The cornerback position has reputedly been a strength of the Broncos since 2004, when Champ Bailey was acquired in a trade for Clinton Portis. Of course, that has never really fully been the case. Bailey struggled somewhat in that 2004 season, and his accompaniment at the position was terrible. I am sure we all remember the complete coverage debacle against the Colts in the January 2005 playoffs. In 2005, to make up for the shortcoming, the Broncos drafted Darrent Williams, Domonique Foxworth, and Karl Paymah, landing a very good player who tragically died much too soon, an average player who is a very bright and upstanding guy, and a total stiff who has never figured out the NFL game.
The 2006 Broncos were pretty strong in coverage, and following Darrent Williams' tragic murder, the Broncos traded for Dre' Bly. The combination of Bailey and Bly looked to be outstanding on paper, but Bly struggled in 2007, and Bailey spent most of 2008 injured, (though Bly played a lot better than he was given credit for, in Bailey's absence in 2008).
Once again, the CB position appears to be one of strength for the Broncos. This is the best collection of talent at the position that the Broncos have ever had at one time, in their history. With some luck in the health department, and some pass rush, this group could force a lot of turnovers, and allow very few big plays in the passing game and perimeter run game. After the jump, we'll go through the individual personnel, and discuss some reasons Broncos fans should be so excited about this group.
Some MSM pundits (as always, meant negatively) are really overselling the dubious "Champ-has-lost-a-step" theory. When healthy, Champ is still the most dangerous CB in the NFL. The reason he holds that distinction over Nnamdi Asomugha is that given Champ's rare preference for playing off coverage, he often baits QBs into throwing the ball to his side when they really shouldn't. No CB is better than Champ at catching the football, recognizing or playing the run, or at making solid form tackles. It's easy to forget how good he really is, since he was hurt most of last season, but Champ is one of the very best all-around players in the NFL. We have every reason to expect a full return to Champ's dominating form this season. Just think back to his somewhat banged-up/disappointing first year in Denver (2004), and how outstanding he was in 2005.
In 2009, expect Champ to come back with a vengeance, and to shut up all of the whispering. He probably won't assume the vocal leadership presence on the defense that some have been calling for for years, but with Brian Dawkins in the fold now, that need is significantly lessened.
Out of all of the personnel moves the Broncos made this offseason, the Andre' Goodman signing is probably the one which I liked the best. Most people don't nearly realize how outstanding this guy was for the Dolphins last season. I watched at least 8 full Dolphins games last season, and Goodman was definitely one of the 10 best CBs in the NFL in 2008. This is the guy who held Brandon Marshall to 2 catches for 16 years, and was in his jersey the entire game. Remember how frustrated Brandon was in that game? In 2008, Andre' started all 16 games for the Dolphins, recording 39 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 19 passes defensed (a very high number).
A physical and athletic CB, with very good ball skills, Goodman is a late-bloomer who seems to be just entering his prime as a player, despite his age. He has low mileage, partly due to a history of shoulder injuries. If Goodman can stay healthy, he will pleasantly surprise most fans, and he'll be very hard to beat on the opposite side of Champ Bailey. He's not quite the most active run-defender, but he's better at it than Dre' Bly or Domonique Foxworth ever were. Goodman is tremendous in zone coverage, which I expect we'll see a lot of from the Broncos this season, given Champ Bailey's preference for it, as well.
If Goodman can replicate his 2008 play in the Mile High City, the Broncos have two legitimate #1 CBs, something no other NFL team can claim. His signing has a tremendous amount of upside, and represents terrific value for the relatively small dollar amount which he signed for.
On Draft Day, I posted "I love Alphonso Smith!!!!" on the front page, and as time has passed, I've only come to appreciate him more and more. This guy is a playmaker, and he is one of the quickest and most explosive CBs out of his breaks that you'll ever see. All this stuff about his 40 time being average, and him being too short is garbage, and it comes from people who don't know what they're talking about. Watch some film of Wake Forest over the last four years, and I guarantee that #2 will jump off the screen at you. He was also tremendous at the Senior Bowl.
Smith combines the rare fluidity and quickness, which I mentioned before, with great hands, and a real penchant for hitting. He comes from an excellently-coached Wake Forest program, where, as a matter of stated policy, all players redshirt as freshmen, and nearly all stay in the program for 5 years, as Alphonso did. He is more mentally and physically mature than the large majority of his rookie counterparts.
I strongly believe that Alphonso Smith will be a terrific addition to the team, both as a rookie, and for years to come. He was a legitimate mid first-round caliber player, and the Broncos got him in the early part of the second round. This season, he should win the nickelback job, and do a great job in covering opposing slot receivers. In the future, I expect Alphonso Smith to be in the mix for making the Pro Bowl most years, because he'll always be near the top of the NFL in interceptions.
Jack Williams came to the Broncos amid high hopes last season, as a 4th-round pick from Kent State. He didn't play very much (or very well) as a rookie, once the preseason ended, so those expectations were largely unmet. With his surname and short stature (the 5-9 listing above is probably 2 inches generous), fans hoped he would remind them of Darrent Williams. Jack appeared in 14 games as a rookie, and made 13 tackles.
Jack is feisty and quick, but he's not as talented as the 3 players who will ultimately be ahead of him on the depth chart. He can, however, be a good 4th CB, and a solid contributor on special teams. He is probably facing a battle in camp with the somewhat more experienced Josh Bell. (If you think not all experience is positive, Bell's may not be an advantage). With Darcel McBath able to swing between Safety and Cornerback, don't be surprised if the Broncos only keep 4 full-time CBs when the roster is finalized. JMFW should be the fourth one of them, but he'll have to earn his spot, because this regime has nothing invested in him.
Josh Bell played in 9 games last season, with 5 starts. He made 34 tackles and had 4 passes defensed. Truth be told, he wasn't very good as a rookie, but he tried hard, and occasionally, he would flash some promise. He has a hard-worker's chance of making the team this season, but out of the top six CBs (including McBath) he is definitely the least talented of the six.
DJ Johnson and Tony Carter appear to probably be training camp roster-filler. Darcel McBath's positional versatilty allows the Broncos to keep 4 true safeties, and 4 true CBs, and probably means that Jack Williams, Josh Bell, and Josh Barrett are battling it out for 2 roster spots.
With good health in the secondary, average soundness in run defense, and any pass rush at all, the Broncos can be in the top 10 in the NFL in pass defense. This is a huge departure from last season, when they were functionally the worst in the NFL.
We're not able to be very sure about the coverage schemes which Mike Nolan will employ, but it is safe to assume that they'll be better than the Slowik special (CB covers with outside leverage, and repeatedly gets beaten to the inside, when the LB or S doesn't get to his spot in the zone concept).
Champ Bailey, Andre' Goodman, and Alphonso Smith are all tremendous talents, and this position group (along with Safety) is a key reason that most people are underrating the Broncos' chances to be solid on defense in 2009, and to dramatically overperform all this 4-12, doom and gloom, nay-saying.