ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — From the lectern placed near midfield in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse, Pat Surtain II stood between symbols of the two standards of individual and team expectations that all Broncos hope to reach.
On his left was the wall of banners for the Broncos' Hall of Fame players, including 2019 inductee Champ Bailey, the finest cornerback the team has ever had in its employ.
Some ways away to his right on the opposite wall were banners honoring the Broncos' historic run of success, including division titles, conference championships and their three Super Bowl victories. The most recent, Super Bowl 50, is honored with the central banner that looms over the rest.
As a student of the game, Surtain said he is no stranger to these accomplishments and luminaries from Broncos history. Bailey, whom Surtain described as "an all-time great," was someone he has talked to "plenty of times" previously, he said. And Denver's "No-Fly Zone" secondary that helped lead the team to a championship was memorable too, even though Surtain was just a high-school underclassman at the time they took the league by storm.
"That was a great secondary, of course," Surtain said. "They did their fair share here, and they contributed at a high level. Hopefully we can bring that back, just bring that type of same swagger, that same mentality back into the defense."
As the ninth-overall pick by the Broncos in the 2021 NFL Draft, Surtain is now subject to these lofty hopes and expectations, both at a personal and team level. They don't just come from external sources, though; Surtain also holds himself to those same pressures.
"I always set my expectations high," Surtain said. "It's nothing new to me. I'm just always going to perform at a high level, just keep my head held down and just work. Because I always got a strong work ethic, so I just don't let nothing faze me. At the end of the day, that's what's going to be with my work ethic and how I can contribute to the team."
Looking to the last time the Broncos drafted a cornerback in the first round, Surtain can see perhaps just how a rookie can make an immediate impact in the secondary. Albeit in a slightly different situation, Denver's 2014 first-round pick, Bradley Roby, joined an experienced secondary with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. holding down the top two spots and still played a significant role from the get-go. The following year, Roby maintained his role in the "No-Fly Zone" as a dangerous member of the league-leading passing defense.
That said, the Broncos have even bigger hopes for Surtain, who was the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is arguably the most polished cornerback in this draft class.
Over the past three years, General Manager George Paton had taken note of Surtain. Even when he was scouting other players, Paton would notice the young Alabama cornerback, who started 38 games over his three college seasons.
"You turn on the tape, and guys this big, that's what corners should look like," Paton said. "They should move like he does. He's long, he's athletic, he fits everything [Head Coach] Vic [Fangio] wants in a corner. He can play man, he can play zone, he can press. He tackles, he's physical. He was at Alabama for three years, started … 38 games — 36-2 while at Alabama. And [it's] funny, when you watch Patrick, you can get bored, because they never throw to him. He only had 48 targets this year. They only completed 21 passes. So you love the movement. For a guy this big, he's always in phase. He's hard to throw at for quarterbacks. So that's what really resonated."
But as good as Surtain was in college, Paton and the Broncos see him getting even better in the NFL, to the point that he could become one of the game's best at his position.
"We feel he's only scratching the surface," Paton said. "With Vic's coaching, our coaches' coaching, he can be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. I know we have other corners; he's just going to add to it. In our division with these passing offenses — Kansas City ranked one, I think the Chargers are six, the Raiders may be seven, I could off. But you need guys who can cover, who can run, that are big and have ball skills. And that's Pat Surtain."
Surtain, standing off to the side as Paton said those words, is up to that challenge.
"I think I absolutely can [be one of the best]," Surtain said. "Just from my pedigree, just technique-wise, I think I'm an all-around sound corner, and I think I have what it takes to be an elite corner in this league."
Naturally, one hope is to become the kind of player like the one on the banner to Surtain's left. The other is to be part of an unforgettable unit that helps hang another banner on his right.