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State of the Broncos roster: Cornerback

The defensive back position for the Denver Broncos was one of the team’s major strengths in 2023. What can they do to build on it moving forward?

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t always appear as if the Denver Broncos would field anything resembling quality in the defensive backfield following an early 70-20 bludgeoning vs. the Miami Dolphins, a performance that had fans and media alike ready to roast the defense over the coals. Were the days of a strong Broncos’ defense in the rearview mirror?

Not quite.

Behind the play of guys like Pro Bowler Pat Surtain II, and the awareness of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to make necessary adjustments, the cornerback group rebounded to help turn the defense from a laughingstock into a unit that finished rank fifth in the NFL in pass defense.

The unit remains imperfect going into the 2024 season, but the secondary as it currently sits can still be a source of strength and perhaps grow stronger. Yet, given the needs of the team elsewhere, how will the Broncos address the unit as prep for the next year begins?

Art Green

Contract Status for 2024: Under contract through 2024

Age: 23

2023 Season: Green was an undrafted rookie out of Houston who did not make it through the final active roster cuts out of training camp. He spent the majority of the season on the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster right before the season finale vs. the Las Vegas Raiders, where he remains.

He has yet to record a stat in his early NFL career, but as a productive college player who was named second-team All-Conference and defensive MVP of the 2022 Independence Bowl, he has potential.

Yet, unless he just blows the staff away during the offseason, it’s hard to picture the Broncos not looking to free agency or the draft to try and fill this roster space, but even if Green goes back to the practice squad, he could still surprise.

Damarri Mathis

Contract Status for 2024: Under contract through 2025

Age: 24

2023 Season: Following a rookie season in which he went from being picked on to being one of the more productive players in the Broncos’ secondary, the new coaching staff saw enough potential in Mathis to start him opposite Pat Surtain II to open the 2023 season.

Unfortunately for the second-year player out of Pittsburgh, he had a rough sophomore showing, and after starting the first six games of the season, he was ultimately benched in favor of veteran Fabian Moreau.

He played sparingly following the benching, didn’t record a stat the final five games of the season, and was graded 126th out of 127 eligible cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus.

Needless to say, Mathis is going to have to prove a LOT this offseason to be a part of the team’s vision for the future.

Ja’Quan McMillian

Contract status for 2024: Under contract through 2024

Age: 23

2023 Season: An undrafted rookie who signed with the Broncos in 2022, McMillian played sparingly in his rookie season, but this past year he turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises on the team.

Following the disaster in Miami, Vance Joseph made tweaks to the defense, one of which put McMillian in a more prominent role as the team’s nickel corner. He played a pivotal part in turning the defense and team’s fortunes around on their way to a 6-2 record following that game.

McMillian finished the season with 51 combined tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles. He’ll have to prove in his third season he’s more than a one-hit wonder, but he proved to be a difference maker in his first year playing a major role and should be expected to have the opportunity to continue to cement his spot in the Broncos’ secondary moving forward.

Fabian Moreau

Contract Status for 2024: UFA

Age: 29

2023 Season: The former third-round pick out of UCLA was a late addition to the defense, signed in August, Moreau took over the starting corner position from Damarri Mathis in week seven and immediately provided a boost.

With Moreau in the starting lineup, he would help the Broncos string together five straight wins before finally dropping a close game to the Houston Texans.

He finished the year with 46 combined tackles, seven passes defended, and an interception. At 29 years of age, he isn’t exactly old, but he is not exactly a young buck, either, for his position. As an unrestricted free agent, and as someone who has been a bit of a journeyman in recent years, the Broncos could try and bring him back at a friendly deal, but it seems more than likely they would want someone younger with more upside to take over the spot opposite PS2.

Whether that player comes from the draft, free agency, in-house, or trade is yet to be seen, but as someone who did provide an effective run during his time, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Broncos kept Moreau close in hopes of re-signing him.

Riley Moss

Contract Status for 2024: Under contract through 2026

Age: 23

2023 Season: The Broncos third-round pick in the 2023 draft did not see the field in a significant manner during his rookie campaign, primarily due to injury/health issues and then having to re-adjust himself to the NFL game and playbook.

He was a valuable special teams performer when he finally began getting game reps and would ultimately get reps as the team’s dime cornerback late in the season. He would wind up with six combined tackles in 14 appearances.

Despite the limited stats, he impressed Vance Joseph and seems to be someone the staff sees as full of potential. How he holds himself up this offseason could determine how aggressive the staff is in pursuing other corners.

Tremon Smith

Contract status for 2024: Signed through 2024

Age: 27

2023 Season: Tremon Smith signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Broncos in March of 2023, presumably for secondary depth and for his return specialist skills, having 2,323 return yards in his career entering the season.

Yet, he ultimately would return just one punt and zero kicks for the Broncos, instead being used as a gunner on punts, where he proved valuable. He had five total tackles and a fumble recovery during the season but was relatively quiet otherwise.

While he has value as a special teams leader, it begs to question whether or not the Broncos would rather go younger and cheaper at the spot and look to upgrade the spot in the secondary.

Pat Surtain II

Contract status for 2024: Under contract through 2024

Age: 23

2023 Season: Without a doubt the defensive MVP of the Broncos, Surtain, coming off a first-team All-Pro campaign in 2022, once again played like one of, if not THE, best cover corners in the NFL. He routinely locked down receivers of all skill levels and sizes, was an integral part of the team’s turnaround, and earned a second straight Pro Bowl appearance.

Now, the awkward part...this is the final year Surtain is under team contract, and as someone who has established himself as the premier athlete at his position, he is going to be able command a substantial amount of money in free agency. The problem? With the team still on the hook (most likely) for Russell Wilson’s contract along with a few others, should the Broncos get into a bidding war, it’s tough to see them being able to offer what others can.

His name has been floated in baseless discussion as someone who could be part of a trade to move up in the 2024 NFL Draft for a QB, which would relieve the Broncos of having to fend off free agent suitors as well as give them the chance to grab a franchise QB, but it would also remove a HUGE part of the Broncos defense.

Surtain II is a bonafide superstar in the league, and with him, the Broncos defense should continue to be a force with regards to the secondary and pass defense, but without him, the unit takes a steep dive downward. How the team handles him this coming season will be one of the bigger team stories.

The Verdict

As the unit currently sits, Pat Surtain II is the cream of the crop while Ja’Quan McMillian appears to be a star in the making. After that, things get a little foggy.

Riley Moss oozes with potential but is largely unproven. Damarri Mathis did himself no favors last season to make anyone believe he can continue to start in the league, while Fabian Moreau may or may not be someone the Broncos want back.

How good the unit can be in 2024 mainly depends on the progression of Moss and how the Broncos handle the 12th pick of the draft. Should they draft someone like Terrion Arnold, the cornerbacks for the Broncos may just be the best unit in the league. Should they go another position, like QB or edge rusher, the unit can still be solid. Should they decide to sell high on Surtain II and make an aggressive move to move up for a QB, the unit will need significant help in filling that role.

The TL;DR version? The unit is stable as long as Surtain II is here, and a first-round talent could elevate the group from stable to elite. Without him? It takes a nose dive, but if it means a franchise QB is now on the roster, is the trade off worth it?