The Denver Broncos' 17-7 preseason win over the Dallas Cowboys was a step forward in determining the depth chart pecking order. Perhaps the game helped resolve the position battle at safety behind starters Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson.
Caden Sterns is a relative lock for the Broncos' 53-man roster but he isn't guaranteed to win the No. 3 safety job. Sterns is currently listed as Jackson's backup at strong safety but the battle to be the third safety on the field in sub-packages has been furiously fought between Sterns, fellow 2021 fifth-rounder Jamar Johnson, and P.J. Locke — with perhaps a little pressure from rookie Delarrin Turner-Yell.
After the Broncos waived five players on Tuesday, though, it would seem that Locke has officially vanquished Johnson, who was among the list of cuts, and is now putting pressure on Sterns. At 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, Locke is a third-year safety and former undrafted free agent, who initially signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming out of college.
After being waived in the final rounds of cuts by the Steelers back in 2019, Locke was signed to the Broncos practice squad. He's known for his aggressive, never-say-die mentality and is a high-motor player that isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty.
Last season, Locke played a limited role but gained valuable playing time with 25 defensive snaps. He has spent countless hours studying the play recognition of Simmons and Jackson, as the duo adjusts the defensive backfield and leads the Broncos' on-field communication.
It appears that Locke's time learning at the feet of Denver's savvy vets made an impact. Against the Cowboys on Saturday night, Locke made an acrobatic interception that shifted the game's momentum in Denver's favor.
The early returns, based on training camp and the opening preseason game, is that the Broncos' defensive stock is trending upwards. Throughout most of camp, the defense was a step ahead of the Broncos' offense, likely due to defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero’s decision to keep the fundamental principles of last season’s defense in place, while the offensive players had to adapt to a new playbook installation, including the outside zone rushing scheme.
Competing in the AFC West, where every team’s passing game can light up the score board, Evero will be forced to counter-attack by deploying waves of defensive backs with various skill sets. Making the right decision on who plays will be a key component for the first-year coordinator. But it would seem Locke has momentum.
Locke is best positioned to become Simmons' undisputed backup. Locke is a dynamic player, has real-world playing experience, and is less likely to be impacted by the pressure of playing in key down-and-distance situations.
Locke was selected to be a Broncos captain for preseason Game 1, which means that he's earned the respect of head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Even if Locke wins the backup battle, fans should not sleep on Turner-Yell, or free-agent acquisition J.R. Reed. The preseason is still young.
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