ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As Dak Prescott took the snap, the Denver safety shuffled from his positioning off the line of scrimmage and maintained outside leverage against receiver Cedrick Wilson.
Just over 10 yards down the field, the Denver defender passed Wilson off to fellow safety Kareem Jackson and then flowed back toward the left side of the field. As Prescott looked for CeeDee Lamb down the field, the Broncos safety stepped into the throwing lane for an easy interception.
It was the kind of play the Broncos have come to expect from veteran Justin Simmons.
And that's why it's so impressive that rookie Caden Sterns is the one who snagged the interception.
Across the league, Denver's starting safety tandem of Simmons and Jackson has been touted as perhaps the league's best. The biggest surprise at the position, though, may the emergence of the fifth-round rookie.
The Texas product has played largely in the team's dime package (six defensive backs), but he's made quite the impact in just 19 percent of Denver's defensive plays.
"He's just so smart," Simmons said Wednesday. "I think he handles [the dime position] really well. He sees really well even from close up at playing the dime position. Obviously, it's an advantageous spot for us to put him in positions to where he can see things really well and then make plays on the football. He does a really good job already as a rookie dissecting route combinations, where we're trying to be attacked and what the quarterback's necessarily looking at as the game is developing. Those are some of the things that I think are going to make him a great player for years to come."
Sterns recorded an interception against the Jets to preserve a shutout, sacked Lamar Jackson twice against Pittsburgh and grabbed an interception vs. Dallas. On the next possession against the Cowboys, Sterns almost added a pick-six to his ledger.
"So close," Sterns said this week. "I didn't expect [the receiver] to tip it, but I've got to work on my tip drills and working on that and also taking the right angles."
Even a few months ago, Sterns didn't expect to be in a position to contribute this much, this soon to an NFL defense. The Broncos selected him with the 152nd-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — and then added another safety in Jamar Johnson just 12 picks later — before they immediately issued a challenge of sorts to the rookie.
"Caden Sterns, the guy we took first from Texas, had a good season or two early in his career," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the team drafted Sterns. "Not so much this past season. He slipped a little bit. We're hopeful we can get him turned back around and playing up to his potential and his ability."
The safety's slip at Texas wasn't just noticed by the coaching staff; Sterns felt it himself. After picking off four passes and earning first-team All-Big 12 honors and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2018, Sterns had just one interception over his final two seasons. Injuries played a role, but Sterns said he can't pinpoint one reason why his play declined during his final two years in Austin. As his final season with the Longhorns progressed, though, he felt desperate to make plays.
"The level I was playing at in college when I was falling was definitely starting to get to my head," Sterns said. "I was starting to force plays and do things I typically wouldn't do instead of letting the game come to me and trusting myself."
Those days seem to be behind Sterns. He impressed the coaching staff in training camp with his ability to learn the defense, and he made a handful of plays in preseason action. When he was thrust into dime action when Pat Surtain II entered the starting lineup, he took advantage of the opportunity.
"I really didn't have any expectations of coming in [and playing]," Sterns said. "I knew that I would just work hard to get what I deserved and just to be able to play this much, it shows a lot and I feel like the coaches trust me, so that means a lot to me — and the players around me trust me, as well. That right there just means a lot to me. However much time I see on the field, if it's one play or however many plays it is, I'm still grateful for it."
As Fangio looks at Sterns now, he sees a player that has returned to his All-Big 12 caliber of play.
"His last year or two at Texas weren't up to the standards that everybody had hoped for him," Fangio said Monday. "That's why he lasted to the fifth round, I think. He's come in here and been focused. I think getting drafted in the fifth round was an awakening for him. I think he's had a very fast maturity [process]."
Sterns agreed that his fall to the third day of the draft served as motivation, and he's let it fuel him early in his first season.
"It definitely made me put a chip on my shoulder for sure, just because I know in college, I didn't play the way I wanted to the last two seasons," Sterns said. "… It definitely put a chip on my shoulder, and then just being around these guys, I do push myself."
As the season continues, Sterns has the chance to do more than serve as a spot contributor. With one more interception, Sterns would etch his name in the Broncos' history book, becoming the first Denver rookie since Steve Atwater in 1989 to post at least three picks in one's first season.
From Atwater and Dennis Smith to John Lynch and Justin Simmons, the safety position in Denver has a history of success.
"Definitely sets the bar high," Sterns said of the safety legacy.
It will be no easy task for Sterns to meet that standard, but he's determined to continue his game.
"I really feel like I'm not to the level of potential that I [can reach] at all," Sterns said, "and I feel like there's a lot of room for me to grow."