The Broncos' 2020 season is almost here, and as training camp approaches, we're taking a look at each of the Broncos' position groups. In this set of previews, we'll take a deep dive into what we know about the given position group and what we still need to learn. We'll also identify a player to watch and choose a battle that bears watching. At the end of the series, we'll provide an overarching look at the best training camp battles and which players have the most to prove.
We continue the series with a look at the cornerback position.
What we know:
The Broncos revamped their cornerback group this offseason when they dealt a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville ahead of free agency for A.J. Bouye. The 2017 Pro Bowler will replace Chris Harris Jr. as the team's No. 1 cornerback, and Bouye will look to return to the form he demonstrated as a second-team All-Pro during that 2017 campaign. Bouye posted six interceptions and 18 passes defensed as the Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship.
Behind Bouye, the Broncos' cornerback situation gets a bit murkier. Bryce Callahan, who is expected to be the Broncos' No. 2 cornerback, has been fully cleared after missing all of the 2019 season with a foot injury. Denver signed Callahan in free agency last year, but he reaggravated a 2018 injury in training camp and did not take a snap in his first year with the Broncos. Callahan played largely in the slot in Chicago before coming to Denver, and he was widely considered one of the league's best nickel cornerbacks.
A slew of young players will compete behind Bouye and Callahan for playing time as the team's third cornerback. Isaac Yiadom (eight starts last season), Davontae Harris (6), Duke Dawson Jr. (3) and De'Vante Bausby (2) all started multiple games for the Broncos in 2019 as Vic Fangio searched for the proper combination in the back end of the defense.
The Broncos added Michael Ojemudia to the group in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft — and he could push for playing time early in his career.
Denver also signed Essang Bassey as an undrafted free agent, and Shakial Taylor will also compete at the position.
What we need to learn:
Quite simply, we need to figure out who is going to earn the third cornerback spot. Presumably, that player will need to hold down one of the outside cornerback positions when Callahan slides into the slot in the team's nickel defense.
The Broncos have several good young options — and each presents a different upside.
Bausby led the Alliance of American Football in interceptions and looked like a promising player before suffering a season-ending neck injury in Week 5.
Yiadom has appeared in 29 games over the previous two seasons, and the former third-round pick started the final five games of the year for Denver after he lost reps during the middle of the season.
Harris showed promise after the Broncos claimed him off waivers ahead of the 2019 season. He started six games in the middle of the season, and he recorded two pass breakups and seven tackles in a Week 9 win over Cleveland. Harris, though, lost reps to Yiadom as the season progressed; he played just four defensive snaps over the final five weeks of the season.
Dawson also saw just seven snaps in the final four weeks of the year after playing at least 60 percent of the snaps in six of seven games between Weeks 4-12. With a full offseason, though, Dawson could make a renewed push for reps.
Ojemudia, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-1, 200-pound player with the brand of physicality to fit in Fangio's defense. In Denver's zone scheme, he could earn reps in the near future. The lack of an offseason program, though, likely means it will be a challenge for him to start from Day 1.
Denver, presumably, could also add a veteran option during training camp.
Players to watch:
A.J. Bouye & Bryce Callahan
For as much as the Broncos need to identify a third cornerback, the team's success at the position will rely on how resurgent Bouye and Callahan are in 2020.
Bouye must demonstrate he can handle the team's No. 1 cornerback position and bounce back to his 2017 form. He'll face a tough challenge as he matches up with 2019 Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton, and his performance could signify whether the Broncos' cornerback position will be able to match up with some of the league's tougher receiving corps. Bouye has totaled multiple interceptions in three of his six seasons, and he could return to that standard in Fangio's turnover-friendly defense.
Callahan, an equally intriguing player, will likely line up on the other side of the defense. When he arrived in Denver over a year ago, the Broncos were excited about his prowess in the slot and his potential to play outside. Barring a handful of offseason practices and a few training camp practices in 2019, we haven't yet seen Callahan demonstrate that skill and potential on the field. If Callahan maintains his dominance in the slot and can also hold his own in the team's base defense, the cornerback position could be a strength of this team. He'll also get plenty of good practice in training camp, as he'll likely have to try to slow Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler at various points.
Battle to watch:
It's not often that a player competing to be the first player off the bench could also end up off the roster, but that's what could happen at the cornerback position. If the Broncos choose to keep six cornerbacks, the handful of players competing for the third cornerback position won't all be able to make the roster. Ojemudia's draft position likely means he's safe, but Yiadom, Bausby, Dawson and Harris will likely be competing for three spots. That means even if one of these players doesn't earn the No. 3 role, they'd be well-served to demonstrate their value as a depth player. If Bassey — an undrafted player who thrives in the slot — earns a place on the roster, that eats up another potential spot. Bassey, though, could be hard-pressed to do that without the added opportunity that preseason games afford.