It's crazy because it all came tenfold."

Harris agreed to terms earlier this week on a three-year deal that will keep him in Denver through 2023, and it represents a major step for a player who once struggled to latch onto a permanent home.

"Here's the biggest part about it — I'm just happy to be here," Harris said. "This is home and they gave me my first chance. I'm happy to continue to stay here."

Three different teams cut Harris before he found his way to the Broncos in 2017, and he carved out a role with 5.5 sacks in his first season with the team. Two seasons later, he became one of the team's top defensive linemen as he posted six sacks, a forced fumble and nine passes defensed. In 2020, he posted another seven passes defensed and 2.5 more sacks in 11 games.

Despite missing four games due to COVID, Harris returned to post nine tackles, three quarterback hits and four passes defensed in his four games after the illness.

"To pick up where I left off and to keep taking steps, it just showed it wasn't a fluke," Harris said of his return late in the year. "Even with some time off, it just came right back. I just wanted to make sure I came out there. Also, a big step I took that made me more valuable was I became a better leader. It's crazy that I'm one of the oldest guys in the room. I'm one of the oldest guys in the locker room and I realized that words hold weight. For me, that's what I'm most proud of — going out there and trying to lead by example."

General Manager George Paton has known about Harris' ability for several years, and he paid particular attention when the Vikings prepared for a matchup with the Broncos in 2019. Harris forced a fumble in that game and recorded three sacksas the Broncos raced out to a 20-point lead against a playoff team.

"When I was with the Vikings and we watched tape of the Broncos, No. 96 stood out — Shelby Harris," Paton said Thursday. "He's physical in the run game, he sets the tone up front, he's strong, he's heavy-handed, he's a disruptive pass rusher, and, as everyone knows, he gets his hands on a lot of balls. I was just told before I came here, he's one of five defensive linemen currently in the league with 15 sacks and over 20 pass deflections. So, you feel Shelby.

"The thing that really sticks out with Shelby is the perseverance he's shown throughout his career. He's been with four different teams, he's been cut six different times, and now, to be here as one of the best defensive linemen in the league is truly special. You love to reward guys like that. It's a special feeling and we hope Shelby finishes a career off as a Denver Bronco and we're really pleased to have him."

Harris joked that Paton "became my best friend this week," but Friday's press conference also took on a more somber tone at times.

The weight of Harris' journey was evident, as he became emotional talking about what it meant to him and his family to sign an extension with the Broncos. After a constant grind to start his NFL career, Harris has at last been rewarded for his persistence.

And more than anything, that's left him with a sense of tremendous gratitude.

"Thank you to the Broncos," Harris said. "Thank you to George, thank you to [President & CEO] Joe Ellis and the whole organization for believing in me. From where I came from, this is huge for us — my family. I just want to say thank you and I appreciate it. The work doesn't stop. This is a big moment for all my kids. I just want to say thank you."

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