The Denver Broncos enter 2020 with a young and talented secondary that is filled with question marks surrounding which players will step up. After the departure of long-time veteran Chris Harris Jr. in NFL free agency, the chance to rise up the depth chart for some of the younger players on the Broncos roster increases.
This offseason, many in Broncos Country believed cornerback was a position that needed depth, but in retrospect, they already had it. We’ll be taking a look specifically at the depth for the boundary and field cornerback, and the slot in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defensive scheme for the secondary.
You’ll commonly hear analysts in film breakdowns talking about field versus boundary on the defensive side of the football. The field side refers to the wider side of the field. If the ball is on the defensive left hash, the field side would be the defensive right side of the field.
In Vic Fangio’s defense, AJ Bouye projects to be the team’s field-side cornerback for the Broncos. Denver acquired the veteran via trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to NFL free agency. In Chicago, Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell attempted to snag him in free agency in 2017, but the Jaguars appealed to him the most at the time.
Broncos GM John Elway traded for Bouye to task him with helping the Broncos secondary secure more takeaways in 2020 after Denver finished 2019 with only 17, ranking them 25th overall in the NFL. In order for the defense to generate more takeaways from the secondary, they’ll need some help up front by the defensive line.
In a conference call we had with Bouye several weeks ago, he discussed how important pressure is by the defensive line to assist players on the back-end.
“I always believe—especially early and playing in high school, I had a good d-line—I always believed that you’re only as good as your d-line and vice versa. That definitely showed in Jacksonville. You’ve seen the sacks we were getting and the turnovers we were creating. Just to be able to bring that presence over here in Denver, I’m going to do my job.”
The film room is one element of preparation that Bouye says he loves to engage in. It shows on film too where he demonstrates the ability to recognize route combinations based on down and distance and formation.
The Broncos have found their main piece of their secondary for 2020 in Bouye.
The boundary side of the field is the opposite of the field side. Boundary normally refers to the short side of the field in comparison to the wide side of the field. This position is where many of the questions are had ahead of the 2020 season.
Competing for this position at training camp will be De’Vante Bausby, Isaac Yiadom, Michael Ojemudia, and Devontae Harris.
The Broncos brought back De’Vante Bausby on a one-year deal in free agency as PFN’s NFL Insider Benjamin Allbright first reported back in March. In 2019, Bausby displayed some impressive flashes in coverage and as a cornerback who attacked downhill on out-breaking routes, and would often get involved in the run game as a consistent tackler.
Bausby would start two consecutive games for Denver before he was injured by accidental friendly fire against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5. He would go on to miss the rest of the season with a cervical sprain.
Isaac Yiadom enters his third season with the Broncos secondary in 2020. In 2019, Yiadom won the starting job at the beginning of the season opposite of Chris Harris Jr. He was tested by Jon Gruden, Matt Nagy, and Matt LaFleur, which led to him eventually being benched in favor of Bausby.
Yiadom would re-enter the starting lineup in Week 13 against the Chargers in Drew Lock’s debut as the team’s starting quarterback. Vic Fangio attested that Yiadom’s effort and work ethic in practice led him to receive another chance to play.
He was noticeably more confident in his coverage, going through his read step in his backpedal and identifying route combinations as it pertained to his coverage responsibility in match-zone or man to man. His tackling consistency was another area of his game that improved as he ended 2019 on a high note.
Quite possibly Denver’s most intriguing player ahead of 2020 in their secondary is Michael Ojemudia. The Broncos drafted him 77th overall from Iowa with their first third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He has a strong chance of being the team’s starter on the boundary.
In a conference call with Coach Donatell, he mentioned how impressive Ojemudia has been in the team’s virtual voluntary off-season program.
“He’s really on schedule as a tackler and a hitter, which we know is very important to the Broncos’ style of defense. How he fits in—we want him to do as much as he can as a rookie. Time will only tell that. What I can tell you is he’s really, really in the top part of the class as far as his learning curve. He’s picked up our scheme in a virtual sense and about as good as you’ll find in a rookie. He’s off to a good start. We’re just really eager to get him on the field and get started coaching him in a physical sense.”
At Iowa, he was a standout on film where it’s noticeable how technical of a player he is. He processes the entire field, is a strong zone cover scheme fit for Fangio and Donatell’s defense, and has a tremendous football IQ. It will be critical for him to carry that over to the physical part of Broncos camp next month.
The next piece of the Broncos secondary in 2020 is Devontae Harris. Harris emerged last season for the Broncos as a key special teams player. When Bausby suffered his injury against the Chargers, Harris came in and provided immediate relief at cornerback.
His best game in 2019 came against the Cleveland Browns in Week 9 where he helped secure the Broncos victory with a pass breakup on fourth down in coverage against Jarvis Landry. After having two rough games against the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills, Fangio elected to give Yiadom another chance outside. In the NFL, what matters to coaches is who has the hot hand and who gives the team the best chance to succeed.
For Harris, with more development at his position and impact as a special teams player, he has the chance to stay on the Broncos roster as it eventually transforms.
One of the promising signs for the Broncos in 2020 that will help their secondary, will be a clean bill of health. Bryce Callahan and Duke Dawson will likely fulfill the team’s needs for their slot/nickel cornerback.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in March, Fangio floated out the idea that the team may look at using a dime package against some of the spread teams they’ll face in 2020. This would allow them to have six defensive backs on the field.
In the team’s dime set, it would allow both Callahan and Dawson to cover in the slot while the two outside cornerbacks cover the field/boundary with safety help over the top. Callahan is on track for training camp next month according to Donatell, which will hopefully boost the Broncos productivity for their secondary in 2020.
In Callahan’s absence last season, Dawson helped solidify the Broncos play in the slot. Dawson appeared in 14 games for Denver in 2019, where he fulfilled the team’s need for an inside cover threat who can tackle. He also was one of the team’s impact special team’s players as a gunner on punt coverage.
Dawson was injured in Week 12 against the Bills and didn’t return for the rest of the season. Vic Fangio believes that Dawson can contribute in a big way for his defense in 2020 and potentially for years to come.
What stands out to me is that the Broncos have a variety of options. Those who end up starting will be critical for the team’s success in 2020, but more importantly, the players who don’t end up starting will have a chance to develop even further.
I believe that developing your players is critical for success both in the present and down the road, and if the Broncos want to build their secondary for the future, they must focus their efforts on the guys they have in the building.