ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos began their offseason conditioning program Tuesday without Chris Harris Jr., sources told 9NEWS.
The team’s star cornerback is planning to stay away from the Broncos’ offseason conditioning and practices, at least for now. Presumably, Harris is sending the message he wants management to revisit his contract. After the team picked up his $1 million option earlier this month, Harris has one year and $7.9 million left on his contract.
The offseason program is considered voluntary with the exception of the veteran minicamp from June 4-6, so Harris’ absence is not officially considered a holdout. However, Harris has never missed a voluntary workout before and his no-show suggests he would like his contract extended sooner rather than later.
Harris would be the first Broncos' player to miss the team's offseason program since Von Miller in 2016.
“It’s optional, right?'' Miller said. "This is an optional period to be here. We all know what type of pro Chris is on and off the football field. He’s going to be ready to go whenever he’s here, and if he’s not here, he’s still going to be ready to go. We’re talking about ‘Strap Harris.’ He can be on Mars and he’s going to be ‘Strap Harris.’ He’s going through whatever he’s going through right now and I support him 100 percent. When it’s time to go, he’s going to be ready to go. There’s really not too much you can say about that. It’s his ninth year coming up and whatever he has to do to get ready, I’m for it.”
Broncos management met with Harris’ agent Fred Lyles during the NFL Combine a month ago and both sides agreed a contract extension needed to be worked out but the team wanted to first get through free agency and the draft.
The Broncos then went to work on free agency by signing 31-year-old defensive back Kareem Jackson to a three-year contract that averaged $11 million a year, and “slot” corner Bryce Callahan to a three-year deal worth $7 million a year.
While Broncos general manager John Elway has consistently said he wants to get through free agency and the draft before revisiting Harris' contract, the cornerback -- whose four Pro Bowls are four more than what Jackson has received -- wants to get the deal done now.
One potential impediment: The Broncos have just $11.77 million in cap space and about $5 million of that is slotted for their No. 10 overall draft pick.
The Broncos would appear to have four options with Harris:
1. Work out an extension.
Harris is finishing his second contract with the team. In December 2014, he signed a five-year extension worth $8.5 million per year that Harris.
That deal now ties him for the league’s 23rd-highest-paid cornerback. And his $7.9 million payout for 2019 ranks 29th. Thirteen cornerbacks will make at least $10 million in 2019, including former teammate Bradley Roby, who got a one-year, $10 million contract with Houston.
2. Hold firm and hope Harris reconsiders.
With Jackson and Callahan on their roster, the Broncos could encourage Harris to honor the final year of his contract and use the leverage of free agency after this season.
3. Amend his 2019 payout.
Last season, the Broncos added a $3 million incentive package on top of Harris’ $8.5 million payout. He wound up earning an extra $500,000 -- $200,000 by recording three interceptions and $300,000 through the combination of playing at least 65 percent of the snaps and the team winning six games.
He was on pace to earning more incentive money until a hairline fracture in his fibula forced him to miss the final four games.
4. Trade him.
This may be the least likely option as its unlikely the Broncos could get fair value in return for a player of Harris’ caliber, especially with the first phase of the offseason trading period passed.
If the Broncos did decide to go the trade route, they would probably get more value in return by dealing Harris before or during the April 25-27 draft. Rosters become pretty well set after the draft.
Harris is a self-made star who was undrafted out of Kansas in 2011. He made the Broncos’ roster as a special teams standout and No. 5 cornerback behind Champ Bailey, Andre Goodman, Cassius Vaughn and Jonathan Wilhite.
Harris wound up starting four games in the nickel defense his rookie year, then became a full-time starter in 2012 when he replaced an ailing Tracy Porter in game 6 at San Diego.
In that game, Harris finished off a Broncos comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit with a 46-yard pick six against Philip Rivers.
Possibly working against Harris in negotiations is he will turn 30 on June 18 and his coming off a season-ending injury. Then again, age didn’t stop the Broncos from giving Jackson a fully guaranteed $23 million in the first two years of his deal.
Harris has four Pro Bowl appearances to Jackson’s none. And Harris recovered from his leg fracture in time to play in the Pro Bowl in January.
Besides his four Pro Bowl berths, Harris was a first-team All Pro in 2016.
Harris had been working out in the Dallas-area with trainer Ronnie Braxton, who also works out former Bronco cornerback Aqib Talib, and stretch coach Adam Ster.
So even if he stays away all spring, Harris should be in top condition. He will continue to keep his body in shape while the rest of the Broncos’ team train at UCHealth Training Center. The players reported Tuesday morning for new head coach Vic Fangio’s first team meeting before engaging in cardio and muscular training with strength and conditioning coordinator Loren Landow.
Miller held out after he was slapped with the franchise tag in 2016. He wound up getting a six-year, $114.5 million contract later that summer that made him the league’s highest-paid defensive player.
Is it stressful staying from your team during the three-month offseason prorgam?
"It wasn’t stressful at all. I was chillin','' Miller said to laughter before admitting there was some angst. "Whenever you go over negotiations and contracts and stuff that can always get stressful because that’s your career. This is what I do. I want to play football. And whenever there’s some uncertainty, whether it’s this or that, it’s a little bit stressful. But staying at home while everyone else is doing OTAs here in Denver? No, it wasn’t stressful.”