ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos' front office and coaching staff evaluated a crowded free-agent cornerback class, Washington's Ronald Darby stood out.
There were players on the market with more interceptions and more Pro Bowl selections, but Darby's coverage ability singled him out among the many veteran options.
"Comparing him to the other corners in free agency, we thought he had the best pure coverage skills of any corner," General Manager George Paton said at Daby's introductory press conference. "Talking with the coaches, he really fits what [Head Coach] Vic [Fangio] wants. He can play man, he can play zone, he can match up, he can press and he can really run."
The Broncos, playing with a battered secondary late in the season, ranked 16th in the NFL in passing defense in 2020. With Darby in coverage, Denver will aim to see that performance improve this season. And while Darby will have plenty of help from Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Co., his unique skill set should help him make an impact.
Particularly in 2020, Darby showed a proclivity for playing tight coverage and breaking up passes. Last year, Darby allowed just 53 completions on 98 targets for a 54.1 allowed completion percentage, according to Pro Football Reference. He gave up just a single touchdown, and opposing quarterbacks recorded an 81.0 passer rating when targeting Darby in coverage.
For comparison's sake, Callahan allowed a 54.4 completion percentage during a stellar 2020 season for the veteran cornerback. The Broncos, though, weren't able to find another player to match Callahan's play. A.J. Bouye allowed completions on 65.7 percent of targets, two touchdowns and a 108.4 rating in just seven games. Similarly, Michael Ojemudia allowed a 61.4 completion percentage, 15.1 yards per completion, three touchdowns and a 103.2 rating — though it's fair to note that Ojemudia was thrust into action as a rookie.
We'll examine Kyle Fuller's potential impact later this week, but it's clear Darby could be a major upgrade in his own right at one of the cornerback positions.
"I liked his cover ability," Fangio said earlier this week. "It's pretty simple when you're looking at corners. Can the guy cover somebody? You need to check that box first and I think he's got natural cover skills, both in man and zone. As a corner, even when you're playing zone, many times it ends up being man anyway. He can cover. We like his cover ability. I think he has good instincts for the game, both in man and zone."
Darby broke up 16 passes in 2020 in 16 games, which ranked fifth in the NFL. Since he entered the league in 2015, his 81 passes defensed rank fifth in the NFL, and he is first in the league in passes defensed per game among defenders who have played at least 50 games.
Defensive Backs Coach Christian Parker noted that Darby's combination of "track speed" and "football movements" puts him in position to make those plays.
He has not been the most ball-productive player — he did not record an interception last year and has just eight in his six year career — but he has other elements of his game that make him a valuable addition.
Fangio called Darby a "willing tackler," and Paton spoke about Darby's potential to serve as a "glue guy" and "bring the juice."
Perhaps the biggest concern ahead of Darby's first game in Denver is his ability to stay healthy. After playing 29 games his first two years in the league, he missed 20 games over a three-year span in Philadelphia. Darby has been able to stay on the field of late, though. Since Week 8 in 2019, Darby has started 24 of his last 25 regular-season games — including all 16 last season in Washington.
The Broncos are hopeful that trend continues in Denver, where they believe he can add value to the team's revamped secondary.
"We still think he has a lot of football left in him," Fangio said. "I still think he's young, he's got an athletic body, he can run fast, and I think he's still got a lot of football left in him. We're really happy to get him."