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Breaking down the Broncos’ defensive back room

Can the remade secondary bring back memories of the No Fly Zone?

There is no question George Paton made the Broncos’ secondary his number one priority during his first offseason as general manager. He spent more than $33 million guaranteed on free agents, re-signed Justin Simmons to a 4-year $61 million contract that made him the highest paid safety in the NFL, and spent the ninth overall pick on Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain before drafting three other DBs.

Now it’s on the Broncos’ coaching staff to make the most of the new blood.

Before we dig too deep: If you missed my discussion with Coach Vass of the Make Defense Great Again podcast, I can not recommend it enough as it will clarify some of the things I touch on below. On Cover 2 Broncos we discussed the differences between man coverage, zone coverage, man-match, and zone-match. It’s a misnomer to call Fangio a “zone” coach or say he “doesn’t need cornerbacks” and my hope is the episode helps to explain why. We also discussed concepts and specific play calls the Broncos will use in 2021.

What DBs will play major roles?

We’ve reached a point in the NFL where nickel is base, and the Broncos are no exception. Despite 10 different cornerbacks logging snaps a season ago, Vic Fangio used five or more defensive backs on 75% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps. More often than not, Denver used a 4-2-5 alignment with two defensive linemen, two edge rushers, two off ball linebackers, three cornerbacks, and two safeties. With the heavy investment in the secondary this last offseason, we may even see a six DB look become the most utilized personnel package.

Under Fangio, the Broncos heavily utilize two-high shells pre-snap and routinely disguise their intentions. They may rotate into a one-high shell at the snap or stay two-high. This blurs the lines between a free safety and strong safety as both players need to be able to play centerfield, cover slots, play in the box, or come downhill to fill against the run. It also baits opponents into running the ball too often and relies on the safeties coming down late in run support.

With all that in mind, there are six players that look like the heavy favorites for starting jobs or significant roles on this side of training camp:

Justin Simmons

The Broncos’ best player who isn’t named Von Miller, Simmons has reached a new level of play since Fangio became Denver’s head coach. He was an All Pro in 2019 before making his first Pro Bowl last season. 27-years-old until November, Simmons is in the prime of his career and the best player on the Broncos’ roster.

At 6’2” and a hair over 200 lbs., Simmons has prototypical size for a modern free safety and combines it with very good athleticism. He displays elite mental processing with his ability to read tendencies, anticipate assignments, and make up for mistakes. A strong run defender who can also smother his assignments in coverage, Simmons is a reliable last line of defense.

Kareem Jackson

George Paton gambled he could bring back Kareem Jackson for less than the $12,882,353 he was owed during the last year of the original 3-year contract he signed with the Broncos. After declining the veteran’s team option, the Broncos re-signed on a one year deal worth $5 million.

The 33-year-old’s return ensures the Broncos should continue to have one of the best safety tandems in football. A former cornerback, Jackson’s capable of mirroring receivers in coverage and does a nice job fighting at the catch point despite his 5’10 stature. He’s also a fearless contributor to the run defense with the way he throws his 187 lbs. around with little regard.

Kyle Fuller

After seven years in the Windy City, the Chicago Bears deemed Kyle Fuller a cap casualty this offseason. The 2014 first round pick’s foray into free agency didn’t last long, however, as he reunited with his former defensive coordinator in Denver by signing with the Broncos after 34 minutes. He’ll play on a one-year contract in 2021 in hopes that a return to the Fangio defense helps him to re-capture his All Pro form.

On the field, Fuller is a good athlete who excels in off coverage. He’s a savvy player whose mental processing helps him to find his way to the right place at the right time. He’s able to match up against most opponents one on one and can be counted on to contest the catch point. A willing run defender, he does a good job working the ball back to help and doesn’t hesitate to get his nose dirty when it’s called for. On this side of the preseason it seems safe to assume Fuller is the Broncos’ CB1 in 2021.

Ronald Darby

After a prove-it year with the Washington Football Team where he played in every game and didn’t secure a single interception, Darby signed a three year contract worth $30 million to join the Broncos. It was the first time Darby played a full slate of games in his NFL career to date: he’s missed 26 games for a variety of reasons since he entered the league as a second round pick in 2015.

The good news is Darby looks like a terrific fit for the Fangio defense and he almost has to secure a pick or two after breaking up 17 passes and dropping two turnovers last year. Darby’s a very good athlete with the mental acuity, route recognition, and hip fluidity to thrive in the Broncos’ defense. He currently looks like a sure bet to start at one of the boundary corner spots, and he also has the skillset to slide inside.

Bryce Callahan

When healthy, Callahan’s done everything Fangio’s asked of him and more. The problem he’s run into during his NFL career is he’s so seldom healthy long. Just about any way you slice it highlights this issue: Callahan’s played in 10+ games three times since he joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He’s played more than 50% of his team’s defensive snaps twice over that span. He missed the entirety of his first season in Denver because of a foot injury and couldn’t suit up for six games last season.

The next time Callahan plays a full season will be the first.

On the field Callahan is a hand in glove fit for the Broncos’ defense. While undersized at 5’9” and 185 lbs., he doesn’t hesitate to mix it up with bigger receivers in coverage. He’s also a better run defender than his size suggests. If health luck prevails he’s the early favorite for nickel reps, but 2020 is proof he’s also a very good boundary corner when he’s asked to slide outside.

Patrick Surtain II

Shortly after the 2021 draft Paton said he considered Surtain the best defensive player in the class. Numerous reports point to how the Broncos turned down trade offers from the Bears, Vikings, and others to select the Alabama corner. They also passed on two prospective franchise quarterbacks.

He was definitely the best defensive player on the board. I can’t remember exactly where he was, but we were surprised that he was there, and we are happy we have him.

When I spoke with Coach Vass, he shared how years starting for Nick Saban will ease the transition to Bronco’s defense. In addition, Surtain spent his high school career receiving coaching from his father, a former Pro Bowl cornerback. He routinely displays very good instincts as well as pro level technique across his tape with the Crimson Tide. It’s a matter of time before he locks down one of the boundary corner spots.

I expect the Broncos to look for ways to get Surtain on the field this season, even if all of the veteran corners remain healthy. His strengths in press alignment are an element Fangio hasn’t had since 2018 with Prince Amukamara.

The other New Faces

Caden Sterns

Paton’s first safety joined the Broncos with the 152nd pick in the 2021 draft. A top high school recruit from the state of Texas, Sterns’ had a disappointing finish to his career with the Longhorns after leading the team in interceptions and making First Team All-Big 12 as a freshman. A team captain in 2020, he’s missed time in each of the last three years to injury. One NFL scout told the Athletic’s Dane Brugler “He was still reading his freshman year press clippings as a junior”

As you’d expect from a former five star recruit, Sterns is a very good athlete. He has easy range in the deep parts of the field and should have zero trouble flying up from a two high alignment to help in run support. While I like his fit in the Fangio scheme, he’ll need to improve his route recognition and develop better anticipation to become more than a toolsy special teamer.

Jamar Johnson

The Broncos’ 164th pick in the 2021 draft led Indiana with four interceptions and eight passes defensed a season ago. A one year starter who spent his sophomore season as a key reserve, Johnson brings potential nickel-safety versatility with him into the NFL. Where Sterns is the gifted athlete who needs to show a better feel for the game, Johnson is a solid athlete whose instincts and anticipation help him to play faster than he times.

It’s going to be fascinating to see where Johnson receives reps in training camp and the preseason as the Broncos have more viable nickel corners than safeties. The Broncos’ nickel spot probably offers more protection against Johnson’s athletic limitations, while safety may provide more opportunities for his mental processing and ball skills to shine through. In both spots he’ll need to prove himself as a tackler and run defender.

Kary Vincent Jr.

The 237th pick in the 2021 draft, Vincent joins the Broncos after a collegiate career where he played nickel, safety, and also ran track for the LSU Tigers. Like Surtain, Vincent Jr. has NFL bloodlines. His father spent time in the NFL and coached his son in high school before passing away after complications from pneumonia at the age of 49.

It remains to be seen how Vincent factors into the Broncos’ DB room this year. Standing 5’9 and 185 lbs. means he’s roughly the same size as Bryce Callahan, but he’ll need to do a better job with the physical aspects of nickel play to make it in the NFL. His track speed translates to the football field and he’s got a good head on his shoulders, so there’s certainly tools to build upon.

Mac McCain III

When a rookie comes from a small school like North Carolina A&T, you hope they dominated, and Franklin “Mac” McCain did just that. He finished with 30 passes defensed and scored touchdowns on half his eight interceptions. He also checked the boxes at his Pro Day with a 4.45 40-yard dash to go with solid numbers across the board.

Odds are there’s going to be a pretty substantial learning curve for McCain in training camp. Not only does he come from a smaller school and lesser competition, he also hasn’t played since 2019 because Covid-19 forced the Aggies to postpone their season until the spring. He also missed parts of 2019 and 2018 because of a torn ACL, so his situation isn’t necessarily the same as Quinn Meinerz’s coming from Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The Broncos thought enough of McCain to give him $50,000 guaranteed to sign as an undrafted free agent, so Paton clearly believes he’s a potential gem.

Who will make the roster?

Since Fangio became the Broncos’ head coach they typically carry between nine and 11 defensive backs on the active roster. It would be a huge surprise if Simmons, Jackson, Surtain, Fuller, Darby, and Callahan aren’t a part of that group in 2021 and both the rookie safeties are favored for spots because of the guarantees in their contracts, if nothing else.

With eight spots locked up, the bubble battle ultimately boils down to two and perhaps even three distinct groups depending on the importance Fangio and Paton place on versatility. Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, Kary Vincent Jr, Parnell Motley, Nate Hairston, Mac McCain look set to fight it out for a corner spot, maybe two. P.J. Locke III, and Trey Marshall have their work cut out for them trying to make the roster at safety.

As a 2020 third round pick, it’s hard to imagine Ojemudia won’t receive every opportunity to stick around. He played 78% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps a season ago while pitching in an additional 50 plays on special teams. While he got benched after the Broncos game against the Atlanta Falcons, he found a way back to the starting lineup and finished the season with two forced fumbles in the finale against the Raiders. While OJ has the size to potentially make a switch to safety, it sounds like the Fangio and the coaching staff are expanding his cornerback duties.

“I think he’s in a good frame of mind. I think he learned a lot last year. He got thrown to the fire probably earlier than we would have wanted to, but we had no choice. We’re teaching him some of the inside positions at the nickel and dime position. He has a lot on his plate, but I’ve liked his focus and his attitude. He’s not let the fact that we’ve brought in some new corners affect him. He’s out here competing and trying to earn a spot. I like where Michael is at. He’s still got a way to go, but overall, he’s in a good spot.”

Just in case you’ve missed Broncos’ position breakdowns