DENVER — When Champ Bailey saw Pat Surtain II race down the sideline to score on an interception return in his NFL preseason debut, his mind took him back more than 20 years, all the way to his own first preseason game.
In that game, Bailey backpedaled in coverage before breaking on a Drew Bledsoe pass to the right sideline. He secured the ball in stride and then went 46 yards for a touchdown.
Watching Surtain backpedal before making an interception on a throw to the right sideline and then returning it for a score, the only thing that seemed to separate it from his own was the years and 16 yards.
"One thing I kept seeing was the feedback on his pick-six," Bailey said Sunday, "and it just took me back to my first preseason game, because I had a pick-six the same way, same sideline.
"People are like, 'Oh, he reminds me of Champ!' I'm like, 'Hell, he reminds me of me, too.'"
Surtain has impressed viewers so far in his very young NFL career, and former Broncos stars like Bailey or Aqib Talib count themselves among that group. During a break in their schedules at FanDuel's Fanfest at Empower Field at Mile High, the two former All-Pro cornerbacks spoke about their high expectations and hopes for the 2021 ninth-overall pick.
"It's just the playmaking ability, the confidence," Bailey said of Surtain. "It's a lot of intangibles that go with playing the position. You've got to relish being out there by yourself and being up against the best and baddest receivers in the game. It's a grown man's job, and if you're not ready as a rookie, you won't play. He looks like he's ready."
While Surtain is not expected to be relied upon as a starter this early in his career, Head Coach Vic Fangio and the Broncos have entrusted him with a lot of responsibility in teaching him several roles on defense. At some point, though, that opportunity will surely come, and Talib says the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year will undoubtedly find success there.
"He's built for it, man," Talib said. "He's built for a starting left corner position. That number one corner gonna be on the left. He's built for it. You can tell he grew up in football. I enjoy watching him play. He's gonna have a great career. Great size, great speed, great ball skills. He's built for it."
But for now, Surtain is building the foundation for that hopeful future. As this season goes on, the biggest challenge for Surtain may be the sheer length of the NFL schedule, especially with 17 games on the docket, as Bailey noted. Still, Bailey's confidence in him is not wavering.
"He's above and beyond one of the most prepared rookies I've seen — and that's from a physical standpoint," Bailey said. "I know from a mental standpoint, he's getting all the tools he needs to be a great player. … The sky's the limit for this kid. If he stays healthy — oh my God, we got us a pick."
Beyond just the promising rookie, the Broncos' entire defense is poised to be one of the league's best units, led by a secondary loaded with talent and two of the league's best pass-rushers.
"This a good defense right here, with the rushers they got — inside rush, the 'backers they got who can cover," Talib said. "So, this a special group, man. They could be a top-five defense this year, fo' sho'."
And as good as the secondary may be, Bailey was quick to note that success on defense will require more than just top-notch play from cornerbacks and safeties.
"I think it's great, but I can't reiterate enough the importance of the front," Bailey said. "You can have superstars in the back end, but if you're not stopping the run and you're not rushing the passer and affecting the quarterback, then the secondary doesn't matter. So we feed off them. That's kind of the nature of the business. Again, it's about [Bradley] Chubb, Von [Miller] and the rest of those guys up front. If they get it done, it makes the job easy."
Talib, who founded the A+D1 gym in Dallas, has seen the work Miller has done over the past two years, and he said he knows just the kind of Miller that will be on the field this year.
"You're gonna see a hungry one," Talib said. "He worked out at the gym in Dallas the year before, so I saw him all that offseason and he was ready to go. Then, you know, he had a little freak injury. … He's ready to go. That's one full season that he had to sit out, so he's super ready to go right now. Super focused, super locked in. His body looks good. Super ready to go."
With all that talent, it appears that Denver's defense in 2021 may make former Broncos like Bailey and Talib quite proud — and prescient in their analysis.