ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is a riddle that has yet to be answered, like some kind of football crop circle.
One day it's just there, everybody sees it, but the questions remain about how Chris Harris Jr. went from underdog to top dog without most noticing along the way.
The Denver Broncos cornerback once counted his scholarship offers on one finger. After four years as a starter at Kansas, he was not invited to the 2011 scouting combine and was not selected in the NFL draft. And now, although he's just nine months removed from ACL surgery, people can see what so many others missed.
"This didn't just start this year," said the newly retired Champ Bailey, a likely future Hall of Famer who was Harris' teammate for three seasons. "Chris didn't just suddenly put it together and play. It's been building, and the fact is Chris is playing better than anybody right now. ... Chris is playing the best of any player at his position in this league."
Mike Giddings, a former Broncos assistant coach who now operates Proscout Inc., a scouting service that is used throughout the league for its evaluation of every player on every roster, ranks Harris as "blue," the highest level given to only a smattering of players across the NFL.
And this past week, one NFC personnel director, who can't openly comment about the future prospects of a player under contract with another team, was asked if there was any player in the league who plays better with less fanfare. His answer? "None. And not sure I've seen anything like it before. He's an upper-tier player, a top player, and somebody is going to pay him if [the Broncos] don't."
The perpetually smiling Harris is also pathologically competitive, with humility wrapped around supreme confidence. He knows he is what an NFL cornerback should be. And he's still not sure why it took so long for others to figure it out.
"My mom, she thought I was the best, my sisters maybe; but maybe that's not objective or anything," Harris said. "But if you believe in yourself, your family believes in you, you put in the work, do it right, you only need one other person to believe in you. That doesn't seem like a lot, but sometimes it is."
Harris will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. But consider what had to happen for him to get here from there -- there being a winding trek through other people's doubts.
"It's been a long road," Harris said. "It seems like the contract, or endorsements, or being the guy who is talked about, from the world's standpoint, that's what rates people for some. But I like to say football always tells the truth, and maybe right now football is telling the truth. I might not go to the Pro Bowl or be the guy everybody knows right now, but football is telling the truth."
Harris had exactly one scholarship offer when he finished an all-state prep career at Bixby (Oklahoma) High School. And that was from Kansas. "That was it. They offered, I said yes as fast as I could," Harris said. "It wasn't like I was sorting through all the letters from coaches all over the place or anything like that."
He started as a freshman for the Jayhawks and ended up being a team captain, playing 50 games in his career, 41 as a starter.
When he looks for reasons the NFL was slow to notice him, Harris points to one thing: "I guess it's my size. I guess everybody looked at my size.''
Harris measured 5-foot-9, 190 pounds on his pro day at Kansas. There was also the matter of a decision he made to help, when help was needed. Harris played the first half of his senior season at cornerback, but then moved to safety. And when the time for draft evaluations came, there were plenty of folks in the league who saw an undersized safety.
"I had moved to safety in the middle of the season just to help," Harris said. "I think some people in the league saw me as a safety, not a corner, but I just volunteered to do it. They weren't throwing at me anyway at corner. I wanted to help our defense and get around the ball."
This may have been a factor in Harris not being invited to the NFL combine.
"It was frustrating," Harris said. "There were guys at the combine that didn't have anything close to my résumé. I'd see other guys didn't start as many games as I did, but I just told people if I got just one shot, I'll be good. I've always just wanted one shot, because you can turn that into something."
The shot did not come via the 2011 draft, which included Denver's Von Miller, Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Houston's J.J. Watt. The Texans made Rice defensive end Cheta Ozougwu the 254th and final pick of that draft, and Harris' name was never called.
As the Broncos put together the list of undrafted rookies they would invite to camp -- signing offensive tackle Adam Grant, wide receiver Mark Dell, cornerback Brandon Bing and linebacker Derek Domino -- the available signing bonus money was largely spent and all of the spots were full -- except for one.
Former Broncos scout Dave Ziegler offered coach John Fox three choices at cornerback for the final roster spot and the last $2,000 available for a signing bonus. The third player -- as Fox puts it: "The smart guy who started four years at Kansas" -- was Harris.
"One shot, that's all I need, just one," Harris said. "My shot was in that camp.''
The Broncos had the likes of Bailey, Brian Dawkins and Andre Goodman in that secondary, but Harris made a fast impression.
"You could see it right away," Bailey said. "He didn't talk much, but he paid attention, didn't make mistakes, and in practice nobody competed harder than he did. He jumped in and went against everybody. He didn't back down, and if a guy made a catch on him, he came right back for more. Those are the guys who make it. I felt like after the first week he was making it."
Since then, Harris has lined up wherever the Broncos needed him. He's matched up with any receiver, any time, in the slot or outside. He's willed himself from the team's most active special-teams player to a starter for the past three seasons.
Even when he suffered a partially torn ACL in the Broncos' playoff win over the San Diego Chargers this past January, Harris tried to convince the team's coaches he could play in Super Bowl XLVIII three weeks later.
"And he attacked his rehab in the offseason," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "He competes every day, every play on the practice field, just competes so hard. So maybe some guys I would have wondered if they were coming back; I never wondered about Chris. I knew he would do everything in his power to get himself back to how he wants to play."
So, here he is, a topflight cornerback with his first foray into free agency on the horizon if the Broncos let him reach the open market. A guy an all-time great has called the best at his position.
"Champ pretty much stuck his neck out there, so I have to prove him right," Harris said. "I have to prove every week that I'm the best. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface yet of what I can do. I'm only 25. There are still a lot of things I can do. Looking at it, I think I would have still done the same things, worked as hard, got up every day trying to be the best even if people had looked at me differently.
"I'm glad I have a story to tell. It's unique, it's mine and I'm blessed to have it. And it's not done; no way is it done."