Nearly everything is different. A lot of it still looks the same. What’s true about Denver’s cornerback-intensive offseason?
The Broncos set out this offseason to substantially change a few things about its cornerback corps. One was to replace right corner Andre’ Goodman, who despite an otherwise solid year, let in too many touchdowns - nine altogether, including three in the season-ending playoff loss at New England.
There was also a huge gap between the youth of the undrafted and late-round corners of last year to the candidates for this year. 2010 UDFA Cassius Vaughn is now with Indianapolis after being dealt for fullback Chris Gronkowski; 2010 seventh-rounder Syd’Quan Thompson went on IR after tearing his Achilles tendon and is hoping to return to the game this season. Of course, last year's undrafted gem, Chris Harris, is at nickelback. Goodman and Champ Bailey will both turn 34 this summer, although the latter is as talented as ever. Denver decided to replace Goodman, they needed an additional cover corner, and they needed at least one player who was under 30 and over 24. They also wanted to create more pressure with the front seven.
I had been worried about this group moving forward, what with the mix of aging veterans and young players still learning the game; that’s less than ideal for a team with playoff expectations. Vaughn did as well as one could have asked after injury issues pushed him into significant playing time as a rookie, but he didn’t impress in an injury-shortened season last year. Chris Harris surprised most of the league - he’s a keeper. The unsettling Perrish Cox debacle still rang in the background. Finally, the New England Patriots took it to the Broncos in the playoffs, and that group of defensive backs - as well as the rest of the defense - was exposed.
Denver responded by adding two cover corners in Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence, who will join Champ Bailey in providing a veteran presence. Harris will likely continue to man the nickel. Denver still has two guys over 30, but these are different guys. Will the outcome be different? If so, why?
I think that it will. I keep getting asked, Why three cover corners? Today's game often requires you to face four-wide receiver sets; five wideouts isn’t that uncommon, either, so of course you want three or more cover guys. You really want four starting cornerbacks, and you flat-out need one of them to be a nickelback to hold that crush in the middle: interfering with passes, taking down receivers, and disrupting the occasional run. It’s a very specific skill, and not all CBs can play it. The Eagles, for example, went with three top CBs last season in Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Asante Samuel. DRC took some reps at nickel last season and was surprisingly effective; he’s one of the few I know who can play either effectively.
Among the Broncos' first moves of free agency was to add Porter on a one-year contract. During his four seasons with the Saints, Porter was best known for his pick-six interception of Peyton Manning to end Indianapolis’s chances in SB 44.
Porter is a slender, lightning-fast corner with a silky backpedal who stands 5-11 and weighs in at 186 pounds. His speed is his calling card and he has a singular ability to flip his hips very smoothly and to change direction at high speed. Denver needs to know if he has or can develop the functional strength to play well in press coverage. He played a lot of off coverage in NO, and last season was moved around between nickelback and right corner - nickel is not his strength, nor does it fit his body type. I like his speed and ease of movement, and from what film I’ve watched of his games over the past two years, he’s got the ability to move into the receiver’s hip pocket. There’s still a question about his ability to work press or to hold up over a full season - he’s a slender guy who could use more strength conditioning. He’ll get it in Denver.
Due to that same lack of strength, he often has to tackle by launching himself at the offensive player’s ankles, and some of the bigger receivers and backs are able to shrug that off and keep going. At the same time, one cannot deny his speed or his skills, but must instead recognize where his weaknesses are. He’s not going to be much help in run support, but his dedication to film study has developed his skills at reading the quarterback’s eyes and his route recognition. Now it’s a matter of what his genetics and level of effort will bring in as far as his functional strength.
I like this player, yet I understand that he’s on a one-year contract for some good reasons. He’s going to have to show that he’s able to take another step up to attract the longer and more lucrative commitment he's likely seeking. Porter will be competing against Florence and could also face a challenge from newcomer Omar Bolden this year or next.
Denver added the 31-year-old Florence, formerly of San Diego and Buffalo, less than a month ago. He started all 32 games for Buffalo over the past two seasons and tallied three interceptions and a pick-six in each of those years. Florence has 17 INTs over his career and has a familiarity with new DC Jack Del Rio after playing for Jacksonville in 2008.
Drayton is scheme-versatile and shows equal comfort with playing at right corner and in the slot. He’s a bit bigger than Porter at 6-0 and 196, with more strength and better press coverage skills. Film of his play with Buffalo shows impressive abilities, particularly in press coverage. I recommend the following highlight clip, despite the poor resolution:
Florence displays more power and skill in run support than Porter does, and with his larger body he’s more of a threat to the quarterback if Denver chooses to go with a cornerback blitz. Champ Bailey also has a history of success rushing in from the strongside in that role. Drayton was in a lot of press coverage last year from the film I watched, and he played it well - good leverage, good recognition of the five-yard point where he has to pull back from contact, good positioning, and good run support skills were all evident. I understand why the Bills were concerned with his price tag but he fits well into what Denver needs right now.
Like a lot of cornerbacks who are still effective when they turn 30, Florence was looking for a team that still believed in him and wanted him. He recently commented,
I bring versatility, experience and knowledge to that position. In the National Football League, very rarely do you see just two wide receivers line up. Now with the bigger tight ends that are more athletic, you need more defensive backs to match up. Competition is always great for a team. That's what I've come here to do, compete for a job, whether that be a starting job or a nickel role. Just come in and help this team in as many ways as I can, not only on defense but special teams, also. Whatever I'm asked to do, just coming out and competing and helping some of the young guys develop.
I love a 31-year-old guy who still wants to help out with the grind of playing nickel or on special teams. Since a lot of younger players try to avoid that role, it’s gratifying when you see a veteran who understands the importance of those segments of the game and who is willing to still get dirty and help the team any way he can. It says a lot about him as a potential teammate. His willingness to share his knowledge makes him one of three Broncos defensive backs - along with Bailey and safety Mike ‘Pops’ Adams - who are constantly mentoring the young players around them. Of course, Florence is also picking the brains of the other two - he’s never stopped learning, which is one reason he’s still a potent option for Denver. As far as his age?
The older you get the smarter you should be getting. You’ve seen a lot, nothing should really be new. Week-in and week-out you should know how to prepare for teams. Like I said, being around veteran guys is only going to make me better, guys like Champ Bailey and Mike Adams in the secondary. In this business you have to keep improving, and if you don’t, you all know how that goes.
Someone recently asked Andrew Mason if Champ is still the best CB in the league. Mason’s reply was that if he’s not, there’s a very short list above him. I thought that pretty much covered it - while it’s fun to argue at times about who the ‘best’ player at a position is (a concept which can be heavily shaded by the scheme and the team around each), it’s impossible to ignore the fact that quarterbacks still hesitate to throw at Champ. That’s a fact. Champ is still gold.
With 11 Pro Bowls to his credit (the most by a cornerback in NFL history), Bailey will turn 34 this summer, and he’s still a force. I found two sets of highlights (the first one not embeddable) for those who can’t get enough of Champ:
I find the idea of an ‘Ultimate’ Champ Bailey highlight film amusing - if you really want to put one together, you’ll need a full newsreel. Maybe someone will make them into a feature-length movie. Heck, I’d go see it.
They’ve been using Champ differently of late. For a long time, Bailey was ensconced at left cornerback and played it from off coverage, standing at an angle with his back to the sideline so that he could see both the receiver and the quarterback at the snap. Some corners can’t play that far off, lacking the ability to get into the receiver from that position and to disrupt the route without press coverage. It never was a problem for Champ, due to his ability to read the play, as well as his speed and precise angles to get into coverage, or to jump or disrupt the timing of the route.
Now the team is moving him around to get the best matchups, and he’s responded with his usual level of effectiveness and disruption. Adding two other talented cover corners to him in a league where you may be facing four- and five-receiver sets in any given game is smart football. Champ is a good tackler - he’s also 6-0 and 192 pounds - who has been able to disrupt receivers, pull in interceptions when challenged, and whose strength in run support has been equalled by his ability to blitz the quarterback. He’s a player with very few weaknesses, and none that stand out. Essentially, he’s the gold standard for the position. He’s already put to rest the idea that he’s ready to move to safety this year, and feels that it may be a few years before he does. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Nickelback Chris Harris is a 5-10, 190-pound player out of Kansas, where he started all four years before a surprisingly good rookie season for the Broncos last year. Two special teams tackles in each of two early-season games caught the team's attention, earning him a Week 4 start in Green Bay. The team was massacred, but Harris contributed four tackles. Against Miami, three weeks later, he led the team with two special teams tackles again but also contributed the only passes defensed by a Bronco for the entire game - two, both coming in overtime.
Young players who step up in pressure situations find themselves being rewarded, and Harris has been. According to Khaled Esayed of Pro Football Focus, 31.4% of all wide receiver yardage across the league came through the slot last year, and on 57.34% of defensive snaps, Denver had at least five defensive backs on the field. Harris quickly showed that he was worthy of the trust required of covering a spot from where nearly a third of passing yardage comes.
He’s now firmly installed as the starting nickelback in a league that depends on that role being played well. It’s interesting that none of the draft pundits even knew who he was - especially since he was a four-year starter with the Jayhawks - but it’s a great lesson for those who roll their eyes at studying CFAs. Harris was on Pro Football Weekly's 2011 All-Rookie Team. So was Von Miller, but that’s a surprise to no one who follows the game even casually.
Here's a Pro Day clip of Harris and highlight film from his four years of starting for the Jayhawks; he was inexplicably listed as an ‘undraftable’ player. So much for that idea - Harris was sixth in the league in run stop percentage among cornerbacks. He’s one of the most interesting players that no one seemed to have ever heard of.
So, the Broncos now had three good cover corners and an excellent young nickelback. Two of the cover corners are over 30, though, just like last year. However - Drayton has the skills in press that Goodman never showed and is more consistent in run support. Porter is far more of a veteran than Denver had at CB other than Bailey and Goodman, and I think that helps. He has shown that he’s not intimidated by big games and has a short memory when he gets beaten, as every cornerback will. Harris takes somewhat limited snaps as the nickelback, but his role is essential and he makes the most of them.
There’s one remaining issue to deal with. Four CBs in today’s world isn’t enough - a single injury and without depth you’re suddenly tasking linebackers or safeties to do a cornerback’s job. Denver was going to come out of the draft with a cornerback, and in the fourth round they took Omar Bolden out of Arizona State.
This pick has often been referred to as a ‘reach’ for Denver, and a number of fans distrust it and feel that it’s a wasted pick. I’d disagree - strongly. To me it’s a very reasonable risk, giving them the potential of picking up a player who was drawing first- and second-round grades a year ago, with only a fourth-round pick. The risk stems from a post-surgical knee injury from last year that he’s been rehabbing, which led to him not running at Combine or his pro day. He also was injured back in 2009, and yet at 5-10 and 195 pounds, he has the general physique and height/weight ratio of many other NFL CBs. His injuries could as easily be outliers as any kind of herald of things to come - that’s not something that anyone can predict. The key lies in his medical exams.
Keep in mind that the Combine, as much as many of us like to watch it for the tests and drills, exists mostly to get a brief interview and a very long medical examination - or several, depending on the player’s history - with the players of interest to the teams present. Omar Bolden was cleared by the Broncos doctors after spending a lot of time and testing to make sure that he was a safe choice. Do I trust that? Yes. Evaluating post-surgical knees is part and parcel of the job the team’s doctors are there to do.
At the May 21-23 OTA, Omar was running without a brace on the knee and from all reports, looked as fast as ever. He drew raves from some of the scouting pundits in attendance, for whatever that’s worth. Considering that Porter is on a one-year contract, it’s plain that Denver has hedged its bets on both players. I think it’s a smart move. Bolden was a unanimous All-Pac 10 choice in 2010 and can take his time getting back to full strength and speed, with the options Denver has in front of him at CB.
For a player who missed some field time, there was no shortage of YouTube film on him, and plenty of full game film as well. Here are some highlights to enjoy:
Next is his Draft Guys profile, which features some good informational background:
Finally, here's some game film against Cal:
Keep in mind that his speed is estimated to be around 4.5 seconds in the 40 (I was told that he ‘looked faster’ at the OTA - that’s pretty vague stuff, but if he looks fast compared to those around him, that’s great) and it’s a fact that he benched 225 pounds 25 times. That’s one very strong cornerback, and given the size of NFL receivers, that could serve him well. He’s also a quality return guy, if they want to use him that way while they develop his cornerback skills. They’re hoping that he’ll eventually become one of their top CBs, permitting them a more comfortable transition to a younger team that still has experience at cornerback without sacrificing skill at the position.
For a sixth CB, if they go that route, there is no shortage of other cornerback candidates. They range from the diminutive but effective Tony Carter (at 5-9 and 175 pounds) to Ramzee Robinson, who hopes to make the Broncos his fourth team in five years. All in all, the team currently has ten CB candidates, with five or six likely to make the roster and another one or two destined for the practice squad. Syd’Quan Thompson is hoping to make it back from his Achilles tear, and rounding out the crew are A&M undrafted rookie Coryell Judie and ex-Bear Joshua Moore.
There is one more person that I’d like to cover before we’re done, though - defensive backs coach Ron Milus. Milus was the defensive backs coach for Denver in 2000 and 2001 before working with the team’s nickelbacks in 2002. He's now worked under head coach John Fox for the past three years, the first two in Carolina.
He’s coached the secondary for the New York Giants, the Arizona Cardinals, and the St. Louis Rams. Much like the situation of some of the other position coaches for Denver, he’s worked extensively with defensive backs over the past 12 years. Along with Champ Bailey and veteran Drayton Florence, Milus will provide the majority of the input and coaching for his charges in the secondary. He’s a well-experienced coach, and Denver’s lucky to have him.
In my next section, I’ll be going over the candidates for safety. I’ll see you there.