The Broncos have established some continuity on their defensive line over the past two seasons. Super Bowl-era holdover Derek Wolfe has anchored the unit for years, and Adam Gotsis enters his fourth season. Both Shelby Harris and Zach Kerr are back for third Denver slates. With the exception of Kerr, each enters a contract year.
Although Wolfe is this group’s biggest name, Harris presents the most interesting extension candidacy. The Broncos’ projected starting nose tackle has gone from Raiders afterthought to being out of football in 2016 to ending 2018 as one of the most effective defensive tackles in the game (on a per-play basis). Pro Football Focus graded Harris as its No. 9 interior defender last season, and the Broncos responded by applying a second-round tender ($3.095MM).
Set for his age-28 season, Harris is set to become a primary first-stringer for the first time in his career. The Broncos did not re-sign two-year nose starter Domata Peko. Harris registered 5.5 sacks in 2017 as well and will be in position to approach that total as a starter. His breakthrough 2018, which included a game-winning interception of Ben Roethlisberger, did come on only 391 snaps in 16 games. That total was the lowest of Denver’s five-man defensive line rotation last season, and the team may want to see how Harris performs with a bigger workload before making a long-term commitment. Another quality campaign will make Harris an intriguing commodity on the 2020 market, should he reach free agency.
The former 2014 seventh-round pick has expressed a desire for a Broncos extension, and it seems likely the team opts to retain at least one of its starting linemen beyond 2019. Only Kerr, defensive end Dre’Mont Jones and roster-bubble cog DeMarcus Walker are signed beyond this season, among the team’s notable D-linemen.
It might not cost the Broncos too much to retain Harris, with only one 3-4 defensive tackle (Chicago’s Eddie Goldman) making more than $5MM annually. However, 4-3 noses like Damon Harrison, Dontari Poe and Star Lotulelei earn between $9-$10MM annually, creating a more defined price range. While Harris sees time at defensive end as well, his primary role is inside. Of course, the one team that did recently see value in paying a 3-4 nose employed Vic Fangio as its defensive coordinator.
The new Broncos HC may hold this role in higher regard than many teams, and the franchise’s post-2019 defense does not have much in the way of front-seven salary obligations. Von Miller, whose cap number spikes to $25.6MM next year thanks to a past restructure, is the only front-seven player on the Broncos’ 2020 cap sheet at north of $7.5MM.
Playing in Fangio’s system, Harris could work his way toward Goldman’s $10.5MM-AAV number. Although the Broncos have been stingy at this position in the recent past, letting Terrance Knighton walk after his $2MM-per-year deal expired and declining Sylvester Williams‘ 2017 option, they will have some decisions to make about how they distribute their D-line money soon. These circumstances put Harris in a favorable spot entering his walk year.
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