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Mile High Morning: Denver's defensive rookies shine as The Athletic grades the Broncos

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The Lead

The Broncos' rookie class has been a bright spot for Denver through the first half of the season, with the first-year playmakers contributing early and often, and earning some of the highest marks in The Athletic's "Grading the Broncos."

Cornerback Pat Surtain II has shined in his rookie campaign, excelling in coverage and breaking up passes. Surtain earned an impressive A-minus from The Athletic for his performance this season.

"Even on the rare occasion Surtain has given up an explosive play this season, he hasn't looked like an out-of-place rookie," The Athletic's Nick Kosmider wrote. "Take DeVonta Smith's 36-yard touchdown on Sunday. Surtain wasn't fooled by Smith's double move and stayed stride for stride with his former Alabama teammate as he neared the end zone. As the ball was in the air, Surtain got his head around and had his arm up to defend the pass — Smith just made an incredible catch. Surtain has won far more of those battles than he's lost already, and his process even in defeat makes it easy to see why."

Safety Caden Sterns has impressed through the first half of the season, recording two sacks, two interceptions and four passes defensed through the first 10 games. His disruptive defensive style has earned him a B-plus grade from The Athletic.

"Only Simmons has more interceptions than the rookie fifth-round pick out of Texas, who picked off his second pass of the season during the victory in Dallas," Kosmider wrote. "Sterns has been a quick study at the dime position, which Fangio has utilized more frequently of late in part to get the talented rookie on the field. Sterns has shown athleticism as a blitzing defensive back who can close on a quarterback — even one as quick as Lamar Jackson — in a hurry. Sterns could very well end up sliding next to Simmons as a full-time starting safety next season, and his success in a more specific role as a rookie should be viewed as an encouraging indication of how well he can make that transition."

Seventh-round selection OLB Jonathon Cooper has blown expectations out of the water in his first season in the NFL, racking up 20 tackles, two sacks and five QB hits. Cooper has been an impactful piece of Denver's defense this season, and received a B-minus grade from the Athletic.

"The rookie seventh-round pick has been one of the seasons' most pleasant surprises," Kosmider wrote. "He recorded his first two NFL sacks in the win over the Cowboys and hasn't looked out of place as he's stepped into a starting role opposite Reed. Cooper has plenty of work to do when it comes to adding to his arsenal of pass-rush moves, but he's outperformed any reasonable preseason expectation."

Denver's 2021 draft class has been hugely impactful for the Broncos on both sides of the ball this season, but the defensive playmakers the Broncos added have been essential to their success as the rookies have stepped up amid injuries. If this season is an indication of their potential, the Broncos have added defensive weapons who could play a big role for seasons to come.

Link: https://theathletic.com/2960898/2021/11/18/grading-the-broncos-javonte-williams-and-other-rookies-earn-high-marks-but-who-disappoints/

Below the Fold

In the past week, the Broncos have signed two of their receivers to contract extensions. Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick rank first and second, respectively, in receiving yards (617 and 523 yards), and the freshly inked receiving duo share something beyond both having new contracts: reliability on the field. 

Sutton has a league-leading 65 targets with zero drops this season. He also boasts a 78.4 overall PFF grade this season, which ranks 15th among WRs.

Patrick has also been incredibly reliable, with only two drops on 157 targets over the last two seasons. Patrick also dominates 1-on-1 situations, with a league-leading 157.1 passer rating vs. man coverage this season.

That reliability has paid off for Sutton and Patrick, who have been extended through 2025 and 2024, respectively.

With WRs Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler both on rookie contracts through at least 2023, Denver has a dominant receiving corps locked in moving forward.

The Unclassifieds

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