For months the most obvious need on the Broncos’ 2021 roster was at cornerback, so it came as no surprise when George Paton made Ronald Darby the first outside addition to his new roster. The veteran cornerback joined after a single year in the nation’s capital and joins the Broncos on a 3-year, $30 million contract.
Was it the right decision?
After spending the last week watching Darby’s games against the Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I’m confident Darby will fit into the Fangio defense. However, he does not solve my biggest concerns about cornerback.
Who is Ronald Darby?
Darby entered the league in 2015 when he was drafted 50th overall by the Buffalo Bills. He was the seventh cornerback selected. After two years in New York he was traded shortly before training camp to the Philadelphia Eagles for Jordan Matthews and a 2018 3rd round pick.
During his first game with the Eagles he dislocated his ankle, which knocked him out until the middle of November. He proved to be worth the wait and finished the season with three interceptions to go with 6 pass breakups in the NFL playoffs as the Eagles made a miraculous Super Bowl run.
Philly failed to defend their Super Bowl title and Darby finished the last year of his rookie contract on Injured Reserve after tearing his ACL in week 10. He finished the year with 10 pass breakups and one interception as he allowed opposing passers to complete 52.3% of their passes in his direction.
Following a foray into free agency where I considered him one of the best available options, Darby returned to the Eagles on a one-year contract. His 2019 was an unmitigated disaster as he struggled to return from his ACL. He allowed five touchdowns in 11 games, broke up eight passes, and picked off two balls. Philly cut bait after the year and Darby found his way to a division rival on a one-year prove-it contract in 2020.
While he didn’t secure a single interception, landing with the Washington Football Team clearly turned into a godsend for Ronald Darby.
Ronald Darby’s scouting report
Ronald Darby enters 2021 as a 7th year player who has started 74 of a potential 100 games, including 17 in 2020. Last season was his first under HC Ron Rivera and DC Jack Del Rio in Washington’s defense that played zone defense more than all but eight NFL teams. His primary responsibility was as the starting right cornerback, though he was asked to play limited snaps in the slot or on the left side depending on the coverage call and assignment.
Darby has adequate height and solid weight with a lean, muscular build and adequate arm length (46th percentile). He displays very good athletic ability with a healthy combination of balance, quickness, hip fluidity, and acceleration to go with good foot quickness in slide technique.
Darby’s mental processing is quick, and he displays a competent understanding and anticipation of route combinations. In addition, he does a very good job handing off assignments in match coverage and looks like he’ll be a communicator capable of bettering those around him. His competitive toughness is noteworthy, and he raises his game in clutch situations. He displays a short memory and doesn’t let miscues haunt him.
Ronald Darby plays big on 4th down. pic.twitter.com/9mSBNi3Lgx— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 16, 2021
Darby is 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, and when on the rare occasion he was asked to jam similarly sized opponents, he was able to consistently interfere with them off the line of scrimmage while still providing good placement on his punch.
Darby displays very good route recognition in zone coverage and sees threats coming from across the field. He also displays consistently good zone spacing and leaves himself space to close while also respecting his opponent’s athletic ability.
He has shown a good click and close when coming downhill to break on the ball. He’s very reliable in man coverage with the ability to mirror his assignments from a variety of alignments.
With a good range to open up and run deep downfield, Darby has proven solid ball skills and minimal hesitation to get physical in order to contest catches and prevent completions.
When Brady lets it loose this looks like a sure TD, but notice how Darby reaches in to contest Godwin's catch. pic.twitter.com/IzHp6iuTA3— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 20, 2021
Darby is a good run defender and willing to do dirty work in order to ensure the ball carrier meets the turf. Washington routinely asked him to prevent backs from stringing runs out wide and he did a good job leveraging opposing blocks to do just that. He is a solid tackler and shows no hesitation in breaking down and driving into a ball carrier. In the tape I studied, Darby was not asked to blitz.
Darby displays adequate play strength on tape with how he handles bigger receivers in phase as well as his work separating from blocks. While he is adequate along the line, Darby was rarely asked to press in 2020 and it’s something that should be matchup dependent. His play strength creates limitations that will show up if asked to jam a larger and/or stronger opponent, which can lead to situations where he’s forced to recover and chase.
The biggest consistent issue Darby showed in coverage during the 2020 season was his propensity to lock in on the quarterback’s eyes a tick too long. This left him extremely susceptible to pump fakes and false keys that gave opposing receivers a chance to break away from him.
On the tape studied, this issue led to ceding big plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ronald Darby is a starting outside cornerback you can win with who is at his best in off coverage. His ability to mirror will show up in both man and zone coverage, and while his eyes could get him into trouble against more savvy route runners and offensive systems in the NFL, he has procured the skills necessary to thrive in a Fangio defense.
If Ronald Darby remains healthy, I’m confident that George Paton’s first outside addition will be a good one. Still, it’s a big if.
I’m not a doctor and I do not play one on TV, but I do adhere to the idea that the best predictor of future injury is past injury. Darby has suffered from a variety of soft tissue injuries over the course of his career that suggests durability will be a concern going forward. It’s a huge concern that both Darby and Bryce Callahan entered the league in 2015 and have just one 16+ game season between them.
One area where I’m conflicted with Darby is his contract. The Broncos handed an injury-prone cornerback almost $20 million in guarantees and the contract is what amounts to a 2+1 arrangement. Darby’s cap number is only $4 million in 2021 because his 2022 cap figure is a near lock. It would cost the Broncos $15.5 million or more to cut Darby before 2023.
While I love what Washington did last year by taking a one-year bet on a guy with a significant injury history, the Broncos paid him for his career season. It remains to be seen if that was a wise decision.