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Training Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

Posted Jul 4, 2013

Andrew Mason takes a closer look at the Broncos' cornerbacks and safeties.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Champ Bailey has seen almost everything in nine previous seasons in Denver: division titles, Pro Bowl appearances, playoff highs and the low of being on the worst Broncos team in 40 years.

But he's never seen anything like the quality depth the Broncos have in the secondary, specifically at cornerback.

"Yeah," Bailey said when asked whether the second and third teamers were the best he'd seen as a Bronco. "We're deep. We've got guys that could start a lot of places."

For evidence, look no further than Chris Harris. Last year, he became the starter at right cornerback, all the while continuing to shift inside to play the nickel corner role more often than not. Teams threw at Harris at their own peril, and he made them pay with two interception returns for touchdowns, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 68.2 rating when they threw at him, according to ProFootballFocus.com. But now Harris faces a fight for that every-down role after the Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency.

If Harris returns to his role as a third cornerback playing against an opponent's slot receiver, he'll still play a majority of the snaps; by workload, he'll likely have a better claim to being defined as a "starter" than the middle linebacker.

"Really, I kind of see it (as that) I'm in the same position as I was last year," Harris said. "I mean, playing and starting as the nickel my rookie year, coming in they brought (Tracy) Porter in and (Drayton) Florence in and so it's definitely competition to start and then being able this year, being a starter pretty much the whole season, I feel like I'm capable of starting outside or playing just the slot. But my goal is to be a starter."

Rodgers-Cromartie will have a thing or two to say about that. 

First-round picks who've played in the Super Bowl, as Rodgers-Cromartie did in February 2009, don't sign multi-million-dollar contracts for one season with the intention of being a reserve. Since blasting onto league radars with a spectacular Senior Bowl week in January 2008, Rodgers-Cromartie's talent and potential have been evident. Channeling that into consistent game-time performance has been a trickier matter.

"He's got some talent and we want to develop that talent and get a more consistent performer," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "That's what we're after, that's how he can help us. That's how he can help himself. 

"So we're working hard at that but he's been blessed with a lot of abilities and his attitude has been sensational, been awesome."

Bailey has seen that mindset manifest itself in practice.

"I love having that on the opposite side of me. He prides himself on not getting beat," Bailey said. " just want to be able to work with him and help him as much as I can. He's a guy (who) knows what to do, but like I said, you don't want to ever get complacent in this game."

As spicy as the competition atop the depth chart will be, perhaps the fiercest fray in the seconday will be the one for playing time beyond the top three cornerbacks, where Tony Carter will have to fend off challenges from a host of prospects, led by 2012 fourth-rounder Omar Bolden and this year's third-round pick, Kayvon Webster.

"They're scrapping," Bailey said. "It's one of those things — they know they're fighting for their jobs just as well as everybody. They're out there getting better. And one thing I like about them, they're hungry and they don't seem like they're getting complacent whatsoever."

At safety, Del Rio wants to see his charges battle for jobs, and is willing to experiment to help foster it and find the right combinations for each game-time scenario.

"It's a competitive situation right now," Del Rio said. 

He hoped for that last year, when training camp began with Mike Adams, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter splitting the repetitions almost equally during the first two practices. But Carter injured his hamstring and then underwent knee surgery, and the starting jobs settled in the laps of Moore and Adams.

Given what was intended for training camp last year, it should have come as no surprise that David Bruton was rotating in with the first team during OTAs, playing with Adams and Moore, with Quinton Carter still recovering from his injury. Free-agent pickup Quentin Jammer could also factor into the competition, but he didn't sign until OTAs and spent most of the offseason program learning the defense. Bruton had a head start, and made the most of it.

"(Bruton) looks like a different player. He's motivated, he just looks more aware of what's in front of him," Bailey said. "Getting that opportunity to go with the ones, it's big for him. It's a good confidence boost. He's always had the mind for it, it's just going out there and doing it now."

Added Del Rio: "He's just earned it. He's played so well and done so well in practice. He's taken charge, he's one of our better communicators and he's been a good special teams player here."

At linebacker, Wesley Woodyard made a similar leap from special teams to every-down player in 2012. It's unfair to ask the same of Bruton, but he has his chance. Woodyard, Bruton and Harris stand as examples of the meritocracy the Broncos want to create. For Del Rio and the defense, training camp will be as much about discovering the next link in that chain as determining the starting 11.

THE DEFENSIVE BACKS: THE BASICS

Champ Bailey: In his 14th season last year, Bailey gave up just one regular-season touchdown pass (at Cincinnati) -- and followed that a quarter later with an interception. Every Pro Bowl he goes to adds to his league record for cornerbacks; the only thing missing from his certain Hall of Fame resume is a Super Bowl.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Del Rio was high on the newcomer's work ethic this offseason. "He's done a great job of coming in and working," Del Rio said. "Everywhere I look, I ask the guys in the weight room, 'How's he doing?' 'He's working hard.' 'How's he doing with the position coach?' 'He's working hard.' So that gives him a chance."

Chris Harris: Harris ranked fifth among all NFL cornerbacks in ProFootballFocus.com's metrics last year, which broke down to second-best against the run and seventh-best in pass coverage. He's not perfect, but he misses few tackles and has risen to every challenge thrown in front of him as a pro.

Rahim Moore: Arguably the NFL's most improved safety in 2012 -- and quite likely the Broncos' most improved defensive player -- was also at the epicenter of the Broncos' playoff downfall with his misplay on Joe Flacco's pass to Jacoby Jones. Moore insists he's over the play, and his teammates have backed him up. But the games will tell the tale.

Mike Adams: It's easy to overlook him, but Adams provided the steadying influence the secondary needed in the wake of Brian Dawkins' retirement.  

David Bruton: He's the Broncos' heaviest (217 pounds) and fastest safety, and his rotational work with the first team at OTAs and minicamp showed that he's in the mix to start. "When you look at the guy, he's got all the measurables," Del Rio said. "He's got great size, got great speed, he's been a really terrific special teams player, and he's just playing good football right now."

Quentin Jammer: He could have the most unique role in the secondary: that of a hybrid between cornerback and safety. At times in 2012, the Broncos used safeties Jim Leonhard and David Bruton as sixth defensive backs; now Jammer could make that part of his role. The 12th-year veteran doesn't possess the speed he had earlier in his career, but his technical skills in coverage could make him a prime candidate to line up against opposing tight ends. Nevertheless, there will be an adjustment. "Rather than looking across from a guy, he’s really scanning on top of the whole defense," Del Rio said. "He’s more of a quarterback of the defense at safety and needs to be the main communicator. There’s a lot more to learn and it’s not an easy transition."

Quinton Carter: Microfracture surgery meant that he was consigned to running laps around the practice fields during OTAs and minicamps. The emergence of Bruton and addition of Jammer to provide depth and push the starters means that Carter can take his time and not return until he is ready. If he returns to full health, the Broncos will gain a player who showed good instincts, range and aggression as a rookie in 2011 before injuries bogged him down. "We're looking forward to getting him healthy, getting him on the field, letting him get in the mix and compete," Del Rio said.

Tony Carter: One of the stars of last year's training camp, Carter beat out veteran Drayton Florence for a roster spot and then played plenty of nickel as the season progressed. But with the recent draft investments in other cornerbacks, he still heads into camp with plenty to prove to cement his roster spot.

Omar Bolden: He's now two years removed from his last torn anterior cruciate ligament, so this camp will provide a chance for the 2012 fourth-rounder to show his true potential. After being limited to mostly special teams work as a rookie, Bolden vowed to improve heading into his second season; at camp, we'll find out how much next month.

Kayvon Webster: He's not the same kind of player as Chris Harris; such a comparison would be unfair at this point. But what both have in common is the type of college teams for which they played as seniors: lousy ones. In each case, Harris and Webster jumped off the tape for their individual aggression and ability to play at a high level even as the defense collapsed around them and games got out of hand.

Duke Ihenacho: After spending most of his rookie season on the practice squad while making a brief cameo on the 53-man roster, the second-year safety from San Jose State could push for a more permanent spot this year.  

Mario Butler: Signed in the offseason, the former Cowboys cornerback has a tough challenge in front of him given the depth at the position, as well as the Broncos' draft investment in Bolden and Webster. He has practice-squad eligibility, but needs to get some preseason game repetitions to get some more play on tape.

Aaron Hester: The rookie cornerback has good size (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) but saw his draft stock take a hit after UCLA's pass defense broke down at times last year. He also had a sub-par Scouting Combine workout, particularly in the 40-yard dash, and couldn't do the bench press because of a shoulder injury. He is healthy now, and if he can use his size effectively in camp, he is an intriguing potential practice-squad prospect.

Ross Rasner: The undrafted safety earned a reputation at Arkansas for playing with abandon on special teams. If he channels his inner Terrell Davis and makes a big play on a kickoff or punt return in a preseason game that can't be ignored, then keep your eye on him; he could stick in some capacity.