Aqib Talib remembers the last regular season game he played at Sports Authority Field at Mile High vividly. He recalls limping off the field to get an X-ray, wondering if he would be able to come back in the game.
He had studied Demaryius Thomas thoroughly during the week leading up to the Patriots-Broncos AFC title game, but was only on the field for just over two drives. A collision with former Patriots teammate Wes Welker knocked him out of the game.
Without Talib, the Patriots secondary struggled and Peyton Manning had 289 of his 400 yards passing after his departure. The Broncos went on the win the game 26-16 and punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Manning and Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase consider Talib to be one of the toughest corners they faced last season. When the orchestrators of the greatest offense in NFL history call someone a difficult corner to face, it's a true testament to his abilities.
So, when Talib became available, the Broncos wasted little time and signed him to a six-year contract on the first day of free agency.
"Obviously he has all that length and on top of that a lot of athletic ability with that length," Welker said during OTAs. "So it makes it really tough and he's a confident guy. I don't want to say scrappy, just because he's kind of a bigger guy. He mixes it up pretty well out there and I think he intimidates a lot of guys with his size and does a great job of transitioning as well for as tall as he is."
After the disappointing end to his 2013 season, Talib returned to Sports Authority Field for the Broncos' first preseason game of 2014. The welcome he received from Broncos fans at both the Summer Scrimmage and preseason matchup was impressive. Fans were clearly yelling "Aqib" from the crowd, to which he responded with a wave.
"It was a warm welcome," Talib said. "I didn't really know what to expect, but it definitely was a warm welcome so I was excited about that."
During practice, Talib can often be found laughing with his teammates, joking around with coaches or dancing to the music that blares during stretches. He said that because he is the youngest of four kids, he is "always the one playing around."
He is sincere during press conferences, and his responses to questions are often humorous, meriting chuckles from the media.
"I don't care what position you're playing, it's football," he said. "It's a fun game so I mean I'm excited to come out here and do this. I've been doing this since I was five or six years old so I come outside and play football and it's not a serious moment. It's a game. It's naturally fun."
During the Broncos' first preseason game, he was laughing with Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman about a holding call he had incurred earlier in the game. Talib will often joke with the receivers he's covering.
While he is still the fun-loving player who is glad to give a grin and a wave to his new fan base, Talib brings something else other than his skill and energy: toughness.
In just his second drive as a Denver Bronco, he had his first big hit -- he lowered his shoulder and plowed down Seahawks wide receiver Phil Bates. This is what the Broncos were hoping for when they signed him. After the departure of Champ Bailey following the 2013 season, the Broncos needed someone who could be a dynamic, physical playmaker.
Talib, whose confident attitude mirrors Bailey's, believes he can be that.
He is a corner who thrives in one-on-one coverage, with the Patriots putting him in that role last season. Talib covered some of the best receivers in the league last season, including Thomas, and was successful more often than he wasn't.
"I like to compete," Talib said. "Anytime I get a chance to be 'mano y mano' with somebody, it's all competition, man. I love it."
"Sometimes if you can't beat them, join them," Head Coach John Fox said during training camp. "I think getting him has helped us a lot. He has a big, long body and is very skilled. He is a very physical corner. He plays the game—both run and pass—remaining physical. He is good with his hands in press coverage. Those are just to name a few [things]."
Talib said he hasn't seen a need for added toughness to the Broncos' defense. As someone who witnessed firsthand the Broncos' defense in the AFC title game, he said he saw no lack of defensive fortitude.
"They weren't soft about their defense against us [the Patriots]," Talib said. "That's my opinion on it. They brought us in because we were free players, John [Elway] had a chance to come and get us. I don't want to say they brought us in because the defense wasn't tough because I played against them in the AFC Championship and I played against a tough defense."
The defense that played in that AFC Championship and the Super Bowl looks very different from the one that took the field in the Broncos' first two preseason games. While Talib alone has the potential to revitalize the secondary, he is one of several prominent defensive acquisitions.
Talib, along with safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware all joined the Broncos within less than 24 hours.
Ware called it "an investment in brutal nasty."
There's no doubt that the three will add a component of physicality and attitude to the defense. Even if, like Talib said, the team doesn't need it.
During training camp, Fox said he witnessed Talib grow more comfortable with the defense each day. Talib said understanding the playbook is important, but with the cornerback position, it's more important "what you do on the grass."
While Talib joined unfamiliar teammates in Denver, one of them he is well-acquainted with.
He and fellow Kansas product Chris Harris Jr. will be collaborating in the secondary this season. The two played together for one season on the Jayhawks and Harris believes that with the help of Talib, a defensive turnaround is a true possibility.
"We know that we've got to put a lot of work in and build up the chemistry, just knowing what Talib is going to do with my eyes closed," Harris said. "So once we get to that point as a defense as a whole, and understanding what everybody's doing, we have the potential and the talent to be able to do it. So top five [defense in the NFL] is definitely a realistic goal."
When Talib was asked what a successful season would be for him, he had a simple response.
"The Super Bowl."