Fangio & Donatell Might Have to Again Do More With Less at Cornerback for Broncos in 2020
The No Fly Zone is dead. Honestly, it has been dead for quite some time.
While it was only just a few seasons ago that the Denver Broncos touted a secondary quintet of Chris Harris, Jr., Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, Darian Stewart, and T.J. Ward, the players have been dropped and the Broncos have moved on to find newer, younger, and cheaper options with each passing season.
Given that Harris, Jr. turned down a three-year, $36 million contract in the middle of this past season, it is very possible that there will be no familiar faces from the Broncos’ 2015 World Champion secondary.
There is, of course, a chance that Harris, Jr. returns. In an interview with Rich Eisen earlier last week, Harris discussed how he had been in communication with GM John Elway. Harris revealed that player and GM talked a lot this past year and had “a lot of communication from where I was confused at during the year… Seeing if they wanted me… So just trying to see where the organization was with me. It kind of cleared it up for me.”
There seems to be a lack of consensus in regards to Harris, Jr. and his value to the Broncos. He was easily the team's best cornerback this past season and went up against one of the more difficult gauntlets of schedules any corner has faced, considering Denver mainly used him to go up against opposing team’s No. 1 option without any sort of viable corner outside of Harris having the ability to spell him.
Somewhat ironically, this is what Harris had been asking to do for a few years, but his tune changed as the season wrapped up.
“This is my first season not playing the slot," Harris said. "That’s where I know I’m the best in the league. I’d definitely love to play both (slot and boundary). When I’m just playing outside you only see one aspect of my game. Next year, being able to do both is kind of getting back to normal.”
Unfortunately for Harris and the Broncos, the team lacked the talent to move him to slot this past season in sub-packages. As Harris put it, the team “definitely needs some more pieces around me to just do what I do. That’s one thing I’m looking at in the offseason.”
For a 30-year-old corner asking to not primarily go up against WR1s anymore, but to play more slot, a three-year deal with $12 million per year seems relatively fair. Given Harris, Jr. took a ‘hometown discount’ on his last Broncos deal, he has every right to try to maximize what he can in this contract window because this will likely be his last chance at a big payday.
However, don’t expect anything greater than what Denver already offered him. Of course, guaranteed money and structure is key and was not disclosed on that mid-season offer, but on the surface, that contract is of value given the role Harris wants to play and his age.
A Pickle at Cornerback
So if he does depart in the offseason, which still seems more likely than not, what are the Broncos to do at cornerback? Perhaps to the chagrin of many in Broncos Country, the team will likely rely heavily on players already on the roster, and coming off of injury, to contribute in larger roles in 2020.
Bryce Callahan was signed this past offseason to a three-year, $21 million contract from the Chicago Bears. Head Coach Vic Fangio and DC Ed Donatell worked with Callahan in Chicago where he was an ascending player for the vaunted 2018 Bears defense, earning an 81.3 grade from Pro Football Focus.
There were concerns about Callahan's longevity and durability with a foot injury that ended his 2018 season prematurely, but the contract he signed with Denver was a relative bargain given the upside he showed during his rookie contract as a former undrafted corner from Rice University.
Unfortunately for the Broncos and Callahan, his foot, which was still recovering from offseason surgery, was stepped on during training camp which sent his entire season into a spiral as the injury was re-aggravated and he never wound up seeing the field in 2019. All reports indicate that Callahan should be good-to-go come 2020, and given his previous level of play and the contract the Broncos paid him, he definitely will be in play for one of the team’s top-3 corner spots next season.
It is a risk, but in the end, it's roster math. Pencil Callahan in as one of the team’s main contributors at corner in 2020. Will he play more boundary as was the plan for him this past season before injury, or will he move back to the slot where he shined in Chicago? That remains to be seen and is likely dependent on what the Broncos do in the offseason at corner.
Don't Sleep on 'the Boz'
On top of Callahan returning and likely playing a large role in 2020 for the secondary, the Broncos likely will be depending on another player recovering off injury to play a semi-large role at cornerback in De’Vante Bausby. The former AAF stud displaced the struggling Isaac Yiadom in Week 3 against Green Bay and the defensive backfield immediately saw a boost in play.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound corner looked far more comfortable and loose in off coverage and displayed solid click-and-close to attack the ball and play on the boundary. Bausby showed a decent amount of potential in this defense when on the field, earning a 67.9 grade from PFF in his limited playing time, but unfortunately, his season was cut short after suffering a gruesome neck injury vs. the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5 that left him paralyzed for 30 minutes.
Bausby is a pending restricted free agent, so it would be surprising if he wasn’t brought back in 2020 so long as he is healthy and good to go. This is apparently the case as Bausby tweeted yesterday.
Outside of Callahan and Bausby, the Broncos also roster Yiadom, Davontae Harris, and Duke Dawson at cornerback. However, all three had ups and downs in 2019 and were replaced at various points during the season.
Yiadom was replaced by Bausby, and then after the Bausby injury, Yiadom played and was once again replaced but this time by Davontae Harris. Harris had a few good games, but then struggled and was replaced by Yiadom. Yiadom has talent and showed flashes last season, but was more down than up. 2020 will be a critical season for him.
Dawson, who was acquired via trade from New England on the doorstep of the regular season in a deal involving late picks, played some this season but was eventually replaced by Will Parks in the slot. All three will have a chance to earn a roster spot and role in 2020, but going into next season, depending on any of them as one of the top-3 corners likely spells an overall to the underwhelming unit.
The Broncos need help at cornerback in 2020 without a doubt. There are some that even believe that it is the team’s biggest need heading into the offseason.
There is little doubt that the Broncos will do something at the position in free agency, whether that be making a push to retain Harris, Jr., or making a big splash signing such as the physical freak Byron Jones from Dallas, the young and zone-savvy James Bradberry from Carolina, or the veteran boundary corner turned slot stud in Tennessee’s Logan Ryan.
However, it’s just as likely the Broncos make a far less splashy signing in someone such as Baltimore’s Jimmy Smith, Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby, Cincinnati’s Darqueze Dennard, New Orleans’ Eli Apple, Kansas City’s Kendall Fuller or Minnesota’s Trae Waynes. Furthermore, there will be a number of veterans that become cap casualties over the next month such as Chicago’s Prince Amukamura, Jacksonville' A.J. Boyue, Washington’s Josh Norman, or New Orleans’ Janoris Jenkins.
As Fangio and Donatell have shown repeatedly throughout their coaching careers, they can find a formerly highly-prized defensive piece who struggled at their last stop, scoop them up, and make them play at the level many thought that player was incapable of.
The Broncos will do something at cornerback to hopefully improve the position from where it currently stands, but on paper, the unit could appear to take a step back next season. Replacing Harris, Jr. with someone like Amukamura is an overall step back, but can be for a fraction of the cost while the Broncos appear to be trending towards allocating more resources on offense to help Drew Lock and new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Considering how much the offense has struggled to score points over the last half-decade, how important it is to surround a young quarterback with talent while they go through their inevitable highs and lows, and how Denver will need new pieces as they once again change offensive schemes, taking a step back in defensive talent and spending to help the offense might just have to be the way it goes this offseason.
Given the condition of the Broncos’ roster, it simply isn’t going to be a flawless depth chart come 2020. In the end, the team is going to have to rely rather heavily on both Callahan and Bausby returning to form to go with either retaining Harris, Jr. or bringing in a veteran to help play one of the top-3 cornerback roles.
With Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah out of reach with the Broncos picking at No. 15 overall, and the trio of Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, LSU’s Kristian Fulton, and LSU’s Jeff Gladney looking more like back-end of the first round-caliber players, as opposed to top-15 picks, depending on the draft for anything besides depth in 2020 seems foolish.
The No Fly Zone is no more as all good things do eventually come to an end. The potential of losing Harris, Jr. and relying on the players that are already here seems scary in comparison to the corner talent this team had in 2015.
Maybe the Broncos make a splash free-agent signing at corner, but they won’t be doomed if they miss out on a top free agent at the position either. A savvy veteran free-agent signing to go with Callahan, Bausby and some mishmash of Yiadom, Dawson, Harris, and a day-two drafted rookie won’t live up to Talib, Harris, Jr., and Roby, but for this scheme, the Broncos simply do not need three man-cover corners with two of them having shutdown ability.
The scheme fit matters as much as the player. Luckily for the Broncos, even if the 2020 cornerback group appears to take a step back on paper, Fangio and Donatell have done more with less in their careers multiple times and it’s not out of the question that they may be asked to do so again come 2020 in Denver.