ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After 15 seasons -- and all of the practices, games and offseason workouts that go with them -- Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has a theory about young players at the position.
Beyond the speed and other physical attributes that go with the job -- “Look, lots of guys have that or you wouldn’t even be here" -- Bailey has always believed there is a little something else that determines who stays and who doesn’t.
“And that’s confidence about what you do, how you do it," Bailey said. “Not over-the-top, not misplaced confidence, because you have to come to work every day and be ready to do your job and get better. But the guys who bounce back from mistakes, who line right up to go again and play like nothing happened. You have to learn from your mistakes, but the mistakes can’t slow you down. It just seems like the guys who can’t rebound, repeat them."
That’s why, Bailey has always said, he knew Chris Harris Jr. had a bright future in the Broncos’ defense. Because Harris Jr., even from his first day as an undrafted rookie in 2011, has always bounced back from anything in front of him, has always learned and has always put in the work.
Which is also why, though Harris Jr. may not be a household name for many, he is one of the most important players in the Broncos’ defense. And after Harris Jr. tore an ACL in Sunday’s win over the San Diego Chargers, he will be one of the most difficult players to replace in the defense.
Harris Jr. took to Twitter on Monday morning to say he will work the same way he always has worked to get himself back:
Harris tweeted “Thanks for the prayers , Gonna work extremely hard and come back a Monster next year . God is on my side. #broncosup" to go with “Blessed to be able to help the team get this Far , and will still do my part in meeting room to help my guys out."
Overall, though, Harris Jr. played the most snaps in the regular season of any of the Broncos' defensive players -- 1,042 -- and his ability to play in either outside position -- left or right -- and in either slot position, depending on the what the Broncos needed, enabled the Broncos to do more things in coverage. Harris Jr. can run with the league's fastest, he's willing to mix it up in traffic, doesn't get pushed off the ball and he is intelligent enough to work in the slot. And when a pass does get past him, he simply lines up to stop the next one, leaving the bad baggage behind, taking only what he needed from the experience with him.
In the few games the Broncos could play Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Bailey and Harris Jr. together -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury -- the Broncos showed they just might have one of the better cornerback trios in the league.
They will have to mix and match to make up for the loss of Harris Jr. They’ll need to figure out how to get rookie Kayvon Webster involved because of his speed and the bounce-back ability he has shown already this season. Webster, however, is playing with a cast on a surgically-repaired right thumb and Sunday’s game was his first game back since the injury.
The Broncos can use Quentin Jammer, as well, but will have to gauge his readiness to work on the outside in a playoff situation. Jammer is plenty savvy and in his time with the Broncos has played better down toward the line of scrimmage in the short and intermediate areas.
The veteran had a tough go Sunday after he replaced Harris Jr. in the lineup and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was quick to target him in one-on-one situations down the field, including a fourth-quarter touchdown throw to rookie Keenan Allen. Jammer said after the game he knows he has to be better and the Broncos will certainly have to agree to put him in similar situations in this postseason.
They have Tony Carter on the roster, as well. Carter is one of the team’s fastest players and has worked in many roles in his time with the Broncos, but over the course of the season the Broncos have moved both Webster and Jammer past him on the depth chart after Carter had been targeted some by opposing quarterbacks earlier in the season.
It all may force the Broncos to take fewer chances in the pass rush, especially given the fact defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has added defensive backs to the rush in many of the Broncos’ specialty packages. That will be a difficult line to walk with the Broncos not at their best in the secondary right now, because to give the quarterbacks remaining in the postseason, starting with the Patriots' Tom Brady on Sunday, more time to look their coverages over certainly wouldn’t be a good thing.
In the end they need Rodgers-Cromartie to play like a No. 1 cornerback the rest of the way. They need Bailey to stay on the field playing with every ounce of determination to get to his first Super Bowl. And they need all of the remaining cornerbacks to find a way to cover for at least some of what Harris Jr. did for them in coverage.