Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason will evaluate each position group. He will take a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and address how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. This week: defensive backs.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: A quick glance around the league sees defensive backs from all corners of the draft -- and outside it -- and the Broncos embody this.
At one end of the spectrum, you have Champ Bailey, picked seventh overall in the 1999 NFL Draft. Only five cornerbacks since then have been selected higher, and while there's some notable names in that group -- Quentin Jammer, Terence Newman, Pacman Jones, Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne -- none can claim a performance anywhere near Bailey.
No pure cornerback has ever been selected with the first or second overall selection, and that appears unlikely to change, as teams generally feel they can find quality later in the first round and beyond.
At the other, you have two of the Broncos' top three cornerbacks in 2012: Chris Harris and Tony Carter, neither of whom were drafted, both of whom are considered undersized, but whose performance trumped those concerns. The same can be said of Mike Adams, who broke into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2004 and is set to begin his 10th season. In between, you have three of the four safeties currently in the Broncos' two-deep: Rahim Moore (second round, 2011), Quinton Carter (fourth round, 2011) and David Bruton (fourth round, 2009), along with 2012 fourth-round cornerback Omar Bolden.
Defensive backs are a gamble, no matter when you select. Once you get past the first five picks, you're liable to find them all over the draft.
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: Since 1996, the Broncos have drafted at least one defensive back in all but three years -- 2003, 2006 and 2007 (when they had just four selections and used three on defensive linemen). When they did pick defensive backs, they were typically in clumps; from 2002 through 2011, they added multiple DBs every time they chose one, including two drafts in which they picked a trio: 2005 (Darrent Williams, Karl Paymah and Domonique Foxworth) and 2009 (Alphonso Smith, Darcel McBath and David Bruton).
Denver hasn't taken a defensive back in the first round since 2001, when Willie Middlebrooks was the second of consecutive first-round cornerbacks, the first being Deltha O'Neal a year earlier. Neither panned out -- O'Neal was benched in 2003 and Middlebrooks started just two games -- and both were traded four years after being selected. The Broncos' ability to find solid cornerbacks outside the draft saved them in the early 2000s; both Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon had solid starting stints. But with two first-round picks coming in below expectations, the Broncos had to trade for Bailey, who appears destined for both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ring of Fame and needs only a Super Bowl ring to complete his storied career.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: If the Broncos make any selections, it will be with the future in mind, because their first-round draft position (28th) is unlikely to offer any dramatic upgrades for the present over what is an above-average group.
The contracts of Harris, Tony Carter and free-agent pickup Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie expire after the season -- although Harris and Carter will be restricted free agents. Bailey could make a move to safety in 2014, which would be his 16th season. That's a point at which few have ever played cornerback effectively, although one was Bailey's Redskins teammate and mentor, Darrell Green; both were blessed with good health for much of their careers.
Adams' contract also expires after this season; Moore and Quinton Carter are on their rookie deals until after the 2014 campaign, making Bruton's recently-signed contract (three years) the longest current deal for any Broncos defensive back.
DEFENSIVE BACKS THAT MIGHT FIT IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS:
S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas: It's unlikely he falls to the 28th pick, but if he unexpectedly tumbles, he'd be worth considering. Vaccaro has good instincts, few obvious holes in his game, is equally adept in run support and pass coverage and should be an immediate starter.
CB Desmond Trufant, Washington: The younger brother of Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant has enhanced his status with solid work at the Senior Bowl, a 4.38-second 40-yard-dash time at the Combine and another good day at his Pro Day. He doesn't fit the bill of a bigger cornerback in height (6 feet, 190 pounds), but makes up for it with long arms and quickness to go with his straight-ahead speed.
CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State: Like Trufant, he's big (6-foot-2) but is a bit leaner, which makes him more adept at changing direction and making quick playes on the football. Banks played extensively beginning midway through his freshman season in 2009, and finished with a school-record 16 interceptions, which were fairly evenly spread throughout his career. He reacts rapidly when the football is in his area; however, his 4.61-second 40-yard-dash time at the Combine is a concern.
S Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International: He plays faster than his listed times, is arguably the biggest hitter among this year's safety class and balances that with his work in coverage, particularly in zone. Although he had a solid Senior Bowl week, there remain questions about the time it will require for him to adjust to stepping up from the lightly-regarded Sun Belt Conference to the NFL. He's also raw and more of a project than Vaccaro, which explains the difference in their draft values.
S Matt Elam, Florida: He isn't the hitter that Cyprien is, but is better in different types of coverage responsibilities. He added six pounds from his listed college weight of 202 before the Combine, which should answer some questions about whether he has the bulk to hold up, has a high football I.Q. and can play a center-field type of safety when asked.
CB Robert Alford, Southeastern Louisiana: He popped on many radars at the Senior Bowl, but scouts took note of him long before. Alford can match any first-round cornerback in terms of overall athleticism; he's as good a straight-ahead sprinter (4.39 seconds in his Combine 40) as he is making changes of direction. He also has return experience, which should get him onto the field quickly. But he needs a year or two of refinement; he's not the best tackler and will need to learn to read routes faster. He's also 25 years old.
Others of note: CB David Amerson, North Carolina State; CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State; S Eric Reid, LSU; CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers; CB Darius Slay, Mississippi State; CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State; S Phillip Thomas, Fresno State, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut.
DEFENSIVE BACKS OF NOTE FOR THE MID TO LATE ROUNDS:
S T.J. McDonald, USC: The son of former 49ers and Cardinals safety Tim McDonald, the younger McDonald is a film-study fiend, even going to the extent of using Skype to connect with his father so they could watch his USC game tape together. At 6-foot-3 and 219 pounds, he's well-built, but at this point his run defense is ahead of his work in pass coverage.
CB Leon McFadden, San Diego State: He plays larger than his size (5-foot-10, 193 pounds), and I liked the aggressiveness and persistence he showed against larger receivers during Senior Bowl practices in January.
CB B.W. Webb, William & Mary: He answered questions about his ability to handle higher competition in man-to-man coverage at the Senior Bowl, has punt-return experience and is a ballhawk (he had eight interceptions one season). He looks like a solid third-rounder.
CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU: Drug issues forced him off LSU's roster last year, but even before then, he was (unfairly) compared with former teammates Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson. Mathieu isn't in their class as a cornerback, but his explosiveness as a returner will enhance his value to a team in need of help in that area.
S Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse: Thomas showed his straight-ahead speed with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, is 213 pounds, is aggressive against the run and doesn't miss many tackles. The only issue? He's 5-foot-9, making him the shortest safety in the draft mix this year. If height isn't the top consideration, Thomas looks like someone who'll start by year two at the latest.
Others of note: CB Johnny Adams, Michigan State; CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville; CB Sanders Commings, Georgia; CB Will Davis, Utah State; S Josh Evans, Florida; CB Dwayne Gratz, Connecticut; S Jakar Hamilton, South Carolina State; CB Terry Hawthorne, Illinois; S Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma; CB Josh Johnson, Purdue; S Robert Lester, Alabama; CB Brandon McGee, Miami (Fla.); S Rontez Miles, California (Pa.); S Ray Polk, Colorado; S Bacarri Rambo, Georgia; CB Nickell Robey, LSU; CB Tharold Simon, LSU; S Daimion Stafford, Nebraska; S D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina; S J.J. Wilcox, Georgia Southern; CB Kayvon Webster, South FLorida; S Duke Williams, Nevada; S Shawn Williams, Georgia; CB Steve Williams, California; S Earl Wolff, N.C. State.