When Pat Surtain II was named an AP first-team All-Pro a week ago, the distinction represented more than just a huge benchmark in the young player's career.
At a broader level, it also marked the continuation of an impressive legacy at the position for the franchise, as Surtain became the fifth Broncos cornerback to earn AP first-team All-Pro honors since the AFL-NFL merger, following Louis Wright, Champ Bailey, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.
While top-notch cornerback play may have a well-established history in Denver, an understanding of exactly how challenging that is still lags, former Broncos cornerback and current ESPN analyst Domonique Foxworth posited in an appearance on Friday’s “ESPN Daily” podcast. With his experience as an NFL player, Foxworth joined the podcast to explain exactly why playing the position is harder than it seems from a physical and mental level and why the current crop of cornerbacks across the league, including Surtain, are elevating the position to a "golden age."
Over the course of the episode, Foxworth works to dispel some of the notions that have become entrenched over the years about cornerbacks.
"You don't play corner just because you can't catch," Foxworth said. "You play corner because you're capable of doing everything that that guy does backwards while also anticipating what the quarterback is doing. That's why you play cornerback. If you happen to be able to catch the ball also, [great]. … The ability to do that is incredible. Not everyone has those level of hands or that level of anticipation."
One of the rare players who could do all that and had a knack for picking off passes, Foxworth said, was Bailey, his former teammate and a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
"I do think that there are certain players that are incredible at it," Foxworth said. "You want to go back in time, you think of Champ Bailey. I started opposite him as a rookie. I think they threw his direction 33 times the whole season. He had eight picks. The greatest cornerback season in the history of football."
Turning his attention to the present, Foxworth then talked about how this may be the best era of cornerback play in recent memory, in part because of talent and in part because of how NFL rules have not changed in some time.
"These cornerbacks in modern football are better than they've ever been," Foxworth said. "I think we have entered a golden age of cornerback play because we've had an extended period of time where the game has been the same."
Foxworth named a group of young players he loves watching, including Surtain, and detailed exactly why he what they're doing is so remarkable. And while their skills are impressive, the development in how the position is played has also left Foxworth in awe.
"What I'm seeing from these guys is they're showing this like kind of side-saddle run that allows them to play back on the back shoulder and also cover the deep go route, which is almost impossible," Foxworth said. "… Imagine that you have to do like a cross-over run with an NFL-level receiver and stay at the same pace and also read his body language well enough to know whether he's going to stop or he's going to run straight. And then once you determine what it is, you have to get out of your side saddle either one way or the other and make the play. …
"I feel like how [former NBA MVP] Bob Pettit must have felt when he saw Giannis [Antetokounmpo] on the court."