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Is cornerback the Broncos’ biggest 2021 need?

It could be.

Denver Broncos v Las Vegas Raiders
A.J. Bouye hasn’t solved the issue outside.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

What does a circle and the 2020 Broncos have in common?

Neither has any corners. With Essang Bassey, Bryce Callahan, and A.J. Bouye set the miss the final month of the season, it looks like a near certainty the Broncos’ secondary will take a step back to finish the year. A group that held promise coming into the season is now down to De’Vante Bausby, rookie Michael Ojemudia, and former Bear Kevin Toliver as the best remaining options on the boundary, while the slot will rely on Alihah Holder, Duke Dawson, and Will Parks. They could surprise and the reps should benefit O.J. as he prepares for his sophomore season, but to call cornerback an immediate pressing need would be fair.

It’s also a long term need and it would be wise for John Elway to prioritize it this offseason. When the Broncos traded for A.J. Bouye last year, it was to find a potential replacement for Chris Harris Jr. Even at the time, it looked like a gamble.

Acquiring A.J. Bouye via trade also meant his 2021 status was a huge question mark. So much so, I wrote about it before the season opening kickoff. With none of Bouye’s contract guaranteed, this season served as a bit of a “try-before-you-buy” type of situation. In my opinion the flexibility and potential upside made the trade a worthwhile endeavor.

Unfortunately, between his injuries, shaky play, and the looming Covid cap crunch, for week’s it has looked like Elway would try and push Bouye to take a pay cut. If that sounds unlikely, Bryce Callahan did as much last offseason after his 2019 was derailed by a foot injury. If re-working his contract becomes onerous, the Broncos could certainly elect to move on from Bouye this offseason. It would create a little more than $13 million in cap space and they’d suffer no dead cap penalty.

There is a possibility something resembling a normal offseason and training camp could help Bouye rediscover his 2018 form, so it wouldn’t completely shock me if the Broncos do hold onto him through the six game suspension that will bleed into next year. Remember, back in 2017 the Bears offered more money than the Jaguars to try to sign A.J. Bouye. Chicago’s coordinator at the time? Vic Fangio.

The long term outlook for the cornerback room has been an open question as far back as last offseason. Even if there’s no adjustments made to Bouye’s contract, he will become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. So will Bryce Callahan. Both come with durability concerns, and are quickly approaching an age when corners start to lose a step. Bouye’s biggest problems this year overlap with what I saw on his Jaguars’ tape, most notably issues with his lateral quickness and ability to start/stop. This is more damning than say the week 11 endzone fade touchdown to DeVante Parker as it could hint at an athletic decline. De’Vante Bausby’s contract will also expire at the end of this season.

Even with Ojemudia and Bassey set to enter year two, the age and contract status of the rest of the room suggests the Broncos always had an eye on this offseason as the time to invest resources into the position. What happens with Bouye likely determines the plan of action. If the Broncos do not move on from him this spring, expect Elway to acquire a cornerback in the 2021 Draft. If Bouye does not return to the 2021 Broncos, there’s a distinct possibility another veteran is brought in.

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