There are few players in the NFL who have out-performed their contracts over the past three years the way Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has since he battled his way on to the Broncos’ roster as an undrafted rookie in 2011.
And over those three years, Harris Jr. has gone from a scrappy rookie with potential who was just looking for a spot to the do-it-all, competitive leader who is now officially one season away from his first trip into the open market as a player the Broncos will try, very hard, not to lose.
Harris Jr. signed his one-year tender Tuesday as the most important restricted free agent the Broncos have. The one-year deal is worth $2.187 million in the coming season. The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team.
But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.
“Chris is just so competitive, he battles on every play and he has the flexibility to go inside and or outside for us, plays in all of our sub packages, he’s just a good, good, focused player," is how Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has described him.
Now that Harris Jr. has signed the tender, he can also participate in any offseason workouts he is cleared for by the medical staff. The Broncos are set to open their offseason conditioning program on April 21.
And while Harris Jr.’s signing was expected by the Broncos' decision-makers, it is formally just another offseason loose end that has been tied up by the Broncos in recent weeks. He is currently recovering from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers this past January -- but still projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib.
Harris Jr. also has the skillset to move down inside in the nickel and dime packages to work the slot, which makes him one of the most valuable players on the defense.
Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said this past week at the NFL owners meetings that Harris Jr. was progressing quickly in his recovery from his knee surgery. Elway added that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because he did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.
Harris Jr. has maintained in recent weeks he could have played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, but team officials did not want to risk him playing on a structurally compromised knee. Harris Jr. fits into their long-term plan and if he plays as expected in the coming season he will be on a growing list of players the Broncos will have to work to re-sign in free agency next year.
Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Von Miller and Harris Jr. will all be poised to be unrestricted free agents next March if the Broncos aren’t able to get any of them on long-term deals before then. But in terms of Harris Jr., the Broncos have enjoyed his high-value work.
He counted $470,626 against the salary cap as a 12-game starter in 2012 and $555,668 against the salary cap as a 15-game starter in 2013 because he was still on the income schedule set when he opened his career as an undrafted rookie.
If Harris Jr. had not been coming off knee surgery and was unquestionably going to be ready for the entire 2014 seaso,n the Broncos would have likely had to consider using the highest tender on him -- a one-year deal worth $3.113 million that carried a first-round pick as compensation.
Harris Jr. has started 31 games over the past three seasons and has three playoff starts. He has played in 47 games overall to go with four total playoff games.