If the first 14 weeks of the season are any indication, the Broncos have hit it out of the park with their first- and second-round picks from the 2021 NFL Draft. Cornerback Pat Surtain II, selected at No. 9 overall, has been a lockdown defender in coverage and has recorded a bevy of pass breakups and interceptions during his rookie campaign. Running back Javonte Williams, Denver's second-round selection, has been a one-man wrecking ball on the field, dragging defenders along for the ride as he leads the Broncos in rushing.
So it's no surprise that both Surtain and Williams have been named to The Athletic’s All-Rookie Team at the three-quarter mark of the season.
Williams, who forms one of the league's best one-two punches at RB by splitting carries out of the Broncos backfield with Melvin Gordon III, has racked up 743 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, along with 279 receiving yards and three receiving TDs through Week 14.
"I have been more impressed with Williams (than Steelers rookie RB Najee Harris) over the second half of the season as the Broncos increased his workload," The Athletic's Dane Brugler wrote. "After zero games with 16-plus offensive touches during the first eight games, Williams has surpassed 16 touches in four of the past five games (three wins) and has looked like a future star."
Williams has dominated on the ground, and has proved to be one of the toughest backs in the NFL to bring down. He has racked up an impressive 395 yards after contact this season, according to pro-football-reference.com, which means a staggering 53% of his total yards this season have come after contact. Despite splitting carries with Gordon, Williams still sits among the top backs in the NFL in broken tackles, percentage of rushes resulting in a first down and more.
"Despite 82 fewer carries, Williams has more broken tackles (32) and runs of 10-plus yards (22) than Harris, and his 4.79 yards per carry average leads all rookies," Brugler wrote. "Williams ranks second in the percentage of rushes that resulted in a first down (27.1%) — behind Jonathan Taylor (35.7%) and just ahead of Nick Chubb (26.9%). Though he ranks 14th in the league in offensive touches, Williams leads the NFL with 32 broken tackles."
While Williams has exceeded expectations in his rookie campaign, Surtain has shined in his own right.
"[Surtain] entered the league with a ton of hype due to his last name and the immense talent he showed at Alabama," Bugler wrote. "And so far, he hasn't disappointed."
The NFL legacy, whose father, Patrick Surtain, spent 11 years at cornerback in the league, has racked up 12 passes defensed and four interceptions (including a pick-six) through Week 14.
"Surtain's four interceptions lead all rookies and are tied for eighth-most in the league," Brugler wrote. "One of those interceptions was a pick-six — one of only two defensive touchdowns by an NFL rookie so far this season. Surtain is also tied for the rookie lead with 12 passes defended."
Surtain received his first career start in Week 2 in the wake of an injury to CB Ronald Darby, and he has started every game since, even after Darby returned.
"Through 13 games, he has allowed only 48.0% completions and committed only two penalties," Brugler wrote. "Surtain has also played the third-most defensive snaps among all first-year players. He has been as advertised."
Below the Fold
Another rookie shining in the second half of the season for the Broncos is inside linebacker Baron Browning.
A third-round selection in the 2021 draft, Browning was sidelined for much of the Broncos' offseason after suffering a leg injury during rookie minicamp, but he has returned to start the last six games for Denver.
"The Broncos had originally planned to play the long game with Browning, a middle linebacker and outside linebacker during his time at Ohio State," ESPN's Jeff Legwold wrote. "The hope was to let him learn to play inside linebacker in the Broncos' defense -- a position (Head Coach Vic) Fangio has consistently said is one of the most difficult to learn -- throughout the offseason program and see where things stood when training camp and the preseason rolled around."
Ultimately, season-ending injuries to starters Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, forced the Broncos to make an audible to their plan for Browning. Instead, Browning has capitalized on his opportunity while simultaneously trying to make up for lost time.
"We're talking about a guy that didn't do anything until late in camp and then had some injuries," Fangio said. "He's working hard at it. He's spending a lot of extra time studying. He's prideful, he wants to do well, he understands the responsibility he has right now. He wants to hold [up] his end of the bargain, and he's doing everything he can to do that."
While Browning looks to pick up everything he missed during the offseason, he has turned to Fangio for extra help.
"Browning has had to cover a lot of ground off the field, a learning curve that has included one-on-one sessions with Fangio, who has 'linebackers' listed on his résumé for 10 of his seasons as an NFL assistant in addition to over two decades as a defensive playcaller," Legwold wrote.
Browning is learning everything in real time, after injuries on defense thrust him into the starting lineup earlier than expected. But it's so far, so good for the rookie linebacker.
"He's making small strides daily in practice," Fangio said, "and hopefully, those strides show in the games."