Broncos rookie Patrick Surtain to start, “go right in” for Ronald Darby
Nearing the end of Sunday’s season-opening, 27-13 road win over the New York Giants, veteran cornerback Ronald Darby injured his hamstring, suffering what Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio termed “a little bit of a tear” on Wednesday.
“He kind of had some tightness late, so I’m not exactly sure when (the injury) happened. I didn’t even know,” Fangio said. “It was after we spoke out here on Monday that they told me he was going to go get it checked out. He reported it, and on the MRI, it showed a little bit of a tear. He needs to miss some time.”
Darby, 27, had played well in his Broncos debut after signing a three-year deal in free agency for $30 million. His six tackles tied with fellow cornerback Kyle Fuller and All-Pro safety Justin Simmons for the team lead, and his season looked to be off to a fine start — but injuries have derailed the Florida State product before.
Prior to the 2020 season with Washington, in which Darby played in all 16 games, he had played in only eight, nine and 11 games, respectively, as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles from 2017 to 2019. As a matter of fact, since being drafted in the second round of 2015, that 2020 campaign had been the only one that Darby hadn’t missed at least one game in due to injury. On Monday, Darby was placed on injured reserve and will miss at least three weeks.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, new Broncos general manager George Paton selected Alabama cornerback Pat Surtain II with the ninth overall pick in the first round, saying that teams could “never have too many cornerbacks.” Fangio’s inclined to agree, after watching that position be decimated by injuries last season, leading to defensive breakdowns that could not be overcome. Darby, Fuller and Surtain were added to a core that returned oft-injured Bryce Callahan — who has yet to complete any of his five prior NFL seasons uninjured — and second-year project Michael Ojemudia, who was placed on injured reserve with his own hamstring injury prior to the season.
Surtain, who the Broncos rightly believe could become a Pro Bowl regular, had been playing all over the field in training camp and the preseason as the Broncos tried to find a way to get him more playing time. In his mere 16 snaps against the Giants in his debut, Surtain was burned for a touchdown pass from Giants quarterback Daniel Jones to receiver Sterling Shepard, a lesson that Surtain learned from quickly.
“I should’ve known that route was coming based on his stem,” he explained on Wednesday. “I could’ve squeezed it and initiated it earlier, and just had tighter coverage on it.”
The Broncos will hope Surtain puts that lesson into action when he starts on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Fangio said the rookie will “just go right in” for Darby, and stay on the outside rather than move around the field in nickel and dime packages. As the leader of a veteran corps of defensive backs, Simmons had advice for the rookie on Wednesday, as well as a little reassurance.
“Do what’s got you here. He’s proven that he can play at the highest level with the best of them his whole career, his whole football career. Playing in the NFL for him is going to be no different,” Simmons explained. “He’s got a great pass rush; the ball is going to be having to come out fast. He’s got guys like Kareem (Jackson) and me to be able to kind of direct traffic and make sure he’s comfortable. Communication is going to be the biggest thing that keeps him at ease. Any part of him being out there — in large part — is not just on him, it’s on us as a secondary. We’ve got to be able to make sure that we’re doing all that we can to help him.”
Surtain certainly won’t need to spend much time on the scouting report, at least. He’s already familiar with the Jaguars’ new franchise quarterback, first overall selection Trevor Lawrence, whom he battled with in the 2019 national championship game against Clemson — a game in which Lawrence dissected the Alabama defense to the tune of 347 yards and three touchdowns en route to an all-too-easy, 44-16 victory.
“I started that game. We were both freshmen at the time — both young pups,” Surtain recalled. “He got the edge on us. We had our fair share of battles here and there.” Surtain only had one tackle in that decisive loss, and doesn’t see any difference in Lawrence, despite the Jaguars’ lopsided loss to Houston to open their season last weekend.
“He’s the same. The same fundamentals, the same poise. I think they have a very young team out there, a very talented team as well. We’re expecting it to be a good game. He’s a great quarterback in his right, so it should be a good game.”
Nevertheless, for the Broncos’ prized rookie, it’s business as usual — because like he was at Alabama only a year ago, he’s a starter once again.
“I’m going to approach it like a regular week — getting out here and getting prepared, taking it day by day, working hard in practice,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity for me to step in and fill in the role, so I’m going to be ready.”
Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.