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Under Pressure: Can a rookie cornerback step in and start from day one?

(Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Broncos have had a great offseason in 2020. They made some big moves in free agency, added star talent via trades and then crushed the 2020 NFL Draft. This roster has been upgraded by a wide margin just based on the elite-level talent that has been added this calendar year.

In this new series “Under Pressure,” I’ll look at some of the players who are most under pressure after the moves in free agency and the draft. The talent added to this roster is going to push some players – maybe even some fan favorites – off the roster.

Today, I’ll examine the situation surrounding Broncos rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia. Let’s see why he’s under pressure in 2020.

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Background

With a need at the cornerback position, the Broncos chose to select Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Ojemudia is a big, strong and physical cornerback who played mostly zone coverage for the Hawkeyes. He’s got the length to make up ground quickly and does a good job of reading route combinations and a quarterback’s eyes to get to the ball on time.

Ojemudia is a patient zone corner and doesn’t overrun plays or get confused by play-action fakes or double moves on routes. During the last two seasons, Ojemudia played only 115 snaps in press coverage. This is out of over 1,300 snaps during that time. He’s a zone corner in terms of experience, but at the Scouting Combine, Ojemudia did show man traits in testing drills.

Broncos head coach Vic Fangio runs a zone defense, one that is perfect for Ojemudia’s skill set and his experience from college.

“Well, the first thing I liked when we were watching him was just the way he played. He played well. He showed good instincts, had a good feel for the game. He runs well. He’s got some length, a good tackler. I just liked the way he played the game in all of the areas of his job. We were happy to get him there, too,” Fangio said.

During the last two seasons as a starter for the Hawkeyes, Ojemudia has 21 pass breakups and six interceptions. He’s not a ballhawk in terms of getting his hands on the rock and turning it around with an interception. Instead, he’s a smart corner with length and that helps him disrupt timing when a pass is coming in. Ojemudia is not a fit for every defense in the league, but what he does well is what the Broncos will ask him to do early and often.

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The Pressure

The plan is for Ojemudia to start from day one, and that is a tall order for a rookie cornerback. The team did not add a veteran cornerback like Prince Amukamara in free agency, so they’re mostly going with the guys on the roster last year, plus the rookie. They did add a veteran via trade, but he’s going to be the No. 1 cornerback. They also have Bryce Callahan on the roster from last year, but he didn’t play a single snap in 2019 and he is a slot (no.3) corner.

Simply put, Ojemudia must be good enough to start right away for the Broncos. Starting opposite of Ojemudia is veteran A.J. Bouye. Earlier this offseason, Bouye commented on how tough a transition from college to the pros could be.

“Just in the meeting rooms, you can see already that he is a very intelligent guy. He’s a smart guy and a very confident guy. We have a lot of corners. There is going to be competition, but no matter who is out there, you know they’re going to be ready. Michael, I will help teach him things if he has any questions. I’ll be picking his brain apart too because we can always learn from each other, no matter first year or even me going into year eight. I’m definitely looking forward to that,” Bouye said.

The Broncos play in the same division as the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Kansas City has the most-explosive offense in the league and will test the Broncos twice a year. Those contests alone are going to be huge tests for the entire Broncos defense, but especially for the rookie (projected) starter. Ojemudia must play well or superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes will make him his primary target on most every passing attempt.

After the draft, Fangio answered on whether Ojemudia can start from day one.

“That’s up to him. Everything’s open. Competition is there. We’ll play the guys that deserve to play regardless of the year, whether they are a rookie, veteran or in between. He has the right to come in here and compete and earn a job,” Fangio said.

While much has been made about the moves on offense this offseason, the defense is still full of question marks – specifically at the cornerback position with all three of the top projected starters (Bouye, Ojemudia, Callahan).

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What He Needs to Do

Ojemudia needs to prove that he can fit in immediately as a starter with the Broncos. They have a ton of veterans on the roster, but only one player should be a rookie starter on the defensive side of the ball. That adds to the pressure that Ojemudia will be facing immediately in the NFL.

Once training camp opens, Ojemudia must show that he understands the complex Fangio system. He’s a zone corner and will understand most every zone concept. However, Ojemudia needs to know the “language” of the defense and he must be a great communicator with his teammates from day one. This defense can thrive if all the players are on the same page in terms of their responsibility. It sounds basic, but Ojemudia must know what he’s doing out there in order to be a solid starting option.

The rookie is going to be tested in a big way by fellow rookies Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. The Broncos spent their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on wide receiver talent and they got two of the best in this historic class. Jeudy will be on the outside opposite of Courtland Sutton, and he should match up against Ojemudia most of the time. Hamler will work the slot mostly, but there will be times where Ojemudia has to cover him in his zone.

After the draft, Ojemudia admitted how much going up against those two will help him.

“That’s going to be big. That’s going to be a big adjustment for me and it’s going to help me. It’s going to be hard during games sometimes, so going against those guys — it’s going to get my technique — it’s going improve my game way faster than a lot of guys who don’t have the luxury of facing them in practice,” Ojemudia said.

Everyone is looking forward to what Jeudy and Hamler can do in training camp. If Ojemudia can hold his own against those two, then it could turn heads in camp both on staff and in the media and the fan base. He will get tested in practice by his teammates, and things won’t slow down once the regular season gets here.

Ojemudia has the makings of another great mid-round pick for the Broncos. However, he must work hard to avoid being the weak spot on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a ton of pressure for a player in any season – let alone his first season.

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