ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — An early run on quarterbacks, like the one in Thursday night's first round, doesn't happen often.
Just three times in NFL history have quarterbacks been selected with the first three picks, and cornerback Pat Surtain II likely only fell to Denver on Thursday because a hot quarterback market pushed some of the top defensive talent down the board. The first time a similar run happened came in 1971, when Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini went off the board with the first three picks.
It wouldn't happen again for nearly three decades, until Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith were tapped to lead teams. In that 1999 draft, offensive players swept the first six spots — a record that stood until 2021, when offensive players were taken with each of first seven selections. A defensive player finally came off the board at No. 7, and he would go on to become one of just two Hall of Famers in the entire draft.
With a couple of first-round quarterbacks left on the board that night, as well, it's possible several Washington Football Team fans disagreed with the pick.
Champ Bailey, the seventh-overall pick in that draft, proved to be more valuable than any quarterback on the board.
And after watching Surtain during his three-year career at Alabama and getting to know him in recent weeks, Bailey is confident Surtain was the right selection.
"I love his game," Bailey told DenverBroncos.com on Friday. "I always watched him very closely when he was at 'Bama. He's a special talent.… I'm really surprised he went as late as he did. It's funny, man. I've been seeing the reaction. I don't know why people don't like him or don't like the pick. I don't see a time in history when you've been very successful without good corners — especially special ones. You look at the recent Broncos. I mean, we really won a Super Bowl because of our secondary, right? It's unbelievable the people don't appreciate cornerbacks, even in this day with the way offenses are. But I'm glad they got a good guy."
Bailey and Surtain developed a friendship through a mutually shared marketing firm and because Surtain's high-school teammates Tyson Campbell got to know Bailey during his time at Georgia. That last time they spoke ahead of the draft, Bailey told Surtain he was hoping he'd fall to Denver. Bailey said Friday he didn't think that was a real possibility, as he thought Surtain could be taken as high as the top five.
During their conversations, Bailey has counseled Surtain on how to handle the money and freedom that comes with an NFL career. He's yet another role model for the Broncos' newest cornerback, who has also relied on his former Pro Bowl father — who played in the league at the same time as Bailey — for advice.
"Champ, he was obviously a great corner and an all-time great," Surtain said Friday. "I've talked to him plenty of times before this. He's a great person."
On the field, Bailey sees a bit of himself in the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus first-team All-American. Bailey said he admires Surtain's "rare" ability to stay calm while the ball is in the air and that the 21-year-old controls his body like a much more mature player.
From a mentality standpoint, Bailey believes Surtain has the same alpha mentality that he channeled during his Hall of Fame career.
"I think he's going to be that guy," Bailey said. "From my first game till my later years, I was a matchup guy. I was always on the number one guy. I see him being the same way. I relished it. I see him relishing it. It's just that dog in him. I was a little silent dog, but I think my teammates knew every week in practice what type of guy I was, internally. I see that in him. I know he puts the work in, so I know he's going to be great."
In Denver, Bailey said Surtain should have the framework in place to help him succeed. He'll be able to learn from players like Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan in the defensive backs room, and while the Broncos plan to integrate him into the defense early, he won't have to carry the load.
Sooner rather than later, though, Bailey expects Surtain to show off his all-world potential. And in an organization that already has one Hall of Fame cornerback, Bailey has hopes that Surtain could one day join him among the team's greatest players.
"Physically, he's there," Bailey said. "I just think with the support he'll have and the good examples around him and being in a good organization helps. So I think the support's there. The environment is going to be good for him. But it's his mentality. He's confident, borderline cocky and arrogant. I mean, I like [that]. You've got to have a little bit of that. And he has it.
"Barring any crazy injuries, this guy's going to be on a path to being in the Hall of Fame, if he just puts the work in."
It didn't take long for Bailey to show his own potential. He made the All-Rookie team in 1999 with five interceptions and proceeded to make the Pro Bowl in 12 of his next 13 seasons. Perhaps Surtain's own breakthrough could come quickly, too.
"Everybody just needs to have confidence in the guy," Bailey said. "The guy is special. Give him a chance to show what he can do.
"In due time, people will start noticing."