ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Just a month ago, Tracy Porter in street clothes on the Denver sideline was a welcome sight for any opposing quarterback.
Now teams might actually prefer to see him back on the football field.
Porter, who leads the NFL with three game-sealing interceptions since 2009, hasn't played in a month while dealing with problems related to a seizure he had over the summer. He hasn't been missed on the field by the Broncos (5-3), however, because two cornerbacks sporting big chips on their shoulders after going undrafted out of college are playing so well in his absence.
Combined, Chris Harris and Tony Carter have allowed just 23 completions in 59 attempts, and Carter is the toughest cornerback in the NFL to complete a pass against, according to STATS LLC.
Moving into the starting lineup opposite Champ Bailey, Harris has allowed only 16 completions in 34 passes thrown his way, and he's broken up a half-dozen throws.
Carter, who is playing in both the nickel and dime packages, is allowing a league-low completion percentage of just 28 (7 receptions in 25 attempts) among the league's 103 cornerbacks and who have been targeted at least 15 times.
Just as impressively, Carter has broken up as many passes as catches he's allowed.
"That's my first time hearing that," Carter said. "That's a good thing. I can go home and tell my mom about that."
While he's not quite a household name, Carter's certainly more than just a big name in his own family.
Coach John Fox recently heaped effusive praise on his coverage skills, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio praised his "sticky" man coverage that he's brought to Broncos' strengthened secondary.
While everyone seems to be marveling over Peyton Manning, who's thrown three TD passes in each of his last five games, Denver's defense is quietly becoming one of the league's best, and these two smaller cornerbacks are one big reason for that.
"We haven't had young corners play like this in a long time," Bailey said. "You might get one here, one there. But two like this, it's hard to find that."
Bailey has been around long enough to see plenty of teammates show up strong during the week and disappear on Sunday. It's the ones who transfer all that talent into three hours on game day that make their mark and stick around.
Porter, who's making $4 million in a one-year deal this season and has allowed 25 catches in 38 attempts, might just be relegated to veteran leadership duty once he has cleared medical and cardiovascular hurdles to return to action.
With Harris ($465,000) and Carter ($615,000) in the lineup, the Broncos have surrendered just six pass plays of 20 or more yards in the last three games — all wins — and none of those six passes have been caught by the man they were covering.
"Everybody in here plays with a chip on his shoulder," safety David Bruton said, "but they're playing for a lot more."
Harris is a second-year pro from Kansas who climbed the Broncos' depth chart last year as an undrafted college free agent, and Carter is a fourth-year pro from Florida State who beat out veteran Drayton Florence in the final roster cut-down.
Carter and Harris — each of whom had two takeaways and a touchdown return against San Diego last month — have a bond that goes beyond the position they play. Both were overlooked in the draft and both use that snub as a spark.
"Chris and I have become close," Carter said. "Just coming from the same struggle and realizing that we are underdogs. So, we both go out and I think we both play with that chip on our shoulder.
"And I'm undersized, as well," Carter said. "So, I've got to have a little feistiness about me and just take it personal whenever they come at me."
Carter started all 50 of his games at Florida State, collecting nine interceptions and 26 pass breakups and returning four takeaways for touchdowns. Like Harris, he wasn't invited to the NFL combine, however, and he's never gotten over not hearing his named called in the draft.
"Draft day will never come back again," Carter said. "I feel like I got the bad end of the stick. Every team passed up on me in the draft, so I take it personally. Every team I play I try to have them say after the game, 'Why didn't we draft him?'"
Harris knows exactly how he feels.
"We want to go out there and play every week and prove to everyone that we should have been drafted," Harris said. "And that's something that we take pride in every week."
While Carter says he still has no idea why he was snubbed on draft day in 2009, Harris said he knows exactly why he was overlooked at Kansas, where he made 41 starts and played in 50 games: his Jayhawks were terrible his last two years.
"That's really where it came from," Harris said. "But the way I play now is the same way I've always played since high school, with that passion and feeling like I'm the best guy on the field."
He wonders still why he didn't get an invitation to the combine for scouts to see him up close.
"With my resume, I should have been there. I didn't see as many guys who had as many starts as I did in college or with my production," Harris said. "It's just a product of us losing games my last couple of years, the program. If I was at Oklahoma and played the same way and had that many starts, I would have easily been invited to the combine."
They both figure they'll never get over being overlooked.
"Undrafted free agents have it a little different than guys that were drafted," Carter said. "So, we take that, we hold it. But in the end, it's about opportunity. And we have our opportunities now."
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