The Broncos have a lot of interesting decisions to make this offseason in regards to free agency. Before they decide on which ones to target from other teams, Denver must first look at its own players who are set to hit the open market.
Heading into the offseason, the Broncos have 14 players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2020. At the end-of-season press conference, Broncos general manager John Elway said the Broncos are going to wait a month before they start evaluating their own players.
“That gives us more time to do it the right way. Rather than doing it on a personal side, because the coaches get connected with (players). I think you get a better objective view when you get away and you’re able to go back and look at it individually,” Elway said.
In the meantime, let’s take a tour through the list of players the Broncos need to make a decision about. During the next few weeks, I’ll take an in-depth look at Denver’s pending free agents, answering a simple question: Should the Broncos pay to keep them or take a pass, letting them head into free agency.
The Raiders selected defensive end Shelby Harris out of Illinois State in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Harris had the natural tools to grade out higher as a prospect, but his maturity and work ethic were a question about him coming out of college.
He was kicked out of Wisconsin for violating team rules and later was expelled from Illinois State for conduct detrimental to the team. So in four years of college football, Harris was kicked off of two teams and didn’t play in the 2013 season leading up to the 2014 draft.
There was little doubt that Harris could play at the pro level, but his physical skill set was that of a ‘tweener. Teams didn’t know if he could play defensive tackle or defensive end in the NFL. He gained 30 pounds when he was out of football in 2013 and the Raiders felt like they could take a chance on Harris with a late-round pick.
That chance lasted about two-and-a-half years. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Harris appeared in eight games combined, bouncing on and off the Raiders practice squad. He didn’t do much in those eight games, compiling just 14 tackles and one sack. In 2016, the Raiders let Harris go and he bounced around to two other teams. He spent the spring and summer with the Jets and he spent the fall with the Cowboys as a practice squad player.
In January of 2017, Harris signed a futures contract with the Broncos and the rest is history. He started off his career in Denver under former head coach Vance Joseph who was on the Raiders staff when the team selected him out of Illinois State. Harris was a rotational player but he had a knack for making big plays here and there.
The first memorable play for Harris with the Broncos was when he blocked a field goal attempt by the Chargers to seal a victory on “Monday Night Football.” Whether it was blocked kicks, timely sacks, batted passes or even interceptions, Harris was able to come through with plays at crucial moments in games. He has flourished with the Broncos but coming off a career-best season in a contract year makes for some interesting timing – and interesting business decisions.
Should the Broncos pay or pass? Let’s take a look.
Harris knows how to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. He’s always had a large wingspan, which helps him disengage from blockers, but this also helps him reach up and knock the ball down when an opposing quarterback is trying to get a pass off.
He tried playing nose tackle for Vic Fangio in 2019 and it didn’t look good. He was frustrated, but when the team moved him to defensive end, things worked out much better and Harris posted career-best numbers. On the outside at end, Harris can turn the ball-carrier inside and keep contain as a defender.
He’s getting to bat passes down at the line of scrimmage because Harris is not getting enough penetration. Harris did have a career high 6.0 sacks in 2019, but that is mainly as a clean-up player. When other defenders are creating pressure, it will at times force a quarterback towards Harris. He does a good job of getting him down, but it would be nice to see Harris get some more penetration to move quarterbacks in the direction of Von Miller or Bradley Chubb.
Harris is still not as consistent as he needs to be. There are times in games where he disappears or just isn’t much of a factor. Yes, he can shine in some big moments but it would be nice if that effort and production appeared on more snaps and more plays.
Harris is set to get paid in a big way this offseason. The top paid defensive end in the league is DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, with an average annual salary of $21 million. While that is not going to be the number that Harris approaches, he should push for an AAV that ranges around $10-12 million.
Veteran defensive ends like Justin Houston (Colts) and Jerry Hughes (Bills) are in that range, making them the No. 16 and No. 17 highest-paid defensive ends in the league in terms of AAV. While they are more known as pass-rushers, it’s not crazy to think that Harris might get up around those numbers.
A change in representation has many Broncos fans thinking that Harris will not return in 2020. That may be the case, but the price tag is not going to be cheap and there is certainly no such thing as a hometown discount with Harris this offseason.
— Drew Rosenhaus (@RosenhausSports) January 22, 2020
The Broncos have the salary cap room to afford a player like Harris this offseason, but re-signing him will cramp what else they can do in free agency.
Harris is high on the priority list for the Broncos. Earlier this year, Mike Klis tweeted about how his “guess” was that Harris was No. 2 on the priority list for the Broncos behind only free safety Justin Simmons. That was no guess, or at least I should write that is one helluva educated guess because Klis is more closely connected to this team than anyone.
The Broncos need to pay Harris.
Harris may have just shown us the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what he can do in the NFL. It could be better in 2020 with Chubb returning to play outside linebacker and Harris could combine with him like Derek Wolfe has combined with Miller to create pass-rushing magic on one side of the offensive line. Re-signing Shelby Harris is going to be expensive but the Broncos should do it.
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