The Denver Broncos have hosted a pitched battle at cornerback this summer. Outside of A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan — the team's top-two corners — the remaining depth chart is completely unresolved.
All eyes are on seeing specifically how the pecking order will go when it comes to the third cornerback to take the field in sub-packages. We had assumed that when the No. 3 corner takes the field, it will see Callahan kick inside to the nickel and that third guy playing the boundary opposite of Bouye.
However, Vic Fangio could have other ideas. On Wednesday, in a surprise move, the head coach decided to give undrafted rookie corner Essang Bassey first-team reps at the nickel position, which left Callahan and Bouye on the boundary. Following practice, Fangio explained his thought process behind the move.
“I just decided today—actually last night but didn’t tell him—as soon as we started the teamwork and first drills for him to take the reps with the first nickel [defense] as the nickel," Fangio said via Zoom virtual presser. "It was more of a test for him. It wasn’t a move or anything just to see how he reacted and how he would do in there.”
Considering that camp is literally in its last handful of days before the Broncos will enter their first week of preparation for the regular season, Fangio's decision is bold and, frankly, unconventional. The Broncos still haven't made their final decision on the 53-man roster, so on one hand, rotating Bassey in with the ones makes some sense, but on the other, by this point, you'd think Fangio would have as much clarity at corner as a summer bereft of a preseason could afford him.
So, I guess the million-dollar question is, how'd Bassey do as the first-team nickel?
“I thought he did pretty damn well," Fangio said.
Although Bassey didn't hear his name called on draft day, it was a surprise to see him go undrafted. The former Wake Forest star checks a lot of the boxes for a prototypical Fangio corner — instinctual, opportunistic, physical, ball skills. And he's a sure tackler.
What this means for the competition that had taken shape between De'Vante Bausby, Davontae Harris, and Isaac Yiadom, I'm not sure. Bausby seemed to have separated somewhat in that battle but Fangio wanted a look-see with a different personnel grouping with the ones for a reason.
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Bassey isn't the longest corner but he's scrappy and he's smart. In many ways, he probably reminds Fangio of Callahan, who also entered the NFL as a college free agent with the Chicago Bears back in 2015 while Fangio was the defensive coordinator.
While we would be remiss to read too much into Wednesday's exercise, Fangio was clearly impressed with Bassey's performance with the first-teamers. Only time will tell whether this was a one-time wild-hair type scenario or if Fangio actually has designs of using Bassey in this defense as the nickel, even if on a limited basis.
Due to the new CBA rules, the Broncos could choose to waive Bassey and re-sign him to the practice squad where he could be called up to the active roster on gameday to play and participate in the game-plan, only to be sent back down to the practice squad the following day.
If Fangio likes Bassey as a contributor with the ones, there's no chance in H-E-double hockey sticks that he'll risk him to the waiver wire, even with there being no preseason tape on him with which outside teams could become interested. Bassey was expected by most draftniks to be a sixth-to-seventh-round pick, which means there are a handful of teams who likely had a very high opinion of him but opted to draft someone else for whatever reason.
Bassey signed with Denver but if he spurned other teams only to suddenly show up on the waiver wire, that's a risk Fangio likely wouldn't be willing to make if (and it's a big if) he projects a usage in the defense at any point this coming season. Whatever happens, it's an interesting development with some serious implications.