Rome wasn’t built in a day, but don’t tell that to Denver Broncos' GM George Paton. After hobbling to the finish line with one of the most battered defenses and secondaries that this writer can recall, it’s amazing the Broncos did not give up 40-plus points per game to the high-scoring offenses of the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders to close out the 2020 season.
While the Broncos were snake-bitten with injuries, no position took the brunt of the injury load quite like cornerback, which saw two starters miss multiple games in A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan, as well as several depth players land on injured reserve, like promising rookie Essang Bassey and Kevin Toliver II.
Fast forward to today and the Broncos now boast one of the best cornerback rooms in the entire NFL, on paper. After signing Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller to go with Callahan and Michael Ojemudia, the Broncos are now as deep at corner as the team has been since the dog days of the famous No Fly Zone.
Even if this 2021 defense doesn’t field a secondary to that caliber, the league's leading analytics site Pro Football Focus, among others, is taking notice of just how talented the Broncos’ cornerback room could be this season. With a marked turnaround on paper, the Broncos cornerback room could easily go from one of the worst in the NFL in 2020 to one of the best in 2021.
Denver's safeties showed out last season, but their cornerback room outside of Bryce Callahan held the secondary back. Callahan, who played both on the outside and in the slot, was the third-highest-graded cornerback in coverage last year, and yet, the Broncos' cornerback room ranked just 22nd among the 32 units in coverage grade.
The Broncos made a move right out of the gate in free agency to address the issue, signing Ronald Darby. He was one of the most productive cornerbacks in the league this past season for the Washington Football Team, racking up 17 forced incompletions. That tied with James Bradberry for the most at the position. In single coverage, Darby joined Callahan as one of the five highest-graded corners.
As good as Darby's signing was by Fangio and new general manager George Paton, the move of the week was swooping in and grabbing Kyle Fuller following his release from the Chicago Bears. Fuller was once a Fangio disciple in the Windy City, and he enjoyed easily the best years of his NFL career in the Denver head coach’s system. In 2017 and 2018, Fangio’s final two seasons as Chicago’s defensive coordinator, Fuller was one of the five highest-graded outside cornerbacks in the NFL and led the group in total plays made on the ball (41).
Darby and Fuller on the outside with Callahan in the slot alongside Justin Simmons, who is the second-most valuable safety since 2019, form a group that’s going to put the clamps on a lot of passing offenses.
Factoring in also the re-signing of Simmons' safety partner Kareem Jackson, Paton has the secondary locked down. This does not mean Denver should neglect taking a cornerback or safety relatively early in next month's NFL draft as the likes of Callahan, Fuller, and Jackson will all be free agents after next season, but for now, the secondary — especially the cornerback room — has gone from a major concern to a possible identifying strength of the entire team.
With Coach Fangio potentially on the hot seat after back-to-back losing seasons, the reinforcements to the Broncos defense should be a major shot in the arm, whether Paton believes in his current head coach or not. With such talented passing attacks in the AFC West, the Broncos had no choice but to stockpile weapons in the secondary to give Fangio a chance to keep his job.
As long as Denver gets better than bottom-5 quarterback play in 2021, as Drew Lock provided in 2020, this team’s expectations should be, at a minimum, playoffs.
Football might just be fun again in Denver.
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