The Denver Broncos are trying to get back to relevancy – and the postseason – in 2021. They turned in a down 2020 season, going 5-11 under Vic Fangio, but the staff returns intact to give it one more try. Fangio is entering his third year as the Broncos head coach, and it’s win (a lot of games) or go home. The Broncos changed things up in a big way this offseason by moving on from former general manager John Elway and hiring new GM George Paton.
This is the first year under the guidance of Paton, and the team has done a good job of adding quality players via free agency and the NFL Draft. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at DenverFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the cornerback position:
Starters: Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II
The Broncos made huge upgrades to the cornerback position this offseason – mainly with the additions of Kyle Fuller in free agency and Patrick Surtain II in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Fuller is a seasoned veteran with a ton of talent. A first-round pick (2014) for the Chicago Bears, Fuller has consistently been one of the top cornerbacks in football. Coming out of Virginia Tech, Fuller showed great instinct for making plays and those traits have flourished in the NFL.
He played for the Bears from 2014-20 and was a Pro Bowl corner in 2018 and 2019. Fuller had four years of experience under Vic Fangio when he was the defensive coordinator with the Bears, and it was a no-brainer move to add him this offseason as a free agent.
The Bears did not want to get rid of Fuller, but they were in salary cap hell and needed the $11 million from Fuller’s contract off their books so they could sign quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bears loss is the Broncos gain, and they were quick to scoop him up on a one-year, $9.5 million contract.
Fuller is a true No. 1 cornerback and immediately their best player at the position. Last year, the Broncos were fooling themselves with No. 2 corners like A.J. Bouye masquerading as No. 1 corners, and it didn’t work. Now, they have a legit player on the outside in Fuller and his play is going to make the defense so much better. His blanket coverage will force quarterbacks hang onto the ball longer, allowing more time for the pass-rushers to get home. If/when targeted, Fuller can get his hands on the ball or knock it away with regularity. Simply put, he’s one of the best defenders on the team regardless of position.
Surtain was the best cornerback in this year’s draft class. In fact, he was arguably the best defensive prospect regardless of position in his draft class. I know many Broncos fans wanted Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, but the Broncos brass was overjoyed when they were able to select Surtain with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
He’s about as pro-ready as a prospect can be. His father, Patrick Surtain Sr., was an All-Pro cornerback who played in the NFL for 10 years. He coached his son in high school, and Surtain then got the best coaching in college football when he was a standout player at the University of Alabama. Surtain knows what it takes to be a pro – both on and off the field. He’s got the correct mentality to flourish as a professional and is ready to put in the work.
Surtain played a lot of man-press and off-man coverage during his three years of starting for the Crimson Tide.
During that time, Surtain only allowed four touchdown passes and opposing quarterbacks only completed 46.1 percent of their passes when throwing it in Surtain’s direction. He forced four fumbles as a tackler, and Surtain ended his college career with 31 passes defended.
His size/strength combination is one of the best coming into the pros. Surtain has length which allows him to make up ground quickly, and he has a nose for the ball. Sometimes he does peek into the backfield too much, making him susceptible to pump fakes/play fakes but for the most part he plays with a steady mind and is regularly in the correct position to make a play. Surtain has the ability to start on the outside from day one and should be a Pro Bowl player in the near future.
Reserves: Bryce Callahan, Ronald Darby, Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson Jr, Nate Hairston, Mac McCain III, Parnell Motley, Kary Vincent Jr.
The Broncos have depth and talent at the position behind their starting duo. If injuries hit them at the top of the depth chart, the Broncos have the talent to still put out a strong product.
Bryce Callahan is not a reserve player – he’s a starter as most defenses run nickel defense almost 70 percent of the time. He’s arguably the best nickel cornerback in the league when healthy – it’s just that “healthy” part that has been difficult for Callahan throughout his pro career.
Foot injuries have plagued Callahan for years, especially over the last two seasons with the Broncos. He missed the entire 2019 season due to foot problems, and in 2020 Callahan was only able to get through 11 games before being put on season-ending Injured Reserve with a foot injury.
With so many teams, including the Broncos, utilizing nickel defense as the primary package (about 65 percent of the snaps), Callahan is an important starter as the slot corner. He has the agility to stay with quick receivers on underneath routes, and Callahan has the savvy to his game to get his hands on the ball and flip the field. He’ll be a fine player for the Broncos once again this year – for about 10 games. Expecting anything more than that would be folly given the fact he’s never played a full 16-game season, and now the NFL has a 17-game slate I doubt Callahan gets all the way through.
Like Fuller, Ronald Darby was added in free agency earlier this offseason. At the time of his signing, it was to be a starter on the outside opposite of Fuller. The Broncos signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal and were happy to do so. Now, after the addition of Surtain in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, I believe Darby becomes a quality reserve player the Broncos can rotate in from time to time.
A second-round pick out of Florida State in 2015, Darby originally came into the league with the Buffalo Bills. Darby has bounced around to a few teams since then, but he’s put some quality tape out there from time to time. He was super-fast (4.38 40-yard dash) coming out of college, and that speed sticks with him today. It’s a huge part of his game and allows him to recover in the blink of an eye if he takes a false step or misreads a play.
Darby does not get interceptions. He didn’t in college, and he hasn’t in the pros either. However, he is the king of the pass breakup and does a good job timing routes so he can bat passes to the ground. As an up-and-down starter throughout his NFL career, Darby only has eight interceptions in six seasons, but he has a whopping 81 pass breakups during that time. He’s a fine player who could start on the outside if called upon.
I’m not ready to give up on Michael Ojemudia. A third-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft, Ojemudia was a zone corner with length and strength for the position. He seemed like a perfect fit for the Fangio defense, but Ojemudia had rookie struggles last season. In fact, he struggled so much that it seemed like at one-point last season he was in Fangio’s doghouse.
Injuries thrust Ojemudia into the starting lineup before he was ready. He started 11 games for the Bronco last year, coming away with zero interceptions, six passes defensed and four forced fumbles. Ojemudia looked like his head was swimming out there, and there were plenty of times he was the preferred target of opposing quarterbacks. The veterans he went against were going after him, and the rookie did not respond in kind.
Some have suggested that Ojemudia make the transition to safety due to his size and strength. That may be where he ends up as a pro, and he could be a decent safety, but I’d like to see him get more time at the cornerback position. With another year of knowledge and the wisdom of one year in the league, we could see a better version of Ojemudia in 2021. It’s not time to give up on him yet, and I’ll be watching him closely in practice and the preseason to see if he takes that next step with his game.
Essang Bassey was picked up as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest in 2020. He is an instinctive player who is feisty on the field. His aggression can be used against him as he will overrun plays and bite too hard on play fakes at times. Perhaps he is bound for the team’s practice squad.
Duke Dawson Jr., a former second-round pick of the Patriots has seen some time starting with the Broncos over the last two years. In college, Dawson was a man-slot corner and now is transitioning to a zone-slot corner with the Broncos. He’s started four games with the Broncos in two seasons and looks more like a reserve corner than he does a developing starter who just needs more time.
Nate Hairston was a fifth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 NFL draft. He was a starter the first two years in the league, but since then has been more of a reserve or rotational player. He’s a slot corner who spent time between the New York Jets and the Broncos last year.
Mac McCain III has a ton of speed and reaction quickness. He wowed scouts at the inaugural HBCU combine earlier this year with his 4.4 speed. In addition to speed, McCain plays with a ton of heart. His technique needs work but will improve with pro coaching.
Parnell Motley is a long shot, but he’s got the ability to be a starter one day if he fully develops his pro game. Undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2020, Motley is already on his third team in the NFL. I came away impressed by his game on film and when I watched him during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game in 2020. Motley is small but incredibly active and does not back down from a challenge. He’s a playmaker who likes to snare the ball and then tell the quarterback about it. We’ll see if that bravado helps him earn at least a practice squad spot with the Broncos in 2021.
The Broncos got a big value pick when Kary Vincent Jr fell to the seventh round of the 2021 NFL draft. Coming out of LSU, Vincent opted out of the 2020 season but was a standout player for the Bayou Bengals in 2019. Vincent is a track athlete who brings that speed to the football field. He’s not aggressive as a tackler but his speed keeps him in plays, and he’s scheme versatile – mostly lining up in the slot but he did also play some safety for LSU.
The Broncos have completely revamped their cornerback position. Now, they have great starters on the outside – no longer are they kidding themselves with subpar players lining up as starters at cornerback. In addition to strong starters, the Broncos also have quality depth.
Coverage is all about a combination of defensive back talent and pass-rush help. The Broncos have some great rushers to get after the passer, and now they have the talent on the back end to take advantage of frazzled quarterbacks desperate to get rid of the ball.
What once was a weakness is now one of the strongest parts of their team. We’ll see how this talented group impacts what the Broncos do on defense in 2021.
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