ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' secondary looked different Wednesday, as Bryce Callahan moved out of the slot and Essang Bassey took his place as the nickel corner for the first-team defense.
Even Bassey didn't expect the move, as Head Coach Vic Fangio told him just moments before team drills that he wanted the undrafted cornerback to slide into a defense that featured Jurrell Casey, Von Miller, A.J. Bouye, Justin Simmons and a host of other playmakers.
Fangio revealed that day that he was testing the rookie to see if he would "pee his pants or go out there and be like he's been."
Bassey knew when Fangio told him to join the first-team unit that he had an opportunity he couldn't let pass.
"It was crazy," Bassey told DenverBroncos.com on Saturday. "In the back of my head I was like, 'I can't mess up. This is my opportunity.' I knew it would come at some point and I was just trying to stay in the moment and do what I'd been doing throughout camp and just stay focused and locked in, and I was able to do that."
Bassey said he thought that was his best practice of training camp, and his head coach agreed that he played "pretty damn well" that day.
The Wake Forest product parlayed that practice and a host of other solid performances into a spot on the team's initial 53-man roster, which was announced Saturday. The Broncos have now had an undrafted rookie make their initial 53-man roster in 16 of the last 17 seasons.
"It means a lot," Bassey said. "You always hear the cliché of being undrafted, you have that chip on your shoulder. And that's 100 percent true. You kind of feel like you have to work twice as hard for everything and every opportunity you get. I know I'm going to have that chip on my shoulder my whole time that I'm in the league. It's just an amazing thing that I was able to take advantage of it, and now I've just got to keep going and sky's the limit."
Bassey said when he was signed as an undrafted player in April, he knew he would have an opportunity to make the roster. Then, COVID-19 led the NFL to cancel its preseason games, which have been the main avenue for undrafted players to prove themselves. Without that chance, Bassey placed added emphasis on every practice rep.
"I knew every time I came out to practice during camp, those are my game reps," Bassey said. "I had to treat every rep like a game rep, because I knew that's the only way I was going to get the attention of the coaches and that was the only way they were going to see me. That's kind of how I approached things coming in."
Even in practice, Bassey's traits were evident enough that the coaching staff took notice. After his successful stint with the first-team defense, he rode that momentum to a roster spot.
"He came in and instantly you can see if a guy has instincts or not and a feel and if it's kind of in his body to play the game, just the way they carry themselves on the field, what things they see, and he showed that," Fangio said Saturday. "Because we didn't have preseason games, we let him work with the first team the other day. … It wasn't too big for him. We're happy to have him."
Bassey, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound player, even reminds Fangio of a starter on the Broncos' roster.
"Comparing him to Bryce Callahan at the same stage — we had Bryce way back [in Chicago] when Bryce was a college free agent, undrafted — I'd say Bassey as a nickel back is pretty comparable to where Bryce was at that same point in time," Fangio said.
Bassey said that comparison suggests the high expectations his head coach has for him — and he has similarly high expectations for himself. Alongside college teammate Justin Strnad, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, Bassey plans to continue to prove his value to the team.
It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Bassey could carve out a career in Denver; four-time Pro Bowler Chris Harris Jr. joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011, a year in which the offseason was eliminated because of a lockout.
For now, though, Bassey will celebrate an accomplishment that is made only more impressive by the lack of an offseason program and preseason games.
"I'm just overwhelmed with emotions and excited," Bassey said. "I called my parents immediately, crying. Just [feeling] overwhelming excitement."