Analyzing Broncos' Big Darkhorse Roster Need Few are Talking About
The Denver Broncos need offense. That perhaps is the least surprising statement one will hear this offseason, given the team’s inability to manufacture points over the previous few seasons.
With questions galore at wide receiver and offensive tackle, on top of depending on growth from players in the 2018 and 2019 draft class, the Broncos’ offense has a ways to go to prove up to the challenge of matching the Broncos’ defense.
Even if everything goes right for the Broncos’ offense in 2020 and Drew Lock proves to be a franchise quarterback, the offensive line settling under the direction of Mike Munchak, and the weapons surrounding the QB stepping up and showing out, the 2020 iteration of the Broncos will likely identify most closely to previous seasons’ squads — a team that identifies most with an excellent defense.
According to Mike Clay of ESPN, the Broncos are projected to have the third-best defense in the entire NFL in 2020. With a top -10 defensive line, edge rusher, linebacker, and safety unit, the only obvious hole on the defense is that of cornerback.
Trading for A.J. Bouye, retaining De’Vante Bausby, and having Bryce Callahan return from injury (hopefully), will give the Broncos at least average corner play in 2020 but going over the depth chart and given the ever-increasing importance of the passing game, especially going up against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Denver’s defensive backs are a legitimate concern.
How can the Broncos bolster the secondary? I have a few ideas on the matter.
Plenty of CB Options
The obvious solution to improving the Broncos’ defensive backfield is adding another talented corner to the mix. The most likely addition would be via the draft where a number of talented corners will be selected in the first two days.
The Broncos likely little-to-no chance at Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, but Florida’s C.J. Henderson, TCU’s Jeff Gladney, Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, LSU’s Kristian Fulton, Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, Utah’s Jaylon Johnson, and Virginia’s Bryce Hall are all player who could hear their name called to Denver in the draft.
Denver could also be fine walking away with no corner in the first two days. Sometimes that’s just the way the board falls. Even still with a number of solid veterans still on the market in Prince Amukamara, Eli Apple, Darqueze Dennard, Johnathan Joseph, and Logan Ryan, Denver could turn to free agency if GM John Elway and company don’t land a corner they love in the draft.
However, is cornerback the only route the Broncos can go to improve their secondary and coverage ability? Would Denver consider adding a safety early in the draft despite having one of the best duos in the entire NFL in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson? That remains a strong possibility.
Football Changing Just as it Always Has
The NFL game has changed. While many still call upon the days of ‘tough guy’ football with fullbacks and running the ball straight ahead play-after-play, the reliance on being a ‘run-first’ team is becoming less popular by the year.
Whether that's due to NFL teams leaning into analytics which show that the passing game is far more efficient than the running game, or innovation moving from lower levels of the game on up to the professionals in the NFL, teams must adapt or die.
For a great example just how much the game is changing as a whole, just look at the evolution of two of the best teams in all of college football in the Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers. This past year’s game was an absolute aerial assault between the two powerhouse programs as the No. 2 Tigers were able to pull off a victory against the No. 3 Crimson Tide winning 46-41.
The last time LSU beat Alabama? Back in 2011 where No. 1 LSU beat No. 2 Alabama 6-3 in overtime. If teams like LSU and Alabama are embracing spread passing concepts, the NFL is not far behind as football innovation tends to trickle up.
5-DB Sets are the New Base
Given the heavy emphasis on the passing game and spreading out defenses in today’s NFL, the days of the 4-3 or 3-4 defense has come and likely gone. In 2019, 46% of all offensive play calls came from 11 personnel (3-WR sets). To combat this trend, coordinators are taking defensive linemen and linebackers off the field for defensive backs at a higher rate than ever before. If a player doesn’t bring something to impact the passing game, their value will be limited in today’s NFL.
The Broncos were ahead of the curve with their historic 2015 defense. Rolling with three great corners in Chris Harris, Jr, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby, the Broncos were able to bottleneck receivers in the passing game and allow their talented defensive front to harass the quarterback.
This only emphasizes the Broncos’ need for more talent in the defensive backfield, but does that fifth defensive back have to be a cornerback?
Nickel Safety is the Darkhorse Need
There is no team that can definitively claim to have a better starting safety duo in the NFL than the Broncos. In the Vic Fangio defensive scheme under DC/DBs Coach extraordinaire Ed Donatell, the safety duo thrived in their extremely versatile roles in 2019.
According to Pro Football Focus, Simmons played 371 snaps in the box, 154 snaps in slot, five at wide corner, and 521 at free safety. Jackson played 220 snaps in the box, 194 snaps in slot, 10 at wide corner, and 416 at free safety.
The ability to wear many hats is key for any safety in today’s NFL, but this is exceedingly true for any safety playing under Fangio. Further, while the Broncos had been looking for their fifth DB of choice over the churn at corner that was the 2019 season, the team finally found a formula they liked when safety Will Parks essentially became the slot corner for over the last part of the season, displacing Duke Dawson.
From Weeks 13-17, Parks played 209 of his 244 total defensive snaps (86%) as the defacto slot corner as the line between safety and corner began to blur. Using a safety to play the slot isn’t necessarily new to football, but it is a trend that is more novel in the NFL.
Finding a safety that can come down and provide better run support than a typical cornerback but also much better coverage than a typical linebacker seems to be a practical solution in combating the heavy 11-personnel usage of today’s offense while still offering physicality up front against the run.
Given this trend in the NFL and Parks’ usage under Fangio last season, a third safety that can come down and play the slot position is easily an area the Broncos could address in the draft and fortify their 5-DB sets this season.
Fortunately for the Broncos, there are a number of safeties in the upcoming class that can fit the mold the team is looking for that can come in year one and start in nickel packages. The premium choice would be that of Clemson's Isaiah Simmons.
Whether he’s playing safety, linebacker, or nickel, Simmons’ size and athleticism make him a special player for that hybrid nickel position to help combat the spread passing attack of today’s NFL. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Simmons is very likely well out of reach for the Broncos.
There will be other options for the Broncos though for that safety nickel position in the first three rounds of the draft. Perhaps most notably is Alabama's Xavier McKinney.
Despite average testing (he pulled a hamstring running the 40-yard dash, though, so he likely runs faster than the 4.63-second time he recorded at the Combine), McKinney is smart, versatile, and can play the nickel or two high safety look as good as any defensive back in this class.
There are also the two small school safety gems in Southern Illinois’ Jeremy Chinn (who is the nephew of Broncos’ Hall-of-Famer Steve Atwater) and Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger. While both will likely require a bit of time to marinate and catch up to the speed of the NFL game, given their level of competition in college, both have a skill-set that fits the Broncos’ need for a safety that can come in and play multiple roles and even start in the slot.
Further down the line, and one of my favorites in the entire 2020 draft class, is Utah’s Terrell Burgess. While not the biggest player and only starting one season in the PAC 12, Burgess is quick, smart, physical, and instinctive and was one of the better two high safeties and nickelbacks in all of college football in 2019.
I always thought he ‘screamed’ a Fangio defensive back watching him play, and that only was amplified when Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller compared Burgess to Niners' versatile safety/slot Jimmie Ward, who was drafted by San Francisco when none other than Fangio was their defensive coordinator.
Forget 5-DB Sets, What about 6?
There is the possibility that the Broncos' best mix of DBs results in Simmons and Jackson at safety, Bausby and Bouye at wide corner, and Callahan in the slot. While insiders and the Broncos have stated that the team brought in Callahan to play boundary, a position he was reportedly doing extremely well in this past offseason before reaggravating his foot injury, Callahan’s best tape playing for the Chicago Bears was in the slot.
Even if the Broncos don’t plan on using a rookie as their fifth DB, it also sounds like Fangio is fully preparing to use more 6-DB sets in 2020.
Further given the age and contract structure of Jackson, any safety taken early in the 2020 draft would not only receive a large portion of snaps in nickel and dime packages, but also provide a contingency plan if the Broncos wish to replace Jackson in the near future for cap savings or his play falling off.
During the NFL Combine, Fangio told Denver7's Troy Renck that the Broncos may try to negate the passing spread of today’s NFL by using more 6-DB sets in 2020. So even in a scenario where the Broncos use two safeties and three corners for a majority of their nickel defense sets, the team could be on the lookout for a safety to come in and play a dime-backer role in dime packages.
If Jackson struggles in 2020, the Broncos could move on from him next offseason and save a whopping $10 million. It is not likely Jackson drops off enough to warrant moving on from him, but there is flexibility in the contract just in case.
Denver's Secondary Help Could Come as a Safety
The Broncos' current bread and butter is their defensive talent. With Fangio and the number of defensive studs and stars, if Denver is to reach the playoffs in 2020, it likely comes once again via a strong defensive identity. The offense undoubtedly must improve but in Denver, how great that defense will be will likely define the season.
The Broncos do have an excellent defense but as it stands the current talent level in the secondary is likely that unit’s greatest weakness. On the surface, it would appear cornerback is the simplest area of weakness that can and should be addressed before the start of the season.
However, given how the NFL is changing and how Fangio utilized not only Simmons and Jackson last season but also Parks, that third safety slot could be argued as a starter for the Broncos’ defense.
If a safety the team likes is relative to the best player available when the Broncos are on the clock in the draft, don’t be surprised if Elway leans that way and takes a versatile defensive back to help round out the defensive backfield and further strengthen the Broncos’ defense.