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The Denver Broncos certainly aren't taking the passing juggernauts of the NFL as a fad. Josh McDaniels, Brian Xanders, and the Denver brass realize the importance of defending the pass in the NFL today, as that area of the team has been a large focus of the Broncos' last two offseasons.
Interestingly enough, the Broncos' 2010 schedule consists of far fewer high profile quarterbacks than Broncos fans saw in 2009 at least. Names like Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Matt Schaub will all make their way to Denver at some point or another in 2010, but after that the biggest names are youngsters like Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart, and Sam Bradford.
Either way, the Broncos will be more than prepared when it comes time to defend the pass. Last year's third ranked defense against the pass returns every starter from 2009, and has been characterized by the MSM as "growing long in the tooth".
While this may be true in terms of the Broncos' starting defensive backs getting older, Denver has come well equipped with an infusion of youth in their defensive backfield, investing multiple high draft picks and a couple of lower picks on guys who will help this unit for years to come.After the 2008 season, Josh McDaniels was hired to be the Denver Broncos head coach, and the first area where he really cleaned house was Denver's pitiful, patchwork defense. Mike Shanahan almost literally left him nothing to work with on the roster outside of three key players in D.J. Williams, Elvis Dumervil, and cornerback Champ Bailey.
In terms of the defensive backfield specifically, the only two holdovers from the Shanahan era were Bailey and safety Josh Barrett, though Vernon Fox went to training camp with the team and came back later in the season when injuries struck the team.
Bailey's return to the team was inevitable. Though his statistics have not come close to his near Defensive MVP season in 2006, he is still considered one of the best cornerbacks in the game. In 2009, the only touchdown he allowed was in the Pro Bowl. Regardless of the hype of other great players like Nnamdi Asomugha or Darrelle Revis, Bailey is still teaching everyone in the NFL how to get it done.
Though he is approaching his 12th NFL season, Bailey is 31 years old and still playing some of the best football of his career, though the sexy statistics might not completely show it. He headlines a group of players that Denver Broncos fans hope will bring more excitement to the defensive side of the ball.
Along with Bailey, veteran safety Brian Dawkins returns for the 2010 campaign after quickly becoming a fan favorite in Denver in 2009.
Last year, Dawkins faced a ton of criticism and doubt because of his age, and for good reason. He was Denver's top free agent prize at the ripe old NFL age of 36. Despite questions about his age affecting his durability, Dawkins proved all his doubters wrong, something that seems to be a pattern in Denver lately, and put together one of the better seasons of his 15 year career.
Dawkins started all 16 games in 2009, and finished the year with 108 total tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries on the way to a trip to Miami, unfortunately for the Pro Bowl rather than for the Super Bowl.
Clearly, Dawkins was the leader of Denver's newly reloaded secondary, but the Broncos brought in some guys to help him and Bailey out.
The Miami Dolphins' 2008 turnaround under then new head coach Tony Sparano was remarkable. They won a single game in 2007, and turned it into 11 in 2008 under new management. The Broncos capitalized off of a couple of players who were in contract years for that turnaround season, both from the defensive backfield.
Journeyman safety Renaldo Hill and cornerback Andre' Goodman each signed four year deals with the Broncos. Neither player has ever been very flashy in their career, but both were certainly rejuvenated by their final year with the Dolphins.
Goodman led the Dolphins in 2008 with five interceptions, and the Broncos ranked near the pit of the NFL in that category. Goodman's ball-hawking style was added to the fray in order to restore some turnover capabilities to the Broncos' defense, and it worked.
In 16 games, Goodman led the Broncos with five interceptions and 17 passes defensed. Goodman took a ton of pressure off of Champ Bailey, who has not had as good of a running mate since Darrent Williams roamed the defensive backfield in 2005-06. Goodman is not the tackler Williams was, but he is every bit as good of a ballhawk, and he knows what to do when the ball is in the air.
Goodman was one of the more impressive players at Broncos training camp in 2009, and he carried that through a very solid 2009 campaign.
Goodman's Miami teammate and safety Renaldo Hill enjoyed a solid, not spectacular inaugural season in the Mile High City. Alongside Brian Dawkins, Hill made it very difficult for opposing teams to go deep on the Broncos, and he accumulated 59 tackles, six passes defensed, two sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble in 15 games for the Broncos.
Hill was the only starting defensive back for the Broncos who didn't start all 15 games in 2009.
In addition to the veteran players, the Broncos brought in a large number of young players who contributed in 2009.
In the 2009 NFL Draft, the Broncos made one of the most surprising and questionable moves when they drafted Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith upon trading their own 2010 first round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith was one of the nation's most feared cornerbacks because of his ball-hawk skills, but it didn't immediately translate to the NFL. After a seemingly strong start to the season as the team's nickel cornerback, Smith was replaced twice by Ty Law and undrafted Tony Carter in his role.
He will enter the 2010 offseason competing again for the nickel role, but this year's competition is more talented than last year's so he has his work cut out for him.
The second defensive back the Broncos selected came with their very next pick in the draft when they took Texas Tech safety Darcel McBath, a guy who had seven interceptions in his senior year as a Red Raider.
Before breaking his arm in a game against the Indianapolis Colts, McBath was enjoying one of the better seasons of any Denver Broncos rookie in 2009. He was one of five rookies to be leading his team in special teams tackles with 11 stops, and he also had two interceptions in a reserve role for the Broncos. He figures to be a starter when Brian Dawkins decides to hang up the cleats.
The Broncos also selected the speedy safety out of Notre Dame, David Bruton in the fourth round of the draft in 2009. Bruton may have been a diamond in the rough for the Broncos. He was the only rookie defensive back of the whole bunch to start a game in 2009 when he came in for the injured Renaldo Hill.
Bruton was drafted with the knowledge that he would be able to come in and help the Broncos immediately on special teams, and he did just that. Though not a lot of what Bruton does shows up on the stat sheet, he was consistently around the play on punts and kickoffs, and his versatility has really impressed the Denver coaching staff.
Behind Bruton and McBath on the depth chart is former seventh round pick and safety Josh Barrett, who is one of the more intriguing players on Denver's roster. Barrett stands at 6'3" 225 pounds, so he definitely looks the part as the prototypical NFL safety. He also ran under 4.4 seconds in the 40 yard dash, so his physical tools have never been a question.
Barrett played in 14 games for the Broncos last year, and he will compete for a roster spot in training camp as the only other holdover besides Champ Bailey from the Mike Shanahan era in the defensive backfield.
With the pick acquired from the Detroit Lions in exchange for tight end Tony Scheffler, the Broncos drafted what many believe to be one of the biggest steals in the 2010 draft, former Oklahoma State cornerback and return specialist Perrish Cox.
If the campaigning hasn't already begun to start calling Perrish "Dr. Perry Cox", let it officially begin here.
While somewhat troubled in his time with the Cowboys, Cox was simply too good of value to pass on in the fifth round. I had previously seen him taken in the first round of some mock drafts, so there's obviously an enormous amount of talent there.
Cox will compete for some nickel and dime roles, but he will have competition with newly acquired Nate Jones from the Miami Dolphins.
Jones had a very effective contract year with Miami as their nickel cornerback, and has displayed the versatility to play safety as well.
The Broncos also have holdover Tony Carter from last season to compete in training camp this year, and it seems everyone has quickly written him off as a legitimate option. Carter started a game for the Broncos last season, and actually played very admirably.
Along with Carter, seventh round pick Syd'Quan Thompson of California will compete for playing time at cornerback, but his presence will likely be felt on special teams. The Broncos obviously thought quite a bit of Thompson to trade a fifth round pick in next year's draft to acquire two additional seventh round picks in this year's draft to get him.
Though he didn't run as fast as expected in the offseason, Thompson was considered at one point to be a top tier prospect coming out of this draft.
The Broncos also brought in a few free agent rookies to compete in the defensive backfield, but the one that seems most likely to make the roster in some capacity is former Notre Dame star Kyle McCarthy. McCarthy was a tackling machine for the Fighting Irish, and the Broncos would do just fine by stashing him away on the practice squad for a year, as he has the potential to be a very valuable reserve and special teams player with his determination and relentless effort.
On paper, the Broncos' defensive backfield appears to be one of the most talented and deepest the NFL has to offer, which is huge considering how pass heavy this league has become. The Broncos have adapted, and they have done it in a mere two offseasons, adding a solid combination of youth and veteran leadership to the mix.
The NFL's reigning third ranked pass defense might be getting long in the tooth, but it is going to be tough yet again to pass on these guys. If Denver can generate the same kind of pass rush it did in the first half of the 2009 season, this group of defensive backs is going to be primed to set the bar in the NFL for turnovers forced.
This unit is a weapon the Broncos are very fortunate to have, and one whose depth and longevity will be key if the Broncos are to make a run at the AFC West title or even further.
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