The Denver Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason — or at least plays .500 or better football.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the cornerback position.
Starters: Chris Harris Jr, Bryce Callahan
The Broncos have one of the best corners in the league still on the roster … for at least one more year. They also went out in free agency and picked up a talented slot corner who is going to get a shot as an outside starter in 2019.
Chris Harris Jr. is one of the best cornerbacks in the game today. Everyone knows the story of how Denver found Harris as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas in 2011. He’s been a star player for the Broncos for years, whether it was outside or inside as a slot corner.
It’s been a joy watching Harris develop into one of the best at his position, and he may very well be on a path that one day leads him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So why might 2019 be his last year with Denver?
Earlier this year, before the draft, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Harris wanted either a new contract or to be traded away. This built up during the offseason, mainly highlighted by general manager John Elway saying that he would only get to Harris and his contract after the draft. He said that at the Scouting Combine and was somewhat defiant in his tone, adding in a press conference that the Broncos would look at extending Harris but that didn’t mean they would do it.
They didn’t extend Harris, but instead gave him a raise for the 2019 season. The Broncos bumped his compensation from $8.9 million to a little over $12 million. They didn’t come to a long-term agreement but did try to make Harris happy with a raise. That means Harris could play good football this year as he has for most all of his career, then walk away as an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
Perhaps Denver feels time is running out for Harris. He played in 13 games last season, but a broken leg knocked him out down the stretch. Harris did recover in time to play in the Pro Bowl in early 2019 and looked like his old self during mandatory minicamp.
The Broncos are taking a real chance here with Harris. There’s no reason to think he won’t play at a high level in 2019, and it could be more difficult to sign him to a new contract if he’s tempted by the allure of free agency.
Bryce Callahan was a star slot corner for Vic Fangio and the Chicago Bears last year. That skill set and experience with Fangio prompted the Broncos to go out in free agency and sign Callahan to a three-year, $21 million contract. He played in only 13 games in 2018, as a foot injury landed him on injured reserve.
Denver had to feel good about his health status to give him that type of deal, and Callahan has been recovering from his broken foot for months, but he should be 100 percent for training camp.
Callahan has great technique as a corner. He’s not a big corner, measuring in at only 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, so Callahan has to get by with guile and speed.
He’s not fooled by play-fakes and does a good job of reading the man he’s covering. His football intelligence is high, and Callahan knows the small things to look for when breaking down a potential route for a wide receiver.
Undrafted out of Rice in 2015, Callahan has never played a full 16-game season as a pro. That’s something that needs to change now that he’s with the Broncos.
The Bears placed an original-round tender on him in 2018, meaning they were willing to lose him in free agency without compensation. He ended up staying with the Bears for one more season and played like a shutdown corner before his injury.
Callahan is going to line up outside this year opposite of Harris. He has speed and is smart, but his lack of size and injury history is a concern. If the Broncos go up against a team with large starting wide receivers (like the Los Angeles Chargers), then Callahan may find himself getting picked on often.
Reserves: Isaac Yiadom, De’Vante Bausby, Alijah Holder, Trey Johnson, Horace Richardson, Linden Stephens
One may immediately notice that Kareem Jackson is not in this article breaking down the cornerbacks, even though he’s got “CB” next to his name on the team’s official roster. Jackson is going to be in the safety preview later this week because that’s where he should mostly play in 2019. The veteran corner has gotten most of his work at safety this offseason, but he did get a small handful of snaps as a nickel corner in OTAs and minicamp.
This section is going to be about the reserve cornerbacks on the roster. The group is led by a potential starter in the future, a player from Fangio’s past with experience from a startup league, an undrafted free agent that was highly sought after, a second-year pro coming off injured reserve for another team, a player poached off the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad last year, and a player on his third team entering his second season.
Isaac Yiadom was a third-round pick for the Broncos in the 2018 NFL Draft. Coming out of Boston College, Yiadom was known as a player with size, intelligence, and sound technique as a corner.
Yiadom has long arms and a large wingspan to knock passes away. He is not afraid to play close to the line of scrimmage and will get into the mix as a run defender. Yiadom stands out in coverage and is not fooled by bait routes when playing zone defense, a skill that should really help him under Fangio.
During his rookie season, Yiadom played just 263 snaps. He compiled 17 tackles, three assists, one interception, and three pass breakups over the course of 13 games. He mainly worked as a reserve corner, but there were a couple of weeks (Week 13 and 14) where he played starter’s snaps for the Broncos.
There was a time during that stretch where Yiadom showed off what he could eventually be. In a Week 12 game against the Steelers, Yiadom was challenged by Antonio Brown and did not back down. In fact, Yiadom covered Brown well for the few snaps they were matched up against each other.
A shoulder injury robbed him of a couple of games during his rookie season. Yiadom did try to play with the injury in the final two weeks of the regular season, but he did not look anything like he did pre-injury. Yiadom did have offseason shoulder surgery and was limited in OTAs and minicamp, but he is expected to be fully ready for training camp.
Yiadom will be the team’s No. 3 cornerback in 2019, and he may move up the depth chart in 2020 depending on what happens with Harris.
De’Vante Bausby has worked with Fangio before. Undrafted out of Pittsburgh State in 2015 (Chiefs), Bausby spent two seasons with Fangio when he was the Bears defensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.
When he was done with the Bears, Bausby went back to the Chiefs but failed to make their final roster in 2017. He spent that season on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad and even has a Super Bowl ring from his time with the team.
He then played in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. During his time in the AAF, Bausby led the league in pass breakups and interceptions (five) in seven games for the San Antonio Commanders. When the league folded, the Broncos signed the veteran to a contract.
Bausby’s game is all about speed, speed, and more speed. That speed gets him into position quickly and lets him stay with some of the fastest receivers downfield. Fangio knows how to get the best out of Bausby, but we’ll see if he’s learned a few things in his time away from the veteran coach.
Alijah Holder was undrafted out of Stanford in 2019, but many teams were interested in his services as a college free agent — and for good reason. Holder is big (6-foot-1, 191 pounds) and physical with his playing style. He does not back down from a challenge and loves to push around smaller opponents when the ball arrives.
Holder has a nose for the ball, as evidenced by his early college career and the way he bounced back in 2018 with 59 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and 10 pass breakups. He plays well with the ball in front of him and is not afraid of contact. Holder also does a good job of flipping his hips and turning to cover downfield routes. He’s not a fast corner, but his intelligence and guile help him stay with the play.
If there is an undrafted player to make the 53-man roster in 2019, the best odds might be on Holder.
Trey Johnson was picked up by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent from Villanova in 2018. A shoulder injury in training camp that year cost him his entire rookie season, as Johnson stayed with the Steelers on their injured reserve list as a rookie.
He is smaller than some of the other reserve cornerbacks on this list (185 pounds), but Johnson might be the fastest cornerback on the roster. At Villanova’s pro day, he recorded a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and a 36-inch vertical jump. That speed and explosive playmaking ability should be something that stands out in training camp.
Horace Richardson was stolen off the Chiefs practice squad in late December 2018. Undrafted out of SMU in 2017, Richardson spent about a season and a half with the Minnesota Vikings. After being released by the Vikings (for the final time) in October 2018, he bounced around between the Detroit Lions and the Chiefs for about a month. When he was on the Chiefs practice squad, the Broncos signed him away.
Richardson was a college teammate of starting wide receiver Courtland Sutton and has an intriguing size-speed combination. He was banged up quite a bit in college, playing only one full season in 2016. He picked off six passes that season and is known for having a good nose for the ball.
Perhaps Richardson could earn a spot on the practice squad with the Broncos if he stays healthy and shows off his football intelligence and diagnostic skills in training camp and the preseason.
Linden Stephens is now on his third team in the NFL. He was undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati in 2018 and was picked up by the New Orleans Saints. He lasted a few months with the team but failed to make the final roster. He was waived by the Saints and then picked up by the Los Angeles Rams for about a month. After the Rams released him, the Broncos picked up Stephens around Thanksgiving, then signed him to a futures contract in late December.
Stephens has good size, measuring in at nearly 6 feet and 195 pounds. I watched him perform well during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game in 2018, mainly because Stephens turned well and was much more athletic in person than he was on tape. (He was mostly a backup during his college career for the Bearcats.)
The Broncos must like something about Stephens, and we’ll see if he can angle for a spot on the practice squad in 2019.
The NFL is a pass-happy league, and the Broncos secondary is going to get tested early and often in 2019. They are especially going to get tested — from Week 1 — by the teams, and their high-powered offenses, in their own division. Going up against AFC West wide receivers like Antonio Brown (Raiders), Tyreek Hill (Chiefs), and Keenan Allen (Chargers), among others, is going to battle test this secondary in some of the most important games of the year.
Harris is going to be up for the challenge in perhaps his final season with the Broncos. He’s out to prove that he can still play at a high level and, perhaps, hit the open market for the first time in his pro career.
He’s been everything you want a Bronco to be, and 2019 could be bittersweet watching him perform and knowing it could be the last year we see him in Denver.
Callahan has a lot to prove on the outside. Had the Broncos put him in the slot, then it would be a no-brainer to project him for great success in this defense. Callahan has speed and quickness to his game and should be up for the task, provided he’s not matched up against larger receivers.
The backup cornerbacks are interesting names with varying skill sets. Yiadom is the player to watch, especially because he could be a No. 2 or even No. 1 corner for the Broncos someday. Seeing his progress, especially in a Fangio defense, should be fun to watch.
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