by Cian Fahey
Chris Harris' reputation has only grown this year.
His fourth season in the NFL wasn't supposed to be so attention-worthy. During the playoffs of 2013, the Denver Broncos cornerback tore his ACL. Suffering an injury at that stage of the season would not only cost him a chance at playing in the Super Bowl, but it was also expected to slow him down at the start of this season. While his offseason work was obviously affected, Harris didn't miss a single game once the regular season began. He was rotated in and out of the lineup in Week 1, but still played a significant amount of snaps.
The 25-year-old's play has drawn media plaudits from everywhere, while the Broncos themselves have acknowledged his importance to their team by signing him to a five year extension worth $42.5 million.
Harris is undoubtedly a quality NFL starter, and the Broncos appear to be getting good value in relation to what he could command as a free agent. Yet any suggestion that Harris is amongst the very best cornerbacks in the NFL is discounting the importance of his situation and his role within Jack Del Rio's defense in Denver. Much of Harris' plaudits this season have come from his Pro Football Focus grade, a number that suggests he is substantially better than that site's second-best cornerback, Darrelle Revis.
However, Pro Football Focus themselves acknowledge that their grades need to be viewed in context. Pro Football Focus is essentially grading how well Harris does with the responsibilities he is given on the field. Therefore, if Harris and Revis (or any other top cornerback) are being given different roles, they can't simply be compared by their respective grades. It's the equivalent of asking one person to take a high school math test while asking the other to interview for a job with NASA.
Within his role, Harris is a very valuable starter for the Broncos. However, that role is designed to minimize the pressures on him by masking his vulnerabilities and highlighting his strengths.
Del Rio's defense doesn't blitz very often. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, they rarely need to be aggressive to compensate for an offense that is putting them in problematic situations. Secondly, having Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, and Terrance Knighton upfront has allowed the Broncos to get pressure with just four pass rushers on a consistent basis. For a cornerback, this is a massively important aspect of the defense to consider.
Because the Broncos rarely rush more than four players, Harris is regularly part of a seven-man zone coverage that allows him to patrol a confined area of the field.
There is value in a player who excels in this particular role, but that value is limited. Playing zone coverage requires all of the pieces of the defense to be responsible for their designated areas, while playing in concert with their teammates. These zones can be larger or smaller depending on the team and the role of the individual player. In zone coverage, the route combinations of the offense become more important for creating space and exposing defensive backs.
As part of the Broncos' seven-man coverage, Harris is regularly put in comfortable positions because of his assignment and the route combinations called by the offense. He often only needs to get his initial positioning right to be in good coverage.
On this play, Harris is lined up to the right side of the defense. He isn't lined up on the line of scrimmage, but he is in position to be aggressive with the receiver during his release if he chooses to. The Broncos are initially showing a Cover-2 look, so Harris has immediate safety help over the top. It must also be noted that the wide receiver isn't lined up outside of the numbers, so Harris has more space outside of him than a boundary corner would typically expect.
Harris doesn't initiate contact with the receiver at the snap. Instead, he overplays an outside release and drops his inside foot backwards while swiveling on his right foot to force the receiver to release inside. Harris has perfectly played this release to put himself on the inside shoulder of the receiver as he runs down the field. While the defense altered its coverage at the snap, Harris was still put in a favorable position. Because of his initial release and positioning in relation to the other defenders in coverage, Harris only has to be concerned with two areas of the field: the deep seam and the deep sideline.
In the above image, Harris only has to cover the red routes. If the wide receiver runs any variation of the yellow routes, he will be running directly to another defender's zone.
Of course, zone coverages have to adjust and adapt to the routes that opposing receivers run, so they don't always get to stay in one area of the field, but with seven defenders in coverage this happens less and less. On this specific play, the receiver attempts to run a deep out route, but Harris is in the perfect position to prevent him from even running through his route. Harris deserves credit for his positioning and technique, but this can't be considered a high degree of difficulty play.
Zone cornerbacks often get disparaged too much. They do have significant value and they do need to show off impressive traits to effectively carry out their assignments. Harris shows off outstanding discipline, quickness, awareness, and decisiveness when playing zone.
Harris' positive plays always begin with his positioning. He understands exactly where to establish his feet within the design of each specific play. From there, he stays aware of the receivers around him and understands how to react to different route combinations. Once he has diagnosed the play, he breaks on the ball with the aggressiveness and quickness of anyone in the NFL. This play against the San Francisco 49ers shows off all of Harris' positive traits in zone coverage. This is a typical play of Harris' season so far.
When Harris is forced to mirror receivers more in zone coverage, he shows off very precise, quick feet that allow him to maintain his balance.
On this play, Harris drops into a deep third in Cover-3. The Jets wide receiver who immediately draws his attention runs a route to which it should be difficult for Harris to react. His out route breaks just after the underneath coverage, so Harris has to be wary of a double move down the field. With his precise and quick feet, Harris is able to comfortably mirror the movement of the receiver without overplaying the out route or being too cautious to give the receiver an opportunity to make a reception.
In short, this was perfect coverage.
Harris' value within the Broncos defense is high, but it's also largely tied to the quality of the players around him. He is not the kind of cornerback who can be put into any scheme, lined up against any opponent and be expected to succeed. Similar things are often said about Richard Sherman, but the differences between Harris and Sherman are severe. Sherman's skill set allows him to be dominant in man coverage situations, whereas Harris is more reliant on his help.
Using the PSR analysis method, Harris came out with a 65 percent success rate on 217 man coverage snaps for this season so far.
Harris moves around the field a significant amount. Of his 217 man coverage snaps, 91 have come in the slot, 113 at right cornerback and 13 at left cornerback. He covered receivers successfully on 69 percent of his snaps both in the slot and at left cornerback, but at right cornerback, in his largest sample, he had only a 61 percent success rate. Over the past two seasons, while being used somewhat similarly, Sherman has had roughly an 80 percent success rate in each year.
Where Harris does excel is against slant routes. Against 19 slant routes so far this season, Harris has been beaten in coverage just twice.
Versus quicker, slighter receivers, Harris has the footwork and agility to mirror his assignment's movements. Even when faced with such speed and agility as that possessed by T.Y. Hilton, Harris doesn't panic. He trusts his coverage ability and uses his length at the catch point to disrupt the play. Because the Broncos have Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in their secondary, Del Rio can keep Harris away from matchups that play away from his strengths. Covering Hilton is something he can do, but covering bigger receivers and tight ends causes him major problems.
Those major problems come because Harris can't play physical coverage. He rarely ever presses receivers or initiates first contact close to the line of scrimmage. Harris wants to mirror his assignments while offering them a cushion before breaking on the ball when it arrives.
When he doesn't get to do that, Harris needs help so he can be overly aggressive to push his receiver to a certain spot.
The Broncos' tendency to avoid blitzing also helps Harris in man coverage. Not only can the defense play a huge amount of Cover-2 with man coverage underneath, they can also specifically help Harris against routes that cause him trouble. Because Harris can't jam receivers at the line, he is always susceptible to crossing routes from the slot. Receivers often don't even have to make an initial fake or hesitate before simply running away from him because of the way he lines up. To counter this, the Broncos allow Harris to pass off his assignment to a safety who works forward while Harris drops into a zone over the middle of the field.
This tactic makes it very difficult for receivers to reverse field and lose Harris with a double move because he can be aggressive without having to cover the two-way go. When the offense stacks receivers together, Harris doesn't have to aggressively fight through traffic or cover the initial receiver. Instead he can just jump to a side and push his receiver back infield to a teammate. Even when there is no stack or double move, receivers are simply at a disadvantage because Harris is able to guide them to where he wants them to go or force them to try and create separation in an area he is set up to defend well.
Harris deserves a lot of credit for consistently understanding how to use his safety help, but there's no question that he benefits a huge amount from his situation. This defense makes his assignments significantly easier than they would be in most others across the league.
Despite his lack of physicality in coverage, Harris is a willing and aggressive run defender. Most significantly, his attitude and ability against screen plays stands out on a regular basis.
Harris uses his lack of height against his opposition on these plays as he is able to burst past blockers so low that they can't knock him away from the ball carrier. Harris isn't going to knock anyone out with a big hit, but with good technique he can comfortably bring bigger players to the ground by exploding through the point of contact. His energetic plays come on a snap-by-snap basis rather than one or two every quarter.
There is no doubting that Harris came at a good price for the Broncos. His value in the current construction of their defense is significant.
The former undrafted free agent is an ideal fit in the Broncos' zone-heavy coverage philosophy, while his ability to match up to smaller, quicker receivers perfectly complements the play of Talib and Ward. Harris may be the fifth or sixth most important player on his defense and he may become less valuable when the Broncos offense is less effective and their pass rush less impressive, but he should remain a valuable starter and a good NFL player even if he has somewhat of a bloated reputation right now.