The Denver Broncos watch the recoveries of all of their surgically-repaired players with great interest, but the recovery timetable of one of those players will have the most significant impact on the kind of defense the Broncos will play in the 2014 season.
Is it Von Miller? Well, the Broncos certainly want their Pro Bowl linebacker back to his 2012 production level-self when he returns from ACL surgery because an elite edge rusher is a foundation player in roster building. But, no, it's not him.
Is it Derek Wolfe? The Broncos would like Wolfe, who did not play after suffering seizure-like symptoms in late November, to return to their defensive line rotation and be the impactful player up front they believed he could be when they took him in the second round of the 2012 draft. But, no, it's not him.
It's cornerback Chris Harris Jr. By all accounts Harris Jr. is progressing well from his ACL surgery. Harris signed his one-year tender offer this week. The one-year deal, now guaranteed since Harris Jr. has signed it, 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.
But in a pass-happy league, Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.
In fact there are some in the league who believe, after a franchise quarterback, the cornerback who can play effectively down inside at the nickel spot may be the most difficult to find. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway says there is only a short list to work from when you look at draft prospects each year.
“And that's where it's really getting difficult, and maybe the most valuable guy right now is the guy who can come down and play in the slot,'' said ESPN's Herm Edwards, a former NFL defensive back who has also coached the secondary and called plays on defense in the league. “When you get that guy he can play a long time. He's got to do everything, a unique, valuable guy, who can cover, blitz, tackle and play outside and inside and do all of that while being technically sound.''
It is how Harris Jr. has gone from inexplicably going undrafted as a rookie in 2012 to such a key role in the Broncos' defense. He's ultra competitive, quick, rebounds from the few mistakes he does make quickly and can cover bigger receivers outside as well as the smaller, fast-twitch quick players on the inside.
Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said the nickel corner has one of the toughest jobs because things happen quickly in the middle of the field and there is no benefit of a sideline “where you can force a guy to cut him off from the ball. Inside you're always in the open and if you make a mistake the quarterback can pounce fast.''
“When you play outside the boundary is your friend, you're always playing to a boundary,'' Edwards said. “It's there to help you. When you play the nickel you're in the middle of the field, and there's always a void in the defense between the numbers, between the hashes, there's always an empty spot. If a guy beats you there, you're done on defense the guy catches it and now he's running ... And it all happens fast in there.''
It's why Harris Jr. was easily the Broncos' most important restricted free agent and also may have been their most important player from their own roster who was poised for some kind of free agency. Replacing Harris would have likely, in the opinion of many personnel executives around the league, been more difficult for the Broncos than replacing Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles or Shaun Phillips -- all players who signed elsewhere.
Harris Jr. is still on track to return to full speed from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers this past January -- and projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib. And while Talib has played inside at times in his career, Harris Jr. still projects to move into the slot when the Broncos go to the nickel and if they haven't matched Talib on a receiver who has moved into the slot to try and escape him.
Elway said last week at the NFL meetings 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 Harris Jr. did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.
“But when you have that guy -- and I've coached guys who it took a year and half to even get comfortable in the nickel role -- and you can rely on that guy to move wherever you need him to, you have to keep him,'' Edwards said. “Because if you don't you're going to have to spend a lot of time trying to get yourself another one.''