Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. is making headlines for his current contract impasse with the Denver Broncos. However that shakes out, it’s bound to end with him signing a deal making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive backs. It’s an opportune time to review Harris’ journey from undrafted free agent to one of football’s best defenders. His story serves as an illustration of why some great players go undrafted and how savvy teams can exploit these inefficiencies.
The Denver Broncos signed Chris Harris, Jr. during the “priority” free agent period immediately after the draft … but just barely. Denver signed 10 free agents in the wake of the 2011 draft, and the Kansas cornerback received only a $2,000 bonus. “I knew I was the last spot,” Harris joked, “because I got the smallest signing bonus.” On the first official depth chart prior to the first preseason game, Harris was listed as the fourth-string left cornerback.
Despite his humble beginnings, Harris made the 53-man roster on the strength of special teams play, and by Week 7 of his rookie year earned the slot cornerback role, picking up First-Team All-Rookie honors at the conclusion of the campaign. His coming out party came a year later, when he started outside for the Broncos in Week 6 and picked off veteran Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers twice. Harris made his first Pro Bowl in 2014, helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl in the 2015 season, and was named First-Team All-Pro in 2016. After signing a five-year, $42.5 MM extension in 2014, it probably became a lot easier to joke about his $2,000 signing bonus.
Harris as a Draft Prospect
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say Harris should have been drafted—heck, he should have been a first-round pick. But even understanding how excellent Harris has been, it’s hard to look back and pinpoint what separates him from the legion of similar players who go undrafted each April.
Harris was a tackle machine for Kansas, logging 290 in his four seasons with the Jayhawks, but he didn’t have desirable on-ball production in the passing game. After three interceptions in his first two years, he didn’t have any as a junior, though he did compile nine passes defensed. As a senior, he shifted to safety for half the season, likely further depressing his numbers. He finished with no interceptions and only one pass defensed. Consequently he did not win All-Conference honors apart from All-Big 12 Freshman accolades in 2007.
You can trace the lack of accolades even further for Harris. A late-bloomer, he considered himself more of a basketball player until his senior year of high school, when he realized his prospects were better in football and dedicated himself to his craft. That came too late for recruiting services and big-time college programs; Harris was rated a two-star athlete by Rivals and was lightly-recruited. Even though he earned early playing time in Lawrence, the lack of recruiting buzz often sticks with area scouts, who are responsible for evaluating hundreds of players.
Moving to safety undoubtedly hurt Harris’ status apart from its effect on his statistics. At 5’9” and 194 pounds, Harris is undersized even for a cornerback, and well below most teams’ size thresholds for a safety. The rest of his athletic profile was fine; nothing that would raise a red flag, but also no outstanding speed, explosiveness, or movement skills that would make Harris stand out from any of the dozens of other draft-eligible defensive backs.
Harris was also a victim of circumstance. The Jayhawks finished 12-1 in his freshman season, beating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl to earn a #7 overall ranking. They went 8-5 the next year, again winning a bowl game, and started 5-0 in Harris’ junior year. That was when the wheels came off. Head coach Mark Mangino was investigated for improper treatment of players, the team closed the season with seven straight losses, and Mangino was forced to resign at the end of the year. The Jayhawks’ skid continued in Turner Gill’s first year as head coach, with the team finishing 3-9. No Kansas players were selected in the 2011 draft, and Harris was the first to sign a UDFA contract.
The coaching turmoil likely hurt Harris politically, too. He had the respect of his peers—his Jayhawks teammates voted him captain twice—but Gill didn’t recruit Harris and his endorsement to NFL teams likely wasn’t as strong as Mangino’s would have been had he stayed. And a somewhat-disgraced Mangino vouching for Harris in 2011 wouldn’t carry as much weight as it would have two years earlier.
Kansas isn’t known as a football hotbed, but even so Harris was overshadowed by more heralded teammates in the defensive backfield. Aqib Talib, for several years a Broncos teammate, had rare NFL size and was a first-round pick in 2008. Darrell Stuckey won First-Team All-Big 12 honors and was a fourth-round pick as a safety.
Harris also suffered from a prejudice against slot cornerbacks. While he has proven he can play outside as well, like most players with less-than-ideal height, most teams saw him as a inside corner. Despite more and more teams running three wide receiver sets more and more often, teams don’t view the slot corner as a starter and don’t invest much in the position. That mentality is changing, but still exists to a large degree. A recent example is Desmond King, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football but fell to the fifth round of the 2017 draft amid concerns that his size and speed would relegate him to “only” a slot guy. King has made that pick pay off for the Los Angeles Chargers, winning All Pro honors in 2018.
So Harris was a perfect storm of factors that cause teams to overlook a player: small, just OK measurables, unremarkable production, a losing program, a coach that hadn’t recruited him, an unfortunate position change, more-renowned teammates, and projected to a slot role that teams undervalue. But he was smart, competitive, and quick, and he could cover and tackle, and ultimately all those positive qualities outweighed all the factors that caused teams to pass over him in the draft.
What Matters for Cornerbacks
Cornerback requires some physical excellence, certainly—there aren’t a lot of good corners who are 5’7” or run 4.70 40s—but the biggest, fastest players aren’t necessarily the ones with coverage ability or ball skills. Those qualities are more nuanced. Can you stay patient at the line of scrimmage? How refined is your footwork? Can you read the receiver’s vertical stem? Can you react to his movements without overreacting? Can you track the ball in the air? Read the quarterback’s eyes in zone? Do you know when to turn and look for the ball and when to play the receiver’s hands? These skills aren’t going to show up in Combine drills, and they’re not necessarily going to show up in the stat sheet either.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Harris is just one of several late-round or undrafted cornerbacks to find NFL success. Seattle’s Legion of Boom was anchored by corners Richard Sherman (fifth round) and Brandon Browner (undrafted, signed from the Canadian Football League), two cornerbacks with very different body types than Harris but who won with tremendous length, physicality, and ball skills. The Seahawks’ chances at a Super Bowl repeat were dashed by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted, undersized signee from tiny West Alabama. The next year, the Carolina Panthers met Harris’ Broncos in the Super Bowl; one of Carolina’s star playmakers with Josh Norman, a fifth-rounder from small-school Coastal Carolina who ran a poor 40 time but had size, competitiveness, and ball skills. Brent Grimes, A.J. Bouye, and Sam Shields are more examples of undrafted cornerbacks who have had long and productive careers.
With the rise of spread offenses, teams need more and more depth in the defensive secondary to run the nickel and dime defenses that have become increasingly prevalent. Savvy teams will find that they don’t always need to invest top picks to add to their cornerback depth, if they can isolate the critical factors that make for excellence on the football field. These factors aren’t always going to stand out in the pre-draft process. The good news for future prospects who don’t meet NFL ideals is that, because teams can never have too many cornerbacks, they will always be looking for the next undrafted gem. The next Chris Harris, Jr.