ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even in the throes of the frenzied week that began free agency, you couldn't overlook the Broncos' addition of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and what it said about the importance of building a deep, diverse secondary going forward.
First, there's Rodgers-Cromartie's frame; at 6-foot-2, he becomes the Broncos' tallest cornerback, and provides a physical presence they lacked last year, when no cornerbacks were taller than 6 feet. But the most important aspect of the Rodgers-Cromartie signing was how it reflects the modern NFL, where your third cornerback is a first-teamer. The 2012 playing-time distribution reflects this; the Broncos averaged 2.75 cornerbacks on the field for each play.
The notion of starting two cornerbacks and needing only four for a season is antiquated. Had the Broncos not received a breakout campaign from Chris Harris and a solid season from Tony Carter, their coverage efforts might have been sunk after Tracy Porter's seizure issues and slide down the depth chart. Even Omar Bolden, the No. 5 cornerback one year removed from a torn ACL, was forced into extensive action as a third cornerback in Week 16 after Porter's brief return to the lineup was scuttled by a concussion, while Carter was inactive to make room for Porter.
The fifth cornerback must be ready to play -- extensively so -- if injuries strike, and all of the top four will be asked to contribute. Harris, Carter, Porter and Champ Bailey each played at least 300 snaps in 2012; this year, Bailey, Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie should lead the way in playing time. Whether Harris or Rodgers-Cromartie ends up as the "starter" is relatively irrelevant; both are likely to play at least 70 percent of the snaps, assuming they stay healthy.
Rodgers-Cromartie got only a one-year contract -- the same length as the one given in 2012 to Porter, another veteran hitting free agency for the first time. The deal safeguards the Broncos in the event Rodgers-Cromartie doesn't work out, but if he plays up to his potential after an up-and-down four seasons in Arizona and Philadelphia, he might be a part of the long-term solution.
So could Harris, if he continues his trend of steady play with few mistakes. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks amassed a piddling 68.2 rating when throwing in his direction last year -- comparable with the 67.3 rating on passes thrown at Bailey. He also scored as many touchdowns (two) as he allowed. Harris, like Rodgers-Cromartie, has a contract that expires after this year.
But with Bailey's experience, the potential for a move to safety in 2014 -- also the final year of Bailey's current contract -- and the expiring contracts of Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie, it would surprise no one if the Broncos pick a cornerback early in the draft -- even though they're counting on improvement from Carter and Bolden.
Safety is a different matter, and if the Broncos don't add one in the draft, the competition will resemble the start of 2012 training camp -- which was before the Broncos added Jim Leonhard to bolster the depth.
When camp began, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter and Mike Adams split the first-team snaps, just as they had through offseason work. It looked as though the three-way battle for two starting spots would persist, but then Carter hurt his hamstring, which compounded with the knee discomfort he'd felt in the offseason to sideline him. By the time he'd returned, Adams and Moore were entrenched, and Carter's knee never improved, necessitating microfracture surgery that cost him most of his second year but should have him back for OTAs.
Moore's last-minute-of-regulation misplay on Joe Flacco's 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones in the divisional playoff loss was disheartening to himself, the Broncos and their fans, but doesn't overshadow the massive improvement he showed last year. He buried all notions of being a bust, reversing course from a rookie season in which he was tentative at some junctures, over-aggressive at others and was benched for Carter at midseason.
If Carter has recovered, he could push for playing time, but it would appear he's more likely to scrap with the veteran Adams for a starting slot.
The Broncos could elect to use a draft pick bolster their depth, but with David Bruton signed to a three-year deal to back up and lead the special teams and Duke Ihenacho in a similar role as the fifth safety, the depth chart appears solid. Bruton's previous starting experience, straight-ahead speed and comfort with his role makes him an ideal relief option.