ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Communication is crucial for the secondary, which makes the next few months crucial for the performance of that position group -- and the entire defense at large.
Two of the Broncos' three free-agent signings in the first 24 hours of the league year were in the secondary: safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Two other potential starters ended the 2013 season on injured reserve: cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore.
Their task will be to restore the secondary to its 2012 form. The Broncos hope the aggressiveness of Ward and Talib provides that; they provide a stylistic counterweight to Harris' cerebral and tactical proficiency and Moore's ability in pass coverage. The newcomers were both Pro Bowl selections last season.
But because Harris is recovering from a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament and Moore is returning from last year's bout with compartment syndrome, it might take a while before communication flows smoothly, and will depend on when Moore and Harris can take part in organized team activities. The meetings in which the defensive backs participate during the current phase of workouts can only do so much.
"We can work on (communication) a little bit now, but most of that is going to come when we get on the field and start doing more team activities and actually seeing the plays and seeing how things develop and just knowing each other," said Ward. "That is going to come with time."
And the Broncos hope the unit has the good health that eluded it in 2013. Including the postseason, six different defensive backs combined to miss 25 games to injury, led by Moore and the since-released Champ Bailey, who missed nine apiece.
Given the length of the contracts to Talib and Ward and their ages, the Broncos feel as if they've found two secondary linchpins for the next few years.
"That just goes to show you that it's not for 'now.' We want young football players that are going to be here for a long time, and they're still young in their career and continue to get better," Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway said last month.
But it's what lurks beyond that could be interesting. The first contracts of Moore and safety Quinton Carter, who has missed the last one and three-quarter seasons to knee problems, expire after the season. So does the contract to Harris, who re-signed as a restricted free agent this spring.
But last year's third-round pick, cornerback Kayvon Webster, has three more years left on his deal. The only other defensive backs with contracts that extend beyond the 2014 season are safety Omar Bolden, a 2012 fourth-round pick who was converted from cornerback last summer, and safety David Bruton, a special-teams captain who has two years left on the contract he signed last year.
Of those, Webster appears to factor most prominently in the Broncos' short-term defensive plans. He played 47.8 percent of the snaps in the Broncos' first 14 games before he suffered a thumb injury. The prevalence of nickel and dime formations essentially makes the third cornerback a starter; in the seven games before he was hurt, he handled that role and played more than half the snaps each time.
Webster showed tenacity and ballhawking tendencies in the preseason and in his initial stretches of regular-season work, but that faded as he focused more on coverage as his playing time grew. The success as the Broncos transition to a new generation of defensive backs is as much predicated on the growth of Webster as the performances of Talib and Ward.
What Denver possesses is experienced depth. Carter and Duke Ihenacho have been full-time starters at safety in the past; if Carter is healthy, he could be in the mix to push for a starting job; prior to his knee and ankle injuries, he had beaten out Moore for a first-team spot. Bruton has started two playoff games with the Broncos and is the last player left on the roster from the 2009 draft class after the free-agent departures of Robert Ayers and Knowshon Moreno. Cornerback Tony Carter played extensively as the No. 3 defensive back in 2012 and was forced into that role again in the playoffs after Webster and Harris were injured and Quentin Jammer struggled in the divisional round. Offseason signee Jerome Murphy has played 33 games over the last four years, including 11 for Washington last season. But given the contract situations and the need to have four trustworthy cornerbacks on game day now and in the future, it would be no surprise if the Broncos looked to the draft to bolster the depth and provide insurance behind Talib, Harris and Webster -- and a fallback in case they do not re-sign Harris next year. The Broncos' depth was tested in the secondary last year, and they'll need to be ready to pass a similar examination, if needed.