The Denver Broncos made the decision to pass on a quarterback in the 2021 NFL draft for Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, whom many analysts had rated as the top corner in the class. This was an interesting move after Denver signed veteran corners Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency.
It makes sense with multiple corners on the roster having health concerns and the Surtain pick also preempts the contract status of Fuller (signed to a one-year deal) and Bryce Callahan, who's entering a walk year.
Before the draft, Broncos GM George Paton said he was looking for a starter with the team's first-round pick — a curious comment after what the team paid to Darby, Fuller, and have on the books currently with Callahan. Could Denver view Surtain through a prism of planning to play him perhaps a lot more than fans might think?
After the selection, head coach Vic Fangio illuminated the topic of how he plans to play Surtain and where he fits in.
"We use five or more defensive backs 75-85% of the time," Fangio said.
This might have been a hint suggesting a schematic change could be coming as rumored for months. Are the Broncos poised to transition from Fangio's standard 3-4 defense to a 4-2-5 base or 2-4-5 in terms of how it'll actually look?
Two down linemen, two stand-up edge rushers, two linebackers, five defensive backs? If so, Surtain has a clear path to being a starter.
At Alabama, Surtain saw some usage as the 'star' defender. He did well in it, but really came into his own as a press-man corner on the boundary. When Fangio said, "I think he has versatility, though not seen on tape, to play inside," it could portend for Surtain to assume a similar star-type role in this defense.
Denver was patient in getting linebacker help and even then, Ohio State's Baron Browning has key areas to work on in order to be reliable in coverage. Maybe the Broncos aren't looking at linebackers to be the answer to the tight end coverage issues in the AFC West that fans have been crying for. Maybe the team's plan is none other than the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Surtain.
Mockdraftable.com compares the athletic profile of Surtain to Los Angeles' Derwin James as a 86.2% match. James is an athletic defensive back that, when healthy, does a lot to slow down tight ends in the AFC West. Surtain comparing favorably there could be a reason Denver might view him in such a role.
Surtain has the size and physicality to hold up as well as the solid athleticism to hang with the tight ends. While his short-area agility is lacking, matching up against tight ends would make it less of an issue.
In the past, Broncos fans have seen defensive backs be more of an answer to tight ends than linebackers. Aqib Talib had some success doing that in certain matchups, as well as T.J. Ward, and even Champ Bailey a few times.
Just a few years ago, when Rob Gronkowski was dominating the NFL before all the injuries, it was said no linebacker could slow him down. His best games came against linebackers, but the ones he struggled even ever so slightly against? Those came against defensive backs.
Denver using Surtain in such a way would put its best cover guys out there on the field and would really help hide the issues of coverage from linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. Not only that, it would allow Surtain to see the field and get the needed experience, while also allowing the Broncos to bring Browning along at a slower pace.
Of course, I could be reading too much into Fangio's comments and Denver could simply plan on playing Surtain and Fuller outside with Darby in the slot and Callahan being let go. Yes, Callahan was playing great football last year before he got hurt but he has never played a full NFL season, is a year older, and would free up a decent amount of money if Denver cut bait.
Follow Erick on Twitter @ErickTrickel.
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