Caleb Farley or Patrick Surtain II: Analyzing Which CB Makes Sense for Broncos

Two of the most revered names in the NFL draft media game debated which prospect emerges as the top cornerback in the 2021 class.
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Mock draft season is upon us as the countless onslaught of NFL draft guesswork, from now until April, detonates the internet. There are a multitude of directions that Denver Broncos GM George Paton could go in Round 1. 

Perhaps the Broncos will look to add athleticism at linebacker after seeing what the Tampa Bay defense did in the Super Bowl, or a de facto Von Miller replacement on the edge, whether or not Miller is back in 2021. 

Could Mike Munchak be given a sheet of marble to work with and further fortify an ascending offensive line? Quarterback — on second thought, let’s not even go there right now.

Opinions abound on what Denver should do at pick No. 9 overall (or if the Broncos should even stay there), but the overwhelming, most agreed-upon scenario has the team walking away with a cornerback. With the Broncos releasing A.J. Bouye, the team opened up $13 million in cap savings as well as an overwhelmingly obvious need at the boundary corner position.

The release only exacerbated the Broncos' weakness at cornerback. Paton hopefully will add some talent to the room prior to the draft, but as it currently stands, a majority of draft prognosticators have the Broncos going cornerback at pick 9 to the point that the question isn’t what position the team will take in Round 1, but which corner.

According to the 2021 mock draft accumulated by the Mock Draft Database, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley has been mocked to Denver 27.0% of the time followed by Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II in 23.1% of mocks. The only other player being mocked enough to be listed in the aggregate data is Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons at 12.2%. 

Denver needs a cornerback, the whole world knows it, and there are two that are perceived of value for the Broncos at pick 9.

In many mocks, Paton has his choice of the two corners (oftentimes, with the corner Denver doesn’t select going at 10 to Dallas ), but which one is the better choice of the two? This week, two of the most famous draftniks names in ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay discussed this very topic on their podcast.

When it came to the 'Godfather of the NFL Draft', Kiper praised Surtain’s experience, fundamentals, and technical prowess. Surtain was beaten at times like in the National Championship game vs. Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Yes, Alabama won handily and neither Buckeye had great stats, but both were creating separation and getting open fairly often. Kiper continued that while Surtain does sometimes get beaten, he has shown solid recovery ability to make up for when he gives up space to the twitchier receivers.

Kiper certainly likes Surtain, but when pressed on his favorite of the two corners, he chose the Virginia Tech Hokie. Kiper stated when discussing his film review of Farley back in 2019.

He was so good I mean Caleb Farley really had a good year. He’s got length, a former wide receiver. A guy that doesn’t tackle well, that’s something he’s got to show a bit more toughness, and tackle, and be more consistent in that area. But in coverage he located, he was getting to those late pass break ups. He was really a lockdown cover corner in 2019. So I look at Farley had he played this year, I think he could have been a Top Five pick…

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Farley certainly splashed on film when he played in 2019. Still relatively raw to the position having played quarterback in high school and being recruited as an 'athlete', Farley went to Virginia Tech to play wide receiver only to transition to cornerback. 

Farley also suffered an ACL in 2017 that caused him to miss time which is a concern, but his movement ability given his size, the ball skills, and click-and-close and change-of-direction of a much smaller player does lend itself to Farley being a rare player — potentially to the point of being a top-5 pick if he had chosen to play in 2020. 

Kiper sees Farley as the first corner off the board in April. Meanwhile, McShay didn’t push back too hard to Kiper’s claims of Farley being CB1, but he did make a solid case for Surtain being right there in the conversation as the first corner off the board. As opposed to claiming what corner is better in a vacuum, McShay claimed that Farley and Surtain are boundary corners with different skill-sets and scheme fits.

Surtain with his background, obviously his dad was in the league for 14-ish years and playing for Nick Saban. You see the discipline, the run support, his willingness to tackle and get off of blocks and do all of those things. When you see him press and reroute wide receivers that’s when I think he’s at his best… He’s just such a pro. He’s physical, he’s basically got everything you look for (at cornerback).

McShay would continue into specifics of what situation he would choose one corner over the other with multiple situations:

Farley, you are right, he’s not quite the tackler, he’s not quite as tough and physical but I would say if you gave me one ‘1 on 1’ against a number one receiver, I would choose Farley over Surtain. However, in a game and in the right system, Surtain may be the guy that you want because he brings a little bit more in terms of the whole package that you need at corner. Especially now in the league with so many screens and RPOs and quick slants. You got to be able to tackle and be right there when the ball gets there.

Every analyst has an opinion and comes away with unique takeaways when watching the film, but Kiper and McShay’s general outline of Farley and Surtain II seems to follow the consensus among draft circles at this point in the cycle. What makes this exceedingly difficult for the Broncos specifically is that one could make an argument for either cornerback being a better fit for Vic Fangio's match-quarters defense.

While Farley certainly has to improve as a tackler and take better angles in pursuit both in the run and quick pass game, the extent to which McShay and Kiper lay it out as a weakness is a bit overblown. It’s not like Farley does not show the ‘want to’ when it comes to run support and tackling, but rather still being somewhat new to cornerback, is a work in progress. With his size and athleticism, it’s certainly something he can improve upon once in the league.

However, as was shown by Michael Ojemudia being benched mid-season for a spell due in part to inconsistent tackling technique as well as De'Vante Bausby being benched mid-game and subsequently released due to his consistent struggles in tackling and the physical demands of the game, it would make sense for there to be some question on whether Fangio values a cornerback with any sort of tackling questions as high as No. 9 overall. Perhaps tackling concerns are enough to give Surtain the slight edge over Farley for the Broncos.

On the other hand, and something pointed out by McShay, is that on tape, Surtain appears to be far more comfortable when allowed to play press coverage on the boundary. Farley displays better athleticism and quick-twitch explosiveness than Surtain, which Surtain can negate if he is allowed to play press coverage and dictate at the line of scrimmage. With his hands on the receiver, Surtain can use his physicality, length, and technique to help minimize any advantage the quicker twitchier receivers will have on him in the NFL.

Simply put, Surtain is better in press situations on the boundary and that will likely continue to be the case in the NFL. He’s a really good athlete, but he’s not in the same conversation as Jaire Alexander, Jalen Ramsey, Byron Jones, Marshon Lattimore, and that type of corner freak, whereas, Farley just might be that kind of height/weight/speed prototype.

Surtain has tackling and technique over Farley right now, but does Fangio play press coverage on the boundary at a clip that it would make sense to take the better press corner in Surtain over Farley who offers more coverage versatility and the click-and-close to play off-coverage? Historically, Fangio’s defenses play one of the highest rates of off-coverage on the boundary in the league. 

However, given the rate of injuries at cornerback and the odd offseason, there was some talk that Fangio and the Broncos were leaning into more press on the boundary than in years prior. Even if this were true, the Broncos still deployed what appears to be the second-lowest rate of press-coverage on the boundary in the league last year according to Next Generation Stats (see below).

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Tied with the Minnesota Vikings at 11%, the only team to deploy less coverage on the boundary in 2020 was the Carolina Panthers. Keep in mind, the Broncos also don’t deploy much press at slot at also 11%, but they are closer to league average in their use of press over the slot than they are at boundary.

Bottom Line

Farley or Surtain? Will the Broncos look for a cornerback at pick 9? Will Denver look to trade back and perhaps select a different cornerback? 

Perhaps South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn make a push to enter the conversation with Farley and Surtain. However, the Broncos' need at cornerback will likely remain all through the offseason, and for as long as Denver sits at pick 9 in the draft, the debate between which one makes more sense will continue to rage on until Paton finally goes on the clock.


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