In starters Orlando Franklin, Von Miller and Rahim Moore, the Broncos have a strong corps of second-year players contributing on a weekly basis.
But in addition to those 2011 NFL Draft picks, cornerback Chris Harris — an undrafted free agent last season — is playing a key role as a sophomore.
“For him to make the team as a free agent last year, he knows he’s better this year,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “His mentality as far as the game and what to expect, it’s sky-high right now and he’s feeling good about what he can do.”
Bailey said Harris has grown “tremendously” from year one to year two.
Last year, Harris played in all 16 regular-season games and both playoff contests as a rookie, starting five as he emerged as the team’s nickel cornerback.
He was named to the 2011 NFL All-Rookie Team by the Pro Football Writers of America and Football Outsiders after ranking first among the league’s rookie defensive backs with 65 tackles to go along with one interception, six passes defensed and six special-teams stops.
This season, Harris has picked up where he left off, notching 11 tackles and a pass defensed through the first four weeks of the season, even after missing one game with an ankle injury. He’s currently tied with Packers wide receiver Charles Woodson for the most sacks by a defensive back in 2012 with 1.5.
“One thing about Chris, he’s a fighter,” Bailey said. “He’s probably the biggest fighter we have on this team.”
Harris — who has been a mainstay at nickel again this year except Week 3, when he joined the team’s base defense for an injured Tracy Porter — expects a fight on Sunday against a talented New England Patriots offense that put 52 points on the board in a Week 4 victory against the Buffalo Bills.
“That’s definitely impressive — a team that can score seven points in the first half and then come out and end the game with 52 points,” Harris said. “That’s why you can’t make the mental mistakes versus Tom Brady and we can’t give them anything easy and make them work for everything they get. It’s just going to be a challenge.”
There are already plenty of storylines leading up to Sunday’s matchup, not the least of which is the 13th meeting of quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Both teams enter the game at 2-2, and Harris said the Broncos haven’t quite forgotten the way New England defeated them in 2011.
“They beat us twice last year and knocked us (out of) the playoffs, so definitely we’re going to be focused,” Harris said.