Patrick Surtain, was not the first cornerback taken in the draft, but he is thought by many to be the best cornerback (and some say best defender) in the 2021 draft. This got me thinking about how often rookie CBs have been elite as rookies in the NFL. So I searched for CBs who have made the Pro Bowl in their rookie season. While the Pro Bowl may not be the best measure of “elite” it is at least a measure of “eliteness.”
Since the merger there have been nine rookies CBs who have made the Pro Bowl (so about one every five years, but it’s been happening much more frequently lately). Four rookies did it in the first forty years of the league and five have done it in the last eleven years.
Note that the most recent was Denzel Ward who was drafted fourth overall by the Browns in 2018 (right before the Broncos selected Bradley Chubb). Also note that Ronnie Lott, Devin McCourty and Charles Woodson all began their NFL careers as CBs before making the move to safety. Lott and McCourty both played the majority of their careers at safety while Woodson played the majority of his at cornerback.
Only one of the nine made first team All-Pro* as a rookie as that was Patrick Peterson in 2011 (more on this later). Peterson was part of that same draft that gave us Von Miller, who is another of the elite defenders that the Broncos are going to add to the defense relative to 2020. In case you forgot, Von missed the entire 2020 season.
The other thing you should note is that with the exception of Lemar Parrish in 1970, the rest of the guys were first round picks and more than half of them were very early first round picks. So history would seem to be on Surtain’s side if he hopes to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
This is not to say that Surtain, being the scion of a Pro Bowl CB and having excelled on the best teams in college football, is a lock to be an elite CB in the NFL. There are plenty of first round CBs who have failed to live up to their draft status (and their team’s expectations). I was able to find eight cornerbacks taken in the first round this century who played, but did not start a single game as rookies, including Willie Middlebrooks, who the Broncos took with the 24th overall pick in 2001.
None of the eight on this list were taken in the top 10 though, so it would appear that CBs taken in the top 10 are going to start. In fact, of the CBs taken in the top 10, I could only find four who did not start of the majority of the games that they appeared in as rookies. Those four would be Quentin Jammer in 2002 (started four of fourteen after being taken 5th overall), Carlos Rogers in 2005 (5 of 12 after being taken 9th), Joe Haden in 2010 (7 of 16 after being taken 7th) and Justin Gilbert (2 of 14 after being taken 8th). Of those four, Jammer was an average NFL CB (who ended his career with the Broncos); Rogers was mostly average or above average (he made the Pro Bowl once - 2011 with the 49ers with Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator); Haden has been quite good after starting slowly (3 Pro Bowls), and Gilbert was a bust lasting only three seasons in the NFL.
Another way to measure a player’s performance is the overall ranking at ProFootballFocus.com. Recently they have made the overall ranking for every player for every year publicly available without a subscription.
You can see that while some of the five CBs who made the Pro Bowl as rookies played well, according to PFF, two of them did not - Patrick Peterson and Marcus Peters.
As mentioned earlier, Peterson was named first team All-Pro in 2011 despite getting an overall grade from PFF of 49.6 - and this is where I hit you with the catch - Peterson was not named All-Pro as a CB, but as a punt returner. In fact, he did not make the Pro Bowl as a CB either in 2011. There were seven CBs named to the Pro Bowl in 2011: Darrelle Revis, Jonathan Joseph, Charles Woodson, Carlos Rogers, Champ Bailey, Brandon Browner and Charles Tillman. The two were first team All-Pro were Revis and Woodson. Peterson would make the Pro Bowl as a CB in his second season. Peterson would go on to be selected to the Pro Bowl as a CB every year from 2012 to 2018. I should note that Peters was named second team All-Pro in 2015 as a rookie. Peters has been named first team All-Pro twice in his career (2016 and 2019) along with his three Pro Bowl selections.
Back to the talent that is being infused into the 2021 Bronco defense, along with Surtain and Miller, the Broncos also brought in Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. Fuller has twice made the Pro Bowl and was first team All-Pro once. While Darby may not be elite like Fuller is (or at least once was), he is definitely an upgrade over the guys who ended up playing CB for the 2020 Broncos because of the plague of injuries our cornerbacks suffered.
So with three “new” elite (at least on paper) defenders, I would argue that Broncos got the biggest infusion of talent of any defense in the league relative to 2020.