The Broncos' investment in their cornerbacks is significant: a first-round pick in 2014, a second-day pick a year earlier, a big-ticket free-agent pickup last year, and, finally, in December, a five-year extension to Chris Harris Jr., a justified reward for his steady, four-year growth from undrafted signee to Pro Bowler.
They got results. Harris and Talib ended the season in the Pro Bowl and gave the Broncos the only pair of cornerbacks both ranked in the top 20 of ProFootballFocus.com's rankings. Roby overcame early shakiness to become a steady, reliable contributor, and did not allow a touchdown in the last month of the regular season.
If deployed to maximum aggression and effectiveness, Harris-Talib-Roby is a potentially elite trio.
"Right now, we're the future of the secondary, and it's going to be us for a while here," said Harris near the end of the season.
There are questions on the defense, despite its top-three ranking in yardage allowed per game and per play. But there are fewer at cornerback than almost any other area of the defense -- or the entire roster.
CHRIS HARRIS JR.** Games played/started:16/16
Snaps:987 (second-most on the offense)
Contract:Expires after 2019 season
His season began with a rapid but thorough recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the divisional playoff game of Jan. 12, 2014. It ended with his first Pro Bowl appearance and a long-term contract, both of which validated the performance and progress he showed over his first four seasons.
Opposing quarterbacks mustered a 47.8 passer rating when throwing in Harris' direction, according to ProFootballFocus.com, which was the third-lowest against any cornerback in the league in 2014. The performance put Harris on the national radar, but in reality, he's delivered this sort of effective, lock-down coverage since 2012.
Harris has arrived, and it's unfair to call him a "No. 2" cornerback when his performance is top-drawer. His growth means that the Broncos have two No. 1's who can be used effectively, with Harris possessing the quickness and awareness to cover smaller receivers and inside routes, and Talib having the size to go one-on-one against larger targets.
AQIB TALIB** Games played/started:15/15
Snaps:917 (third-most on the offense)
Contract:Expires after 2019 season
When Talib was able to use his 202-pound, 6-foot-1 frame to attack, he was effective, which helped him earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. New Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips' penchant for aggressive tactics should play into Talib's skill set.
During the playoff loss to the Colts, Talib frequently lined up off the line of scrimmage, which gave a free release to Indianapolis wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and set him loose underneath. It was not the best matchup for Talib, who can flourish against bigger targets. Assuming both Talib and Harris are healthy in 2015, it will be fascinating to see how Phillips uses both and whether he shakes up the matchups to provide more favorable duels.
BRADLEY ROBY** Games played/started:16/2
Contract:Expires after 2017 season
No Bronco grew more in 2014 than their first-round pick, who took the advice of veteran teammates and mentors like training-camp coach Rod Woodson and developed into a starting-quality No. 3 cornerback as the season progressed.
"He's always asking me, 'What's going on?' and things like that," Harris said in December, noting that by the end of the season, he was able to identify routes before the snap. "To him finally getting to that point to where he can call out some routes and see some things, that's a positive thing right there. It's starting to slow down for him a little bit."
In decades long past, Roby's training-camp struggles would have barely caused a ripple; they were typical of a rookie learning how to play at the highest level. But in 2014, where every slip-up is documented and tweeted to the world, his first few practices spurred concern from onlookers. There need not have been a worry; by the time he got into extensive action in the preseason, he'd found his footing, using his natural aggression and tackling ability against the run as a springboard to more assertive work in coverage.
Contract:Expires after 2016 season
Opportunities were limited for Webster, who missed three late-season games due to injuries, including the Week 13 game at Kansas City that would have represented his best opportunity for extensive playing time, as it was the only one that Talib, Harris or Roby missed.
When opponents targeted Webster, he did a better job limiting yardage after the catch than he did as a rookie, allowing just 1.23 yards after the catch per reception against him. But that came with a smaller sample size; he dropped from 478 snaps to 130, and unless one of the top three cornerbacks is injured, his chances are likely to remain infrequent.
Contract:Expires after 2015 season
Although still listed as a cornerback, Bolden continued to work at safety in a pinch, often working with that position group in practice when injuries decimated the unit.
As Bolden enters the final year of his first NFL contract, his best chance for an impact remains on special teams. He could help his cause if he could add punt returning to his resume, but that's a stretch; he's never handled that work before as a pro. His special-teams resume is already bulbous; he played more snaps in that phase than all but one other Bronco in 2014.
Contract:Expired; will become a restricted free agent.
Playing time was infrequent for Carter, but he still managed to perpetuate his knack for defensive scores, picking up a third career touchdown on a fumble forced by Lerentee McCray in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale. Carter has three of the Broncos' 11 defensive touchdowns in the last three seasons, even though he's played just 27.1 percent of the snaps in that span.
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