For the second year in a row, John Elway and the Broncos made the first official move of free agency when they traded a fourth round pick for an established veteran. Last year’s Joe Flacco deal defined the direction Vic Fangio’s first year would take and gave Elway the confidence to move down in the draft instead of scooping up Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in the first round of the NFL Draft. A lot of dominos fell because of that one move.
With the recent acquisition of A.J. Bouye, the Broncos once again are providing themselves with a ton of flexibility as they quickly approach Free Agency and the NFL Draft. But there remains a number of questions.
Can A.J. Bouye play?
The short answer is yes.
The 2019 Jaguars under Doug Marrone use a heavy dose of Middle of the Field Coverage shells like Cover 1 and Cover 3. Initially, the plan looked like Bouye’s role was to be a boundary corner on the weakside with Jalen Ramsey lining up to the passing strength.
Things changed with Ramsey missing games and eventually getting traded, which pushed Bouye into something resembling the role Chris Harris Jr. had with the Broncos last season. His charting numbers by Sports Info Solutions suggest he fared about the same as the departing Ring of Famer: 9.8 yards per pass in his direction on 82 targets vs. Harris’ 10.2 on 54.
When I first saw this, I wondered if the move had more to do with saving money and eventually recouping a draft pick than working to upgrade the secondary. It’s one reason I reached out to Big Cat Country’s Ryan O’Bleness for his thoughts.
In the days since news of the trade hit I’ve gone back and watched Bouye’s games against the Broncos, Saints, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Saints last year. I chose these matchups because all but one had him serving as CB1 and in all he faced top tier receivers. If the reports are true that Elway is pivoting away from Byron Jones and Darius Slay, Bouye will assume the top of the cornerback depth chart so it seemed pertinent to find out how he did against the best of the best.
Bouye displays solid athleticism on tape, with smooth hip transitions and good long speed. The fact that he played only missed 2 games last year despite hamstring, hip and wrist injuries as well as his short memory to play through errors illustrate how he has very good competitive toughness. In the games I watched he demonstrated solid mental processing, with better help around him could flourish by reading opponents and anticipating plays. He shows good play strength in how he matches up with big receivers and works off blocks to help against the run game.
One area where Bouye shows a lot of promise is his play out of press alignment. He often utilizes the soft show technique and does a good job sticking to his assignment in trail. Bouye’s ability to mirror and match are solid out of press, as he works to keep a close distance and has the strength to battle a receiver in phase.
If you listened to Jeff Essary and I discuss Byron Jones vs Darius Slay on Cover 2 Broncos, you’ll know why that has a ton of value to Fangio. With the 2018 Bears Prince Amukamara often played 3X1 formations tight on the line of scrimmage, essentially on an island for stretches as the safeties could then outnumber the strength of the formation.
Looking back at Bouye’s interceptions over his career with the Jaguars suggests he has good hand-eye coordination and won’t let a ball slip through his fingers too often. He also shows good range, with both an ability to run deep downfield and the confidence to play with his back to the ball without panicking.
When it comes to defending the run, Bouye looks good. He’s a bigger corner who knows how to position himself and leverage the ball back to help. He also will force receivers to block him if they wish to prevent him making a tackle. He’s a solid wrapup tackler who will do the dirty work to bring down a ball carrier.
So what are the issues?
The short answer is “was he hurt, or is he declining in 2019?”
I do have some concern over Bouye’s lateral quickness and ability to start stop. In the games I’ve watched I’d grade these out as adequate, and players like Sammy Watkins could prove problematic. This issue compounded against double moves as he got crossed up or too physical with a receiver. It was also a notable problem when he was playing in off coverage. Some of this could be mitigated by allowing him to more aggressively play up with help over the top, but it’s something to keep an eye out for.
There will probably be some debate about whether Bouye’s 2019 tape is a sign of a 7-year veteran who is a step slower than some opponents or merely playing through pain. The week one game against Kansas City suggests both may be a factor. Top tier speed like Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman may just present an issue for him going forward.
While Bouye is better out of soft shoe than off coverage, he does not bring the same level of physicality a Byron Jones does. I do not believe he’d be capable of matching up and shutting down someone like Travis Kelce.
In the games I watched I also noticed Bouye rarely disrupted a pass or challenge receivers at the catch point. This may be one reason why his PFF grade declined so sharply from 2018 as he wasn’t making many positive plays for the Jaguars, which made the negatives sting even more.
It is definitely worth noting that A.J. Bouye did appear to play through a hamstring and hip injuries, so he may have more lateral quickness and explosiveness in 2020 than I saw on his 2019 film. It’s also worth remembering that he missed seven games over the last two seasons, so durability could be a question.
How does Bouye fit into the 2020 Broncos?
The short answer is we don’t yet know.
If the Broncos plan to roll out a secondary and utilize A.J. Bouye in the same way Vic Fangio used Chris Harris Jr. last season, I expect the Broncos defense to fare worse against opposing number one receivers. Keep in mind that they did not originally plan to do that though, as Bryce Callahan and De’Vante Bausby’s injuries as well as Isaac Yiadom’s play left them with few alternatives.
If the Broncos plan to use Bouye in as a boundary corner with more tight coverage than the Jaguars did last season, he could be a real asset. He does show some inside/outside versatility and performed admirably against Michael Thomas and Courtland Sutton. Even with questions he looks like the best corner on the current roster.
What’s worth keeping an eye on going forward is if Elway and the Broncos add more talent to the secondary. There have been reports that Prince Amukamara and/or Bausby remain on their radar. Vic Fangio hinted that the Broncos may look to draft more corners in the NFL Draft.
Fangio utilizes more split field coverages and match zone than the Jaguars did, that will make more use of Bouye’s anticipation and recognition of plays as they unfold. Combining that with a little more freedom to play up with safeties like Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson to protect him over the top should be a boon.
So why didn’t the Jaguars want Bouye?
The short answer is that their window closed and they need to find cap space somehow.
Back when Tom Coughlin took the reigns and hired Doug Marrone, the team went out and aggressively added talent around Blake Bortles. In 2017, it looked brilliant as he had a career year with more than 3,500 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. This or a fear about a lack of alternatives led Couglin to extending Bortles, despite the fact that the real engine behind Jacksonville’s AFC Championship appearance was their NFL best defense.
It became obvious before the 2018 season was half over that the extension was an albatross. Coughlin admitted as much when Jacksonville ate more than $10 million in dead cap to dump him. Instead of moving forward with a rookie passer or someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick for a year though, the Jaguars handed Nick Foles a 4-year $88 million deal that also had $50.125 million in guarantees. At the time of the deal, reports emerged that they were bidding against themselves for his services.
These two moves and some other iffy decisions on the contract left the Jaguars in what amounted to cap purgatory heading into this spring. Combine that with a decline across their defense, Jalen Ramsey forcing his way out of town (and Yannick Ngakoue soon to follow) and it was clear a reset was needed. It’s why I included Jacksonville as a team the Broncos could steal talent from at the beginning of February. If other teams really were interested in Bouye, there’s reason to hope he may be able to get back to his 2017-2018 form.
I think because of the generally forgettable offense around him the last few years, we forget just how special Demaryius Thomas was.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 9, 2020
Check him out at the bottom of the screen working Bouye with the outside step into the slant.#BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/MDQrzdY0cG
I think a lot more of this trade than Elway’s move to acquire Joe Flacco last offseason. There is an element of risk involved, but a fourth round pick for a battle tested cornerback with elite play in the recent past makes a ton of sense. The fact that Fangio thought enough of Bouye’s fit in the defense for the Bears to offer the most for his services in 2017 suggests this should work out for all parties, so long as he remains healthy.
Going forward this also leaves the Broncos in a space where they don’t need to panic trade for Darius Slay or overpay Logan Ryan if Byron Jones signed with the Eagles, Raiders, etc. There remains work to be done, but it’s a good start.