ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Jacksonville Jaguars traded star cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the middle of last season, A.J. Bouye's role shifted in a major way.
Before the trade, Bouye and Ramsey were each capable of covering an opposing team's top receiver, depending on the matchup.
The duo turned in its finest season in 2017, as the Jaguars made a run to the AFC Championship game and Bouye and Ramsey both earned Pro Bowl appearances. Both players were All-Pro selections that season, and the Jaguars ranked second in both total defense and in interceptions.
But when Ramsey was dealt to the Rams in 2019, Bouye became the unquestioned No. 1 cornerback. And while he had long believed he could hold down the position, his approach changed.
"I think at that time, I was just really focused on doing everything I can to keep the guys together, especially the younger guys," Bouye said Thursday. "We had a corner who was his [in] first year basically starting, Tre Herndon. He came in and did a great job. I was pretty much the vet out of the back end of the group. I started to become more of like a coach. My knowledge of the game is great. I study the game a lot — the concepts [and] everything like that. I learned a lot from that.
"… When I came out of Houston, I felt like I was supposed to follow [top receivers] anyway. [Ramsey] will tell you about that, too. We were just that type where we were confident. We had that dog in us and we always wanted to have that responsibility of following the top guy. When Jalen left, that was my opportunity and I made a lot of plays with that. [I] just kept building the confidence from that, and that's the role I'm ready to take on in Denver."
Bouye certainly will get that chance as he leads a rebuilt a Denver secondary that no longer features any members from the "No-Fly Zone" defense that dominated in the middle of the previous decade.
He joins Bryce Callahan — who missed all of last season with a foot injury — and a host of young players at the cornerback position. Bouye will fill the spot that Chris Harris Jr. occupied last season, and while he minimized the pressure to live up to Harris' standard, there are clear similarities between the mental aspects of both players' games.
That's been particularly helpful as Bouye learns a new system from afar as COVID-19 continues to keep teams from gathering in person. Bouye said he's spent time with Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell to mesh the strengths of his game with the Broncos' system.
"When it comes to learning the playbook, the challenging part for me really is going to be just the terminology [for] certain calls and coverages," Bouye said. "Even certain terminology that they use in this defense [had] another meaning in the other defense I was in."
Bouye, though, has put in the work.
"One of the first things I do in the morning when I wake up, I just go over the past few installs just to always constantly program it in my mind, putting myself in those situations and even watching film from last year and seeing how certain guys played it," Bouye said. "When you have a corner like Chris here — one of the smart guys — you watch him and see how he plays certain things and I'm like, 'OK, this is what's going to help with this call. This is what he's seeing.' That's what it is right now. A lot of us are doing extra work outside of the meetings just to make sure we're in tune, so whenever we report back, we're just clicking like that."
Bouye said he and the other cornerbacks have taken daily quizzes to test their knowledge of coverages, calls, route combinations, defensive fronts and how all that information meshes together.
Through three weeks of the virtual voluntary offseason program, Bouye has figured out that he should fit in just fine. While Jacksonville's defense forced cornerbacks to remain in tight coverage, Denver's scheme allows players to take chances and force turnovers.
"The more you watch this scheme right here, it gives you cover because you know where you can be aggressive on more routes to make plays," Bouye said. "Like I said, they mix it up a lot. There's certain times corners [are] going to play zone, have the easy down. But then third down, certain got-to-have-it situations, we're just going to have to bow up and play man. That's what I'm also used to, too. I like to play man, I like to press — but at the same time, I'm good at route concepts. I like to jump certain routes and know where my help is, too."
And after failing to make a return trip to the Pro Bowl since 2017, Bouye seems eager to make those plays again.
"Even leaving Houston, I was told I was a one-year wonder," Bouye said. "After whatever happened in Houston, I ended up becoming an All-Pro. They said it was in the scheme. Always, in my mind, I'm having to prove somebody wrong. I embrace that. I love it. That's what helps me get up early in the morning even going into Year 8, acting like I'm coming into the league and just grinding. It's what motivates me on the inside. I believe that chip on my shoulder is why I'm still here.
"I'm definitely out to prove a lot of people wrong."