Denver’s depth behind an awesome starting trio is downright ugly.
Early in his tenure as the Broncos’ GM, John Elway took a moment to outline the positions he considers vital to a Super Bowl contending roster. He named two on offense: quarterback and left tackle. And he named two on defense: edge rusher and Cornerback.
History has proven the worth of Elway’s assessment: As a result of excellent moves that secured three of those positions (left tackle being the rather stark exception), Elway’s Broncos went to two Super Bowls and won one. Peyton Manning will stand tall in the annals of Broncos quarterbacks for a long time to come. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware formed the best duo of pass rushers in the NFL. And the trifecta of Chris Harris Jr, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby at cornerback have been frustrating receivers and quarterbacks alike for years now.
But things have changed since then, and will change even more in the months to come. Von Miller is in his prime and as good as he’s ever been, but Manning and Ware are enjoying a well earned retirement. And unfortunately, the expiration date on the original trio of No Fly Zone corners may be fast approaching.
Broncos fans are well aware of the rumors swirling around Aqib Talib over the last couple of months. The elite CB, who will turn 32 on Tuesday, currently has a cap hit of $12,000,000 versus just $1,000,000 of dead money if he were cut or traded. Therefore it’s no surprise that his name is often mentioned in connection to the Broncos’ desire to clear cap space to address the QB position.
Many fans and members of the media seem to consider the imminent trade or cut of Talib by the Broncos to be all but a sure thing. Personally, I think the team can accomplish its goals without doing that, and moreover that Elway & company should do their best to follow exactly that course of action. But the reason I think that has far more to do with cornerbacks #4 thru #6 on the depth chart than it does with Talib or the other members of the top three.
Here’s what the Broncos’ depth chart looks like at cornerback, as of the end of the 2017 season:
The 2nd & 3rd levels of that depth chart should scare you, Broncos fans. Marcus Rios is a 2017 undrafted free agent signing and Michael Hunter is a 2016 UDFA who has spent most of his career bouncing on and off the Giants’ practice squad. Both were practice squad players for the Broncos this year, and were signed to the roster at the close of the season in a move aimed at keeping them with the Broncos heading into the 2018 season. While it’s encouraging that the Broncos think enough of them to not want them to get poached, let’s not kid ourselves. Neither of these guys is the next Chris Harris Jr.
So what about Brendan Langley? A 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft, the former wide receiver entered the league as a raw size-speed prospect with a lot to learn. He saw significant snaps in just two games, the Week 12 matchup against the Raiders and the Week 17 game against the Chiefs, and definitely still looked like a raw size-speed guy. He didn’t play enough snaps to earn a spot on Pro Football Focus’s cornerback ranking chart, but did play enough to get a grade from PFF: 35. That’s... not very good.
Does that mean we can shut the book on Langley? Not at all. The Chiefs’ new CB Kendall Fuller graded out at 45.5 as a rookie but jumped all the way to a 90.0 in his second season. But while a transformation from raw to stud isn’t impossible, it is relatively unlikely. And it would require a significant amount of playing time and the resultant mistakes and lessons learned. Langley could be a useful piece, but I doubt he’s going to be enough.
As things stand today, if the Broncos move on from Aqib Talib, then Brendan Langley will theoretically be the team’s 3rd CB and will be in line to be on the field for as many as 70% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps. But if he or Harris or Roby got hurt... yikes.
The general consensus is pretty solid that quarterback is the Broncos’ biggest roster hole this offseason, and that’s fair. But I’d contend that the 2nd biggest need isn’t actually on the offensive line, as most fans think, or even on the offense at all. The strength of the Broncos’ defense is the way the secondary and pass rush feed off of each other. Excellent pass rush makes coverage work easier. Excellent coverage creates extra time for pass rushers and thus creates more sacks. But if one side of that equation fails, the other will be crippled and the Broncos’ dominant defense of recent years will have officially met its end.
Right now, with Aqib Talib still in orange & blue, cornerback is arguably the 2nd most pressing need for the Broncos. It’s one of Elway’s critical positions, and has been secure for years, but is now an injury away from disaster. But if the Broncos cut or trade Talib? Then cornerback will immediately and unquestionably be the biggest issue on the Broncos’ roster outside of the QB situation.
Whether via free agency or the draft (and early in the draft at that), cornerback is a position that the Broncos must address with a significant investment in the next couple of months.
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