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