Caden Sterns’ star is on the rise, as the Broncos rookie safety has shined

Oct 7, 2021, 6:27 AM
Caden Sterns...
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

When new general manager George Paton and the Denver Broncos selected Pat Surtain II in this spring’s NFL Draft, they were confident that they had drafted a future starter; a player that could hold down their position for years. Little did they know that they did it again in the fifth round.

It’s obvious now that Caden Sterns shouldn’t have fallen that far; the one-time top safety of the 2018 national recruiting class dazzled as a multidimensional weapon at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas. After committing to LSU early in the process, the Texas native decided to stay closer to home and play for the Longhorns.

He made an immediate impact for the University of Texas, winning a spot on the Big 12’s first team after a 62 tackle, four-interception freshman campaign. But in the Big 12 championship game, he suffered knee injury that would recur as a sophomore, keeping him out for four games and sapping him of some of his explosive, playmaking abilities.

His final season at Texas ended after Sterns suffered a turf-toe injury. Sterns opted out of the final two games of the 2020 campaign to get ready for the draft.

“I wanted to get it cleared up and fixed before the pro day happened, so that teams could see me at 100 percent,” Sterns explained in April.

Finally healthy, Sterns impressed at his pro day and saw his draft projections land somewhere between the late third and early sixth rounds. For many teams, however, his history of nagging injuries became something of a red flag. Fortunately, the Broncos weren’t one of them.

“I’m thankful, and I’m glad to be a part of the program and to be a Denver Bronco,” Sterns said in his introduction to the media after the draft. “I look up to Justin Simmons and I watch his film all the time. To be able to learn from him is going to mean a lot.”

Sterns has proven a quick study. He stood out in training camp, and all but jumped off the television screen in the Broncos’ preseason-opening win in Minnesota. His opportunity came early, as an injury to cornerback Ronald Darby pressed Surtain into service on the outside, leaving the “dime” position unattended. Sterns, who had been learning the same role, took full advantage.

“The biggest difference is you’re closer to the line and things happen a lot faster, whether it be routes and stuff. You have to react faster,” Sterns said on Wednesday. “Playing at Texas, I had to come down a lot, rotate a lot. We ran pretty complicated schemes, so being able to kind of translate and pick up on multiple things, depending on the formation, et cetera — stuff like that, it definitely helped me.”

In what amounted to his coming-out party, Sterns may have been the Broncos’ top performer in a disappointing, 23-7 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. Manning that “dime” role, Sterns terrorized former MVP Lamar Jackson, sacking him twice, hitting him twice more, and deflecting a pass targeted to Mark Andrews, Baltimore’s Pro Bowl tight end.

“With Mark Andrews, he’s his favorite target, so I really didn’t know who (Jackson) was throwing it to,” Sterns explained on Wednesday. “I just saw the ball in the air, then I looked up and I saw three bodies and a couple guys fall. It was right near me, so I just tried to make a play on the football.”

Sterns’ all-around performance was especially notable given that Jackson, otherwise, systemically picked the Broncos’ defense apart. The man that Sterns said he looked up to in April was impressed.

“I thought he played great. He obviously had limited snaps, and for the game plan that we had in there and what we asked of him to do, I thought he went in there and he played a heck of a game,” Simmons said on Wednesday. “Obviously, he had two sacks — two big sacks — and that’s not easy with someone like Lamar in the pocket, being able to escape like he can. That’s expected of him. Kareem (Jackson) and I have talked about it since he’s gotten here — he’s picked up the playbook really well, and we’re expecting him to make more plays like that throughout the year.”

He’s had help from Surtain, his fellow rookie defensive back.

“We just hang out. Pat is a really good corner, obviously, so playing dime, it’s a lot more man (coverage). I play safety, so coming from far, we don’t really play up close to receivers like that, so I will ask him a lot of questions, technique-wise. He’ll definitely help me with that,” Sterns said. “Then, scheme-wise, we just bounce (ideas) back and forth. ‘If you see something, what are you seeing right here, how can I help you?’ Stuff like that. With those guys, it’s support. We’re a brotherhood here, so that’s how we treat it.”

Jackson, the Broncos’ starter opposite Simmons, doesn’t appear to be showing his age of 33. But given that the Broncos brought him back to the team this spring at only half the salary he made in 2020, and given the fact that he’s also a free agent after the season, it’s not hard to envision Sterns taking over the role in 2022 if his exponential growth at the NFL level continues.

While he hasn’t reached the requisite snap count to qualify, Sterns’ 83.4 rating at Pro Football Focus already ranks him tops among Denver’s defensive backs. If he had, that rating would also make him the top-rated safety in the entire league, ahead of Buffalo’s Micah Hyde (78.3).

For now, however, Sterns is simply making the most of his opportunity, whether it’s at safety, in the “dime” role, or as it turns out, a remarkably effective pass-rusher.

“I’m just out there, trying to do what I can do to help the team win — whatever that looks like. I’m going to be 100 precent and give all that I can give.”


Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.


DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Alexander Johnson #45 of the Denver Broncos on the sidelines before a game...
James Merilatt

The Broncos are woefully thin at inside linebacker after latest injury

With both Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson lost for the season, oddly to the same injury, it'll be up to a couple of unfamiliar names to step up
12 hours ago
Baker Mayfield...
Cecil Lammey

Three keys to the Broncos beating the Browns on Thursday night

While things look bleak after an embarrassing loss to the Raiders, the quick turnaround may play into the Broncos hands as they head to Cleveland
12 hours ago
DENVER, COLORADO - OCTOBER 17: Denver Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick (81) takes a moment at Empo...
Ben Freid

Broncos players deserve plenty of blame for the team’s three-game slide

While it's easy to point the finger of blame at the coaching staff, the Broncos star players have been no-shows the past three weeks
12 hours ago
Drop the Mike...
Mike Evans

Re-arranging deck chairs and other observations from the Raiders debacle

While demanding change it an understandable point of view, it would be the wise or prudent course of action for George Paton to take
12 hours ago
INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 21:Los Angeles Rams linebacker Micah Kiser (59) during the NFL preseason gam...
Cecil Lammey

60 Seconds: Next man up once again for the Broncos at ILB

Micah Kiser will be a downgrade for the Broncos in the run game compared to Alexander Johnson but perhaps an upgrade in pass defense
2 days ago
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 17: Noah Fant (87) of the Denver Broncos sits on the grass after narrowly miss...
104.3 The Fan

Elevator Pitch: Raiders came ready to play Sunday, the Broncos didn’t

With mistake after mistake, the Broncos got drubbed at home Sunday by a Raiders team more prepared to play
2 days ago
Caden Sterns’ star is on the rise, as the Broncos rookie safety has shined