As the 2021 offseason winds down and training camp approaches, we're turning our attention toward the season. Over the next few days, we'll take a look at each of the position groups on the Broncos' roster before finishing our training camp preview series with a look at some of the top questions facing the team. In our look at each position, we'll fill you in on what we know about the group and what we hope to find out during training camp. We'll also identify a player to keep an eye on when practices and the preseason get underway shortly. We continue the series with a look at the Broncos' cornerback position.
What we know:
Late in the 2020 season, with many of their top cornerbacks on injured reserve, the Broncos were forced to assemble a patchwork secondary. As they turn the corner toward 2021, a former weakness is now likely the biggest strength of the roster.
General Manager George Paton repeatedly targeted and fortified the cornerback position this offseason, as he signed Ronald Darby in the first wave of free agency, signed two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller after he was released by the Bears and used the team's first-round pick on Alabama standout Pat Surtain II. For good measure, the Broncos also added slot cornerback Kary Vincent Jr. in the seventh round of the draft.
The Broncos will also still feature Bryce Callahan, who was on pace to make his first career Pro Bowl in 2020 before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 12. Michael Ojemudia, a 2020 third-round pick, also remains with the team and could be a strong depth option after being thrust into a starting role as a rookie.
Denver's cornerback corps must still prove its ability on the field, but on paper, this appears to be one of the most talented groups in the NFL. And while it is a bit early to compare the unit to the vaunted "No-Fly Zone," the Broncos' top-end talent has a chance to be special.
As we edge closer to training camp, here's a look back at the cornerbacks' offseason program.
What we need to learn:
How will the Broncos take advantage of their talent?
The Broncos' elite talent at the cornerback position is a good problem to have, but Head Coach Vic Fangio must find the best way to utilize Darby, Fuller, Callahan and Surtain over the coming weeks. Fangio has previously spoken about the team's ability to play in a dime package — six defensive backs — but we'll have to see how he handles the rotation on early downs. At times, the Broncos will certainly need to play in nickel — five defensive backs — and may even need to be in a traditional base defense — four defensive backs — on occasion to stop the run.
When Darby, Fuller, Callahan and Surtain are on the field together, it will be interesting to note where they play. Callahan seems likely to play in the slot, where he has excelled during his NFL career. Fangio has also spoken about Surtain's ability to play inside, but the rookie may be too good on the outside of the team's defense to move him into the slot.
The final question surrounding this group of four "starters" is whether they can increase the team's ball production. A year ago, Denver recorded just 10 interceptions in its 16 games. Only four teams notched fewer picks. Perhaps more concerning, only three of those interceptions were recorded by the Broncos' cornerbacks. They'll need to find a way to convert pass breakups into takeaways to realize their potential in 2021.
One more storyline to note: The Broncos' talent at the top end of their cornerback group will mean fierce competition for potentially only two other roster spots. Vincent Jr., Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson Jr., Parnell Motley, Nate Hairston and Mac McCain III will all try to earn a spot on the team.
Player to watch:
Surtain is the easy choice here after the Broncos selected him with the ninth-overall pick, but let's go with Fuller.
The former 14th-overall pick posted the best season of his career under Fangio in 2018, and it's clear that connection was one of the top reasons he chose to sign with Denver this offseason. At his best, Fuller can be a takeaway machine. He posted seven interceptions in 2018 and has recorded at least three interceptions in three of his six seasons as a pro, excluding the 2016 season that he missed with an injury.
If Fuller can return to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro standard of play, the Broncos' defense would have a legitimate No. 1 cornerback to complement a rising star in Darby, a Pro Bowl-worthy slot corner in Callahan and a potential game-changer in Surtain.
Fuller didn't participate much in the voluntary offseason program, so we'll get our first extended look at him in training camp. The matchups vs. Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy should be very telling.