ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** No Broncos position group has undergone a more complete overhaul from its composition in Super Bowl XLVIII to now than the defensive backfield.
The contracts of half the Super Bowl starters in the secondary expired. Free safety Mike Adams is now an Indianapolis Colt, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie became a New York Giant. Another starter, longtime secondary linchpin Champ Bailey, was released before free agency after a 15th NFL season that was strangled by injury.
What emerged from the offseason is a unit that is something old and something new. Old, of course, is relative; that mantle is carried by cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore, both of whom were left watching the Super Bowl in warm-up gear because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and compartment syndrome, respectively. And both have less experience than the ballyhooed newcomers who hopped aboard within the first few hours of free agency: cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
The changes, along with the arrival of DeMarcus Ware, added a dose of what Ware dubbed "brutal nasty" to the entire defense.
"As a defense, we're hungry," Harris said. "If you add on a lot of pieces that we've brought in -- T.J. (DeMarcus) Ware and Talib -- you add those guys on to the already talented guys that we have here, we haven't really even seen the full defense.
"It's going to be pretty scary once we get back to 100 [percent]."
If it lives up to its potential, this secondary provides the Broncos more flexibility and athleticism than they possessed last season. The keystone to those attributes is Ward, who was one of the most coveted free agents this year because he is in his career prime (fifth season), he already has a Pro Bowl pedigree and he has the aggression and range to make plays in the box without sacrificing coverage ability.
That's why the notion of using Ward as an in-the-box presence was floated nearly four months ago by Executive Vice President and General Manager John Elway.
"T.J. can play in the box or in the back end, so that's his versatility," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Check out photos of the defensive backs who will be in training camp with the Broncos.
If Ward creeps into the box, it opens up a possibility for Quinton Carter, who earned justified raves for his instinctive, mature-beyond-his-years play as a rookie in 2011. He earned a starting slot by midseason of that year. His play was integral to the Broncos' six-game winning streak; he and Brian Dawkins gave the Broncos punch against the run and helped the team execute its suffocating, shorten-the-game-and-grind strategy.
"Having him back in the rotation, letting him get snaps and watching the way he is -- instinctive and makes plays, plays with confidence -- it'll be a great addition to have him back at full strength," said Del Rio.
And it creates possibilities with the nickel defense, as well, which was effectively a base defense, given the extent to which it was used. The emphasis on five- and six-defensive back formations helps explain the selections of Bradley Roby and Kayvon Webster in the early rounds the last two years; even though both aren't slated to be on the top line of the depth chart handed out to media, each will play extensive roles, even if starters Talib and Harris remain healthy.
There are myriad possibilities created by the depth in the secondary. Backup cornerback Tony Carter was the No. 3 cornerback through most of the 2012 season and again in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. Reserve safeties Duke Ihenacho and David Bruton have starting experience, including extensive playoff work during the 2013 and 2011 postseasons, respectively.
If the Broncos can maintain their depth and avoid the injury tsunami that hit last year, Del Rio has a bounty of possibilities for the defense -- and, by extension, the secondary.
"We've got plenty of creativity," Del Rio said. "What it really comes down to is getting on the same page, selecting from the packages the things that we can do the best and play fast with that. We've got a large library of thoughts and ideas and different schemes and things we can do."
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS: THE BASICS
Aqib Talib: Even as Talib battled injuries just past midseason, he turned in one of the best games of his career against the Broncos, containing Demaryius Thomas -- and, by extension, the Broncos' entire passing game -- during the Patriots' windswept overtime win over Denver last Nov. 24. Nothing less than lockdown work is expected from the gifted Talib.
Chris Harris Jr.: It would be no surprise if he opens training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he completes rehabilitation from his ACL injury, but that will be determined by his progress this month. Harris' sights are set on the start of the regular season, not training camp. When he returns, he should have an extensive role as left cornerback and slot cornerback in the nickel awaiting him. "The goal is to strive for Week 1," he said. "If I'm not ready for Week 1, there are no negatives. This team, they need me December, January and February, when the big games come. If I'm not ready by Week 1, which I know I should be ready, then it's no big hurt."
T.J. Ward: As the highest-rated safety on the free-agent market, according to the metrics of ProFootballFocus.com, the Broncos got a Pro Bowl upgrade without blasting their salary cap. Moore's proficiency in coverage should allow Ward the freedom to attack, and could make him a more effective pass defender than he was in Cleveland.
Rahim Moore: After successfully recovering from compartment syndrome, Moore went through organized team activities as though nothing had happened.
"I'm faster and stronger than I was the year before, than I've ever been," he said in May. Moore and Ward's skill sets complement each other well, and Moore noted that he and Ward have known each other since college, when both played in what was then the PAC-10.
Kayvon Webster: Having completely recovered from a thumb injury suffered last December, Webster wants to build off a promising rookie season that saw him pressed into service as the No. 3 cornerback for much of November and December. He worked extensively against first-team receivers during OTAs and grew more comfortable against that level of competition as the sessions progressed.
Bradley Roby: Last year proved the value of depth at cornerback, and even if Roby settles as the No. 4 cornerback, he should play a prominent role in the secondary at some point -- perhaps soon. Roby appeared more comfortable later in OTAs after enduring some ups and downs early against stern competition from Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders.
Quinton Carter: The fourth-year safety is the potential X-factor, depending on how well his knee continues to hold up in his comeback from knee surgery and nearly two full seasons on injured reserve. If he's healthy, he gives the Broncos starting quality on their second team, a chance for Ward and Moore to stay fresh, and a safety if Ward is used as a sub-package linebacker.
Duke Ihenacho: He earned a starting job last year after a thunderous preseason, but was in and out of the starting lineup late in the year after some struggles in pass coverage. During OTAs, he practiced with increased maturity and judiciousness, and his confidence remains intact, even though the return of Moore, arrival of Ward and return of Carter makes the competition ferocious.
David Bruton: A trustworthy backup and a special-teams leader, the 2013 team captain is evidence of the ample depth that now exists on the roster. Bruton started in the playoffs three seasons ago, and remains arguably the team's most athletically gifted defensive back.
Tony Carter: Injuries forced Carter back into the lineup during the postseason, and he worked as the No. 3 cornerback in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Among reserves, Carter stands out because of his experience, and his work in the AFC Championship was a nice rebound from a difficult regular season. But he will be in a tough tussle for one of the backup spots.
Omar Bolden: Converted to safety last year, Bolden's path to the 53-man roster is likely paved by his versatility: he can play cornerback or safety, he could be in the mix on kickoff returns, and is a solid gunner on punt coverage.
John Boyett: The Broncos gave the former Oregon safety a chance to hit the reset button on his career when they signed him to the practice squad last November. An instinctive player with good range and tackling ability, Boyett slid to the sixth round of last year's draft after tearing the patellar tendons in his knees one game into the 2012 season. The Colts drafted Boyett, but he never practiced for them because of the previous year's knee injury.
Eric Hagg: The Nebraska product started four games for the Browns in 2012 and is looking for a comeback after being waived by them last year. He is another physical safety who has some potential, but his regular-season experience makes him ineligible for the practice squad.
Charles Mitchell: A sixth-round pick of the Falcons in 2012, Mitchell was a tough, aggressive and strong against the run at Mississippi State, where he was a team captain in his senior season. Mitchell played 10 games as a rookie in Atlanta.
Jordan Sullen: At six feet and 200 pounds, Sullen fits into the mold of bigger, physical cornerbacks that are in vogue. Sullen's lack of raw, timed speed kept him from being drafted, but if he can disrupt opposing receivers off the snap during the preseason, he could be an intriguing developmental prospect on the practice squad.
Jerome Murphy: Denver is the fifth team in a whistle-stop career that to date has seen him play in 33 games over the last four seasons -- including a November 2010 game at Denver in which he recovered a fumble while playing for the Rams.