Last offseason, Walt Harris would stand on the sidelines during Redskins mini-camps frustrated that he could not participate in practice. The veteran cornerback was coming off of knee surgery and there was speculation that he might not be ready to play by the start of the season. His rehab had lingered late into training camp and even Harris admitted he was concerned about his NFL future.
Harris, 30, managed to play all 16 games last season, starting twice. Used mostly as a nickel cornerback, Harris finished the year with 21 tackles (12 solo), six passes defended and one interception.
Due to injuries, Harris drew two starts in the last three games of the season, starting once for Shawn Springs and once for Fred Smoot, and performed well, recording 11 tackles and an interception.
With Smoot signing in Minnesota, Harris is now in line to start at cornerback alongside Springs next season. Losing Smoot was certainly a loss for the Redskins' third-ranked defense, but having an experienced veteran in Harris should help ease the transition.
When asked how the team might replace Smoot next season, head coach Joe Gibbs discussed the decision process in signing Harris in March 2004.
Said Gibbs: "The surgery that [Harris] had [in January 2004] was risky. We looked at the risks for us financially and whether he would be able to play. We felt like it was worth the risk. We made a decision to do that and thankfully for us, it worked out great for us. We were careful with how we brought him along after the surgery and we thought he played extremely well.
"What you have there is a veteran, proven starter at corner for us. Obviously we have some other excellent young football players at corner. We have those players at the current time on our roster and we have a lot of confidence in them."
The young cornerbacks that Gibbs was referring to include second-year player Ade Jimoh and first-year players Garnell Wilds and Rufus Brown. It's also possible that the Redskins could acquire a top-flight cornerback in April's NFL Draft.
Although assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams alternates starters at some of his positions, Harris said he views himself as a starting-caliber cornerback and expects to compete for that role next season.
"I always foresee myself as a starting corner, no matter where I'm playing," Harris said. "Circumstances last year didn't require that I start--I was coming off of surgery and we had a lot of good players at cornerback, with Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot. So I just tried to fit into a role. This year, I'll go into it and see what happens."
Harris, 5-11 and 192 pounds, played six seasons with the Chicago Bears and two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before signing with Washington. In 134 games, he has 115 starts, with 622 tackles (447 solo), 19 interceptions and 13 forced fumbles. He had his most productive season in 1997 when he logged five interceptions and four forced fumbles.
While Harris was able to play in all 16 games last season, he admitted to starting the season slow as he re-acclimated his knee to the rigors of the NFL.
With his knee back at full health, he has a different approach this offseason.
"I plan on doing a lot of things differently [this offseason] after coming off of knee surgery last year," he said. "I'll definitely be a lot healthier. I'll be a much better player because from the standpoint of the offseason, I'll be able to take [workouts and practices] up another notch that I couldn't reach last year. I'll be able to do more things that I wasn't able to do last year."