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Broncos roster review: cornerback Essang Bassey

Can the Broncos 2020 undrafted gem make the 2021 Broncos?

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons
Essang Bassey was a key contributor as a rookie. Will the experience help him this year?
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A year after the undrafted rookie from Wake Forest drew comparisons to Chris Harris Jr. in the leadup to the Broncos’ 2020 training camp, Essang Bassey finds himself in a tight competition for a roster spot.

Essang Bassey’s profile

Height: 5’9”
Weight: 191 lbs
Age: 22 years old
Experience: 2

Like the rest of the Broncos’ 2020 rookies, Bassey had no OTAs or preseason during his first season in the NFL because of the Covid-19 pandemic. So when an injury to A.J. Bouye in the season opener pushed him into the nickel role on the Fangio defense, it was his first live reps against NFL competition. The Tennessee Titans went after him right away.

There’s no room for mercy in the NFL, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Tom Brady took advantage of the Broncos’ undrafted rookie during the early part of the year. For example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew up a concept to put Bassey in no-mans land on 3rd and 10 following their punt block on Sam Martin. It worked to perfection.

It took until the Broncos’ week four matchup with the New York Jets before Bassey’s mistakes cost him playing time. Down 10-17 before the end of the first half, the Jets abused Bassey to move the ball down the field. On Bassey’s last play of the game with a little under 45 seconds left in the first, Adam Gase dialed up a switch release that left Bassey on the wrong assignment. He didn’t log another defensive snap until the Broncos’ first showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Due to a myriad of injuries to the Broncos’ cornerback room, Bassey found his way back into the starting lineup after that and played a critical role as a slot corner until he suffered a season ending knee injury in the second loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The late injury and his own performance cast doubts about where he lands in the current pecking order, however. To survive the final cutdown to 53, Bassey looks like he’ll need a quick recovery so he can make an impression this preseason.

The Good

Bassey’s competitive toughness shows in how he never seemed to get too high or too low during his first trial by fire in the NFL, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Bassey played in 52 games during his collegiate career, and started 40. Assuming he can return to his pre-injury form, Bassey is a better athlete than his testing numbers suggest, with good quickness, agility, and balance.

When he made the right decisions in coverage, Bassey showed he’s solid in coverage with the reactive athleticism as well as the hip fluidity to mirror and match his assignments. While his role as a slot corner limited his exposure to coverage deep downfield, Bassey showed solid range. Despite his size, he showed no hesitation to fighting bigger receivers at the catch point in an effort to disrupt the ball.

While Bassey’s size limits his effectiveness shedding blocks, he’s a willing tackler who doesn’t have a problem lunging into bigger ball carriers in an attempt to bring them down. Fangio had no problem dialing up a nickel blitzes for Bassey in an effort to catch opposing passers off-guard.

The Bad

It isn’t really fair to beat up an undrafted rookie corner for struggling during the 2020 season, but Bassey had a litany of issues related to mental processing crop up across his 382 defensive snaps. The hope here is that a normal offseason and preseason as well as tape study helps the sophomore improve his route recognition and trigger. If they don’t, he won’t last long in the league.

Due to Bassey’s late ACL tear, there’s a pretty decent chance he enters camp on the PUP list. Working back from the knee may wind up costing him some confidence and athletic ability early, which could be a death knell for his odds at the Broncos’ roster when there’s so much competition firmly ahead of him on the depth chart.

Beyond those two obvious points above, Bassey’s size will always be considered a bit of a weakness. Standing 5’9” with 31” arms means he’s a far better option for the nickel than boundary corner role. His size limitations and adequate play strength will show up against bigger assignments who know how to box him out with their body, and it can make it hard for him to separate from blocks.

Essang Bassey’s roster status with the Broncos

After 10 different cornerbacks logged time during the 2020 season, it made perfect sense for George Paton to prioritize addressing the group during his first offseason. Patrick Surtain II, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, and Ronald Darby all look like they’re capable of starting and that could lead to more dime personnel going forward.

The “big four” corners also make Essang Bassey’s road back to the final roster a tough one to project, however. If the Broncos only carry five cornerbacks out of camp, Bassey will need to outperform 2020 3rd round pick Michael Ojemudia to make the cut. Given O.J’s draft pedigree, that seems like a nigh impossible task. If the Broncos carry six corners, Bassey will need to beat Kary Vincent Jr., Duke Dawson, Parnell Motley, Nate Hairston, and Mac McCain III.

In short, Bassey’s chances at the 2021 Broncos depend as much on the roster composition as it does his health and actual performance.