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Broncos 2023 training camp preview: Cornerbacks

The Broncos have the best cornerback in the league.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

When you are playing in the AFC and specifically the AFC West, you need to have a strong cornerback unit. You are competing against the league's best quarterbacks and passing offenses and need to slow those passers and offenses if you want to win. So, the Denver Broncos are hoping the cornerback unit they put together can do just that this upcoming season,

Leading this unit is the best cornerback in the league. Patrick Surtain II has quickly grown into the top corner in the league and will look to shut down his side of the field once again this season. Next, we have promising second-year cornerback Damarri Mathis who is looking to build off a strong rookie season in year two. Veteran K’Waun Williams looks to be your slot corner once again this season with third-round rookie Riley Moss competing for snaps too. After Moss, you have return specialist Tremon Smith, slot corners Essang Bassey and Ja’Quan McMillian, with promising-looking UDFA Art Green, Delonte Hood, and Faion Hicks all fighting for a roster spot.

So let us take an in-depth look at the Broncos' cornerbacks and how they fit on this team moving forward.

Patrick Surtain - Cornerback - 6-2, 202 pounds

Surtain is entering his third season in the NFL and has quickly emerged as the top cornerback in the league. He had a strong rookie season and only improved in year two, and now he is looking to do even more in year three.

Earlier this offseason, head coach Sean Payton was asked what impressed him most about Surtain and he called Surtain an “elite player” and that corners like that are hard to find.

“There’s a lot that goes into it. We were lucky enough in New Orleans to draft Marshon Lattimore and a few other corners that were really good players. With Patrick I remember his dad playing. You would say his physical traits are impressive. He’s long and he’s built as a prototype for what you’re looking for in that position. He’s got great makeup, he’s tough, he’s smart and the ball finds him. He’s got good ball skills. With a few of these corners—it’s funny, I always love this time of the year where everything is getting ranked, and he appears on all those top corner lists. A lot of those guys are younger players, so there are certain positions that can reveal themselves quicker than others. Certainly, we’ve seen that from him. I mentioned the physical and I mentioned mental traits. All those things come together and then you get an elite player, and at corner those are hard to find.”

Newly hired defensive coordinator Vance Joseph also spoke about Surtain this offseason and called him a “special player”.

“He’s special. I’ve watched him play in a lot of games, and he’s special. He’s a prototype when it comes to height, weight, arm length and all those things. His special trait is his intelligence. He’s a very, very smart player. He understands the game, and he works at the game on a daily basis. When you combine that part with his physical traits, it’s unique. He’s coachable, and he wants to get better every single day. He’s definitely a special player.”

I would expect to be an elite cornerback once again this season and shut his side of the field down, or ideally, shadow the opposing team’s top receiver. The Broncos have themselves a good one here and I am excited to see what he can do in year three.

Damarri Mathis - Cornerback - 5-11, 195 pounds

The Denver Broncos selected Pittsburgh cornerback Damarri Mathis in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. At the time, this pick was viewed as nothing more than a depth selection who could potentially turn into a starter down the road. However, Mathis quickly became much more than a depth player for the Broncos.

Mathis ended up starting a total of 11 games for the Broncos during his rookie year and was active for 16 out of the 17 games the team played this past season. It was a rocky start for the Broncos’ rookie cornerback who saw multiple defensive pass-interference calls called against him during his first career start. However, he really improved down the stretch and proved he can be a solid starting NFL cornerback in the NFL.

Entering year two, he is expected to start alongside cornerback Patrick Surtain II. We saw in the past, when you have an elite cornerback, teams often attack the other corner instead. So, this puts some added pressure on the shoulders of Mathis. With that said, he did well last year in that same scenario, so hopefully, he can continue to grow and develop into an even better starter this upcoming season.

Head coach Sean Payton was asked about if the corners players playing next to Surtain II had more pressure on them because teams will be looking their way more. He had an interesting reply and explained to reporters his thought process on that.

“Sometimes the coverage can dictate that, too. It’s a great question, though. I think that pressure falls [on that player] a little bit more on third down when you decide by the gameplan that you want to take a certain player out of the game. On the other side, the balls are going to come your way. If we’re rolling one direction, ‘cloud’ for instance, with safety help, it’s hard to force the ball over there. It becomes more prevalent in man-coverage schemes than sometimes in zone [coverage schemes], but it’s good question.”

I have high hopes for Mathis this season. If he can develop into a solid number two cornerback, it will be a huge development for the Broncos defense. Having a strong secondary in the AFC is needed with all these passing offense and Mathis’s development will be key in the Broncos having just that.

K’Waun Williams - Cornerback - 5-9, 185 pounds

The veteran slot corner is entering his second season with the Broncos. Last season, he played in 14 games and snagged one interception while playing solid in that slot role. The Broncos will need that from him once again this season.

While Williams has been solid throughout his career, there some concerns moving forward. He just turned 32 years old and that age wall hits defensive backs pretty quickly. We’ll need to see that he has not lost a step and can play like he has in the past. Also, he has never played a full season during his career and has missed a total of 15 games over the past three seasons. That injury risk goes up as you age, so that will be something to keep an eye on this summer.

While I think it would be an upset if he did no make the team, he is a player I could see the Broncos move on from in favor of another veteran who becomes available. His dead money hit is under a million dollars and he is an aging defensive back with a rookie behind him. Just something to watch as we progress through the next few weeks.

Riley Moss - Cornerback - 6-0, 193 pounds

The Denver Broncos traded up back into the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft and selected a player they wanted all along. That player being Iowa cornerback Riley Moss. Now, he enters his rookie and will likely primarily play on special teams, but I would not rule out seeing the talented rookie play a decent amount on defense this season as well.

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Head coach talked to reporters about Moss earlier this offseason and he repeated to them that he was a player that they hoped would be available in the third round of the draft.

“I said this after the draft. I felt like he was one of those players—when you begin doing the mock [drafts] and you start studying where players are going to fall and where we were picking in the third round, he was someone that we hoped would be available. He’s in a good shape, and he’s a guy that’s a smooth mover. He can run, and he can run fast. His prototype—when you hear me say that, he’s over 6’0. He’s also someone that learns pretty quickly. You see some of his athleticism, even in the special teams drills when we watch it on tape. He’s someone that moves well and has the athleticism needed to play corner, which is probably one of the more athletic positions in our game.”

As I said earlier, he will likely play special teams early on for the Broncos, but I would not be surprised if he earned a role on defense as well. He is a talented corner prospect and is behind a veteran who has some injury concerns. Add in his versatility to play inside at the slot, outside, and even safety, and you can see how that role could be carved out. I am excited to see how he plays during camp and the preseason. A strong summer could elevate him up the depth chart.

Tremon Smith - Cornerback - 6-0, 190 pounds

In free agency, the Broncos signed former Texans cornerback/returner to a two-year contract.

Smith is a 5’11”, 190-pound cornerback/return specialist who has played a total of 5 seasons in the NFL. He has played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, and now for the Denver Broncos.

During his five-year career, he has totaled 43 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass deflections. However, he is known for his kick return abilities. During his career, he returned 94 kicks for 2,323 yards and returned 1 for a touchdown. His longest return was 98 yards, he averaged 24.7 yards per return and had 5 returns for 40 yards or more.

It will be interesting to see how Smith factors into the Broncos secondary. He mostly known as a returner, so where he lands in the pecking order at corner will be something to keep an eye on.

He seems like a depth option at corner, but his addition was more damning for Montrell Washington and the other returners that were on the Broncos roster. As we have said all offseason, Payton put an emphasis on special teams and a player like Smith could be a key player to those units. So again, it will be interesting to see where this all plays out and how he factors into this roster.

Essang Bassey - Cornerback - 5-10, 190 pounds

The undrafted free agent has bounced on and off the Broncos roster and practice squad the past few seasons, and even had a cup of coffee with the Chargers before returning to the Broncos. This past season he played in 14 games for the Broncos and now will be looking to earn a roster spot once again this season.

Bassey is a slot corner only and will be competing with others to be the primary backup for that role. He has shown to be a solid reserve at times but also has really struggled at times. In reality, I have a hard time seeing Bassey making the 53 man roster. He faces competition from a few younger players and needs to impress a new coaching staff. Right now, I don’t have him making the team and the move to a more man-heavy scheme could hurt his chances at sticking around on the practice squad.

Art Green - Cornerback - 6-1, 201 pounds

Prior to the 2023 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos had an official top-30 visit with Houston cornerback, Art Green. These visits do not automatically mean the team will draft or sign the player as an undrafted free agent but in this case, that is what happened. The 2023 NFL Draft came and went without Houston cornerback Art Green’s name being called, but the Denver Broncos quickly signed the big and athletic cornerback as an undrafted free agent a the conclusion of the draft.

Art Green is a 6’1”, 201-pound cornerback who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at his Pro Day at Houston. He played a total of three seasons at Houston and was a key member of their defense. During his three-year career, Green totaled 77 total tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 3 interceptions, and 12 pass deflections. This past season, Green totaled 49 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions, and 8 pass deflections.

I am excited to see what Art Green can do this summer. I am a sucker for rolling the dice on players who have size, speed, and athleticism. Trust your coaching to develop them as a corner and hope you strike gold here. Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker is one of the best in the league and will soon be a defensive coordinator in this league, so I am excited to see what he can do here with Green. Keep in mind, he most likely had a big part in the Broncos signing Green as well, especially after his pre-draft top-30 visit.

Now, will Green make the 53-man roster? I have my doubts. Four of those spots are locked up with Surtain, Mathis, Moss, and likely Williams. Tremon Smith’s special teams background likely gives him the edge for that final spot, so most likely, Green will need to force the Broncos hand if he wants to make the team out of training camp. I believe he is most likely destined for the practice squad, but a strong summer can change that.

Ja’Quan McMillian - Cornerback - 5-10, 183 pounds

Last year, the Broncos signed McMillian as an undrafted free agent and he stuck around on the practice squad. He stayed there until the regular season finale where he played the entire game vs. the Chargers.

NFL: JAN 08 Chargers at Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He is a smaller ball-hawking corner who had 12 career interceptions in college and is having himself a strong offseason per reports. The reports coming from OTA’s and minicamp were limited at best, but what did come out was promising about McMillian.

If he can surpass Bassey on the depth chart and be the Broncos backup slot corner, I can see him carving out a role on the 53-man roster. I liked what I saw from him in limited action last season and I think he will be one those surprise breakout stars we talk about a lot in the coming weeks.

Delonte Hood - Cornerback - 5-11, 192 pounds

Hood was an undrafted free agent during the 2022 NFL Draft and spent time on the Bengals practice squad last season. He ended up signing a reserve/future contract with the Broncos this past offseason and is competing for a spot on their active roster or practice squad.

In all reality, he doesn’t have a shot for a 53-man roster spot and is competing to be one someone’s practice squad this season. He is highly athletic corner who did play at a small school in college, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops this summer. He likely will be running with the second and third team defenses during camp so we shall see how he does when given an opportunity to show what he’s got.

Faion Hicks - Cornerback - 5-10, 192 pounds

The Broncos spent a seventh round selection on Faion Hicks in the 2022 NFL Draft. He spent the year on the practice squad and is now looking to make the active roster this year or return to their practice squad.

Unfortunately for Hicks, he had an offseason arrest. He is facing charges of carrying a concealed weapon, running a stop sign and driving a vehicle with a license expired by more than 6 months. The Broncos did part ways with him after this arrest, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes from this.

As for his spot on the roster, he likely is not making the 53-man roster and this arrest could hinder his chances of making the practice squad.