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Training Camp positional review: Cornerback

It starts with Patrick Surtain II but the depth behind him will make or break this unit.

Cincinnati Bengals v Denver Broncos Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Broncos cornerback group really is centered around 2021 first-round pick, Patrick Surtain II. He is coming off a rookie season where he quickly ascended into becoming one of the better cornerbacks in the entire NFL. Now, entering his second season, we should expect big things. However, the depth behind him will make or break the Broncos’ cornerback unit that will be relied on heavily this upcoming season.

The Starters

The Broncos starting corners are, as of now, already penciled in. Surtain II, Ronald Darby, and K’Waun Williams should be your starting three come week one. The depth behind them is what is up for grabs.

Patrick Surtain II: He is the Broncos' number one cornerback and among one of the better cornerbacks in the entire NFL already. He’s looking to improve on his impressive rookie campaign and blossom into an elite cornerback in the NFL.

With the Broncos facing Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr who now has Davante Adams to throw to, they will need Surtain to play at a high level consistently this upcoming season.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Ronald Darby: Darby is a bit of a forgotten man in the Broncos secondary, but he gives the Broncos defense a solid number option. However, health has been an issue for him and he has only played a full season once in his seven-year NFL career. He is coming off a season where he played in 11 out of 17 games for the Broncos.

Darby, when healthy is a solid coverage corner. However, he does have some injury concerns as I have noted, and hasn’t recorded an interception since the 2019 season when he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Ideally, he would stay more healthy and cause a few more turnovers this upcoming season, but we will see how that works out.

K’Waun Williams: The Broncos signed Williams to a one-year deal this offseason to be their slot cornerback this upcoming season. The former 49ers corner has been one of the better slot corners in the game throughout his career and now the Broncos hope he continues that with them this season.

Like Darby, Williams has some injury concerns to keep an eye on. He has never played a full season during his 8 year NFL career. He is coming off a season where he played 14 games for the 49ers, so the Broncos are hoping to get something close to that this season.

The Depth

With Darby and Williams having some injury concerns, this group of players, if they make the team, will be tasked to step up and potentially start this season. So, they will be players to watch closely this summer to see how they are doing.

Michael Ojemudia: The Broncos' former third-round pick hasn’t really lived up to the expectations some have expected from him thus far. He has seen the Broncos sign, multiple veterans, to play ahead of him while also spending a top 10 pick on Surtain. However, reports coming out of OTA’s and minicamp this spring have noted that Ojemudia has been playing rather well.

With Darby and Williams having an injury history, it’s fair to assume that Ojemudia could see some starting reps this season. Ideally, Ojemudia carries his strong spring into Training Camp. The Broncos' depth behind their starters is iffy at best, so Ojemudia emerging would certainly help resolve these concerns.

Damarri Mathis: The Broncos spent a fourth-round selection on Mathis this past spring during the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s a highly athletic cornerback who has the potential to be a contributor in his rookie season.

As I mentioned already, Darby and Williams have injury concerns while Ojemudia is an Elway/Fangio pick who has dealt with up and down play throughout his career. So, there’s a clear path for Mathis to earn some playing time this season if he impresses this summer. I like Mathis’s potential and think he has a chance to be a breakout candidate during Training Camp.

Clemson v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Blessuan Austin: The veteran Austin played two seasons with the Jets before joining Russ Wilson in Seattle last season. During that span, he has 17 starts under his belt while also playing in 29 games. So, he has plenty of game experience under his belt, but he’s now on his third team, so that speaks to the talent he has.

Austin seems like that player who either snags a final roster spot because of special teams play or is among the cuts and is replaced by a similar type of player. There isn’t a lot to be excited about here but let us see what Austin can do this summer.

The Rest

Essang Bassey: The former 2020 UDFA struggled in limited playing time in his rookie season before he tore his ACL. Since then, he has played in just two games, have been waived by the Broncos and Chargers before being claimed by the Broncos again. Now he is fighting for a roster or practice squad spot once again.

The reality is that the odds are greatly stacked for Bassey to make this team. He was waived once already, didn’t play great when last on the field, didn’t make the team last year, and now faces a new crop of rookies and UDFA’s to fight for a roster and practice spot. So, he will really need to play well to make the team or practice squad.

Donnie Lewis Jr.: Lewis is a former seventh-round selection by the Cleveland Browns back in the 2019 NFL Draft. Since then, he has been waived by the Browns multiple times, then signed and waived by the Cincinnati Bengals before signing with the Broncos this past April.

Like Bassey, Lewis Jr. faces tall odds at making the Broncos' 53-man roster and even their practice squad. He has bounced around a bit and will be competing against a new crop of rookies for a spot on the back end of the roster and the practice squad. So, he will need to have a solid summer if he hopes to achieve that.

Faion Hicks: The Broncos spent a seventh-round selection on Hicks this past April. He is the second corner drafted by the Broncos and will now fight for the final spot or two on the Broncos' 53-man roster.

Like the rest of the guys who will be in this grouping, Hicks will need to prove his worth on special teams. He’s a good athlete so we will see how that translates on the field this summer. He seems like a lock for a practice squad spot, but we shall see if he can push for an active roster spot.

Ja’Quan McMillian: The Broncos signed McMillian as an undrafted free agent at the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft. He is a bit of an undersized corner, but his ball-hawking skills in college make him an intriguing prospect who could be the next Broncos UDFA to make the active roster.

His size likely limits him to the slot, but his 12 career interceptions in college show that he has a nose for the ball. If he can continue this ball-hawking play against the Broncos' second and third-team defenses during training camp, he could help push himself into the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Final Thoughts

Cornerback Pat Surtain II is great and should elevate himself into the elite group of cornerbacks this season. However, after him, the Broncos have question marks and depth issues that need to be figured out.

Ronald Darby and K’Waun Williams both haven’t played a full season much at all during their careers. so it’s safe to assume that the Broncos' depth will be tested at some point this season. Also, the depth we’re speaking of has either underperformed during their careers or are rookies.

Ideally, one or both of Michael Ojemudia and Damarri Mathis have a solid camp and preseason that leaves us feeling better about the depth at this position. If not, I could see the Broncos in the market for another starting-caliber corner during final cuts.

If something were to happen to Surtain, the Broncos would be in trouble.