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Shutdown Corner: Harris Playing At A Pro Bowl Level


When native Texan and Packers cornerback Mike Hawkins throws on a jersey to wear during his down time, he does not plan on taking a No. 22 Emmitt Smith off the rack. Or a retro classic like a No. 32 Jim Brown jersey. Or even a No. 4 Brett Favre jersey.

Hawkins will sport the No. 31 jersey of fellow defensive back Al Harris, which he asked Harris for on Wednesday.

"He's the best cornerback in the league," Hawkins said. "He's got everything. He's strong. He can run with anybody."

Indeed the jersey of the eight-year veteran would make for a timely fashion statement. Amidst perhaps the best season of his career, Harris has racked up 28 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a touchdown and 11 passes defended. He has not surrendered a touchdown all year.

A steady performer throughout his career, Harris has received more national attention of late. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson told a group of local reporters that Harris was the second best cornerback in football behind Champ Bailey of the Denver Broncos. Harris also earned NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors after collecting two interceptions, a sack and a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in Week 5.

"He's been overlooked for a while," cornerback Patrick Dendy said. "This year people are really starting to see what kind of player he really is."

Harris is the kind of player who is perfectly suited to the Packers' bump-and-run scheme because of his savvy and upper body strength. A physical cornerback, he usually wins the battle at the line of scrimmage but can recover if his man beats him. Having played press coverage since his days at Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla., he knows the ins and outs of that technique, and few cornerbacks can shake him once he locks them down.

"He's a lot stronger than he looks," Dendy said. "Once he gets his hands on a receiver, it shows."

Harris has such rare talent that cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington gathered the Packers cornerbacks on the first day of training camp and offered a valuable lesson.

"Watch how hard Al works," Washington said. "But don't try and do some of the things he does because you physically can't do it."

Harris does not excel just because of his natural skills. A dogged determination has allowed the sixth-round draft pick out of Texas A&M-Kingsville to rise from practice squader in his first season in 1997 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Packers' No. 1 cornerback. When Dendy returns to Lambeau Field at odd hours to pick up something he left at the facility, he often runs into Harris, studying film.

"Al works very, very hard. He spends a lot of time at his craft," Dendy said. "Al's up here at all times of the night."

Harris has more reason to dissect tape this season. For the first time in his career he has a new role on third down. He shifts from outside cornerback to nickel cornerback, covering the slot receiver. Even while serving as the third cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1998 to 2002, Harris played on the outside during third downs. The Eagles opted to move Bobby Taylor over the slot receiver instead.

Because the slot receiver lines up between the linemen and another wide receiver, a nickel cornerback plays in a more confined space. Harris now has many more reads to make. While the outside receiver has a designated route, a slot receiver often predicates his route on the action of the defender, which also is known as an option route.

"It's a whole different world," Harris said. "It's totally different."

While the 30-year old cornerback learns a new position, he continues to teach a callow but promising group of cornerbacks. Ahmad Carroll, Jason Horton, Hawkins and Dendy each have two years or less experience playing in the NFL. Harris has instructed Horton on technique on the field and how to conduct himself as a professional off the field.

"Form the day I got here, he took me under his wing," Horton said.

Harris, who has emerged from a practice squad player to a shutdown corner and did not start until landing with the Packers three years ago, has relied on his own experience to teach Horton about patience.

Harris may not have received much playing time when he entered the league, but he could be on the verge of his first Pro Bowl season.

"He's a great player," Dendy said. "He's going to accomplish some great things this year."

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