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Training Camp 2020: Previewing the Broncos cornerbacks

(Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Is this the season the Broncos get back to their winning ways? Last year, in the first season with Vic Fangio as their head coach, the Broncos finished one game below .500 with a 7-9 record. They did finish the season strong, going 4-1 over the final five games of the regular season. That finish has given fans hope that this team is finally on the right track and can perhaps even make a postseason run – especially with the league expanding the playoffs by one team in each conference.

During the last three years, the Broncos have drafted well, and this roster has talented players on both sides of the ball. However, there are questions that need answers before the start of the regular season. In this series at 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.

This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the cornerback position.

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Starters: A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan

A.J. Bouye has been a favorite of Vic Fangio for years. When the Broncos picked up Bouye via trade earlier this offseason, the buzz was the team wanted him to play like he did in 2017 – his first season with the Jaguars when he was a No. 2 corner. Since that breakout season, Bouye’s game has gone down, especially last year, when he was the Jaguars No. 1 corner. In 2019, Bouye gave up the most receiving yards of any cornerback in the league (806 yards) and he did that in only 14 games.

We need to see Bouye play with more confidence this year. He plays well as a No. 2 corner, but Bouye needs to prove that he can be a solid No. 1 corner. In Fangio’s zone dog defense, Bouye will roam the field playing off the ball and letting plays unfold in front of him. He’s smart and the team has a ton of confidence in his ability to bounce back in 2020 and perhaps be better than ever before.

Bryce Callahan has never played a full 16-game season as a pro. Last year in his first season with the Broncos, Callahan did not play a game, as his surgically repaired foot needed further repair. Undrafted out of Rice back in 2015, Callahan has batted down 17 passes during the last three seasons he’s played. Callahan did most of his damage during his time with the Bears as a slot corner and one could make the argument that (when healthy) Callahan is the best slot corner in the league.

He’s quite capable of playing slot corner, but it’s been some time since Callahan was relied on to play on the outside. He played outside at Rice and Fangio is excited to see Callahan line up there again. He’s emphasized ever since Callahan was signed that the plan was for him to line up outside and play some in the slot.

Fangio makes it sound like Callahan is a big part of what the team wants to do on the outside. That’s a scary proposition for the Broncos, as Callahan is too small and doesn’t have the length or strength to match up with larger receivers on the outside.

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Reserves: Michael Ojemudia, De’Vante Bausby, Isaac Yiadom, Duke Dawson, Davontae Harris, Essang Bassey

In the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia. The Broncos may have found a value pick at the position, as Ojemudia may be in line to start on the outside sooner rather than later. The team cannot trust Callahan to play a full season, so Ojemudia must be groomed to take over as an outside corner ASAP.

Ojemudia is a zone corner, but at the Scouting Combine earlier this year, he displayed man-coverage traits in his testing scores. He has explosive traits on the field and decent speed at the position. Ojemudia is strong and plays with an aggressive style that shows up in coverage and in his throttling run defense. He should be able to impress in practice from day one – but will he impress enough to be one of the top three corners? We shall see.

De’Vante Bausby has worked diligently to keep his pro career going. Undrafted out of Pittsburgh State in 2015, Bausby bounced around the league a bit until finding a home with the Eagles in 2017. He was with the Eagles for a couple of seasons and after being on their Super Bowl winning team, Bausby found himself having to play in the AAF (Alliance of American Football). After that stint in the now defunct league, Bausby made his way to the Broncos in 2019.

I like Bausby’s nose for the ball. He finds his way to the ball quickly and cleanly most times. Bausby has good length for the position and that helps him make up ground, as well. There is no doubt that Bausby is a hard worker and is not someone to count out when it comes to earning the No. 3 corner spot on the depth chart.

Isaac Yiadom has not worked out as planned. A third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Yiadom had some potential coming out of Boston College. He was a physical and high-intelligence player who was seen as a future starter for the Broncos. Instead, Yiadom has struggled to play with confidence and is picked on when he sees the field. Yiadom will often look lost on the field and is running out of chances to impress Fangio and the staff.

Duke Dawson has flashed some on the field playing for the Broncos. He was a second-round pick for the Patriots in the 2018 NFL Draft, but never played for them due to a hamstring injury. Dawson was traded to the Broncos in 2019 and he played 350 snaps for Denver last year. In college, Dawson was a man-slot corner and now is transitioning to a zone-slot corner with the Broncos.

Davontae Harris is another player who has shown the ability to make plays here and there. A fifth-round pick out of Illinois State for the Bengals in 2018, he failed to make their 53-man roster last year and the Broncos were quick to scoop him up. Harris ended up playing 481 snaps for Denver in 2019. Harris is strong and moves well for a reserve corner.

Essang Bassey was picked up as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest in 2020. There is no defensive back who has played more snaps (2,806) or batted away more passes (35) than Bassey during the last two years. He is an instinctive player who is feisty on the field. His aggression can be used against him as he will overrun plays and bite too hard on play fakes at times. Perhaps he is bound for the team’s practice squad.

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Summary

The Broncos biggest question mark on defense is at the corner position. Not only are there depth questions, but there are huge questions about the starters.

Will Bouye bounce back in 2020? Can Callahan stay healthy for most of the season? Will Ojemudia earn a starting job early on? Those are just three questions that will need to be answered during camp for the top three corners on the roster.

The Broncos defense wants to get more turnovers and be at least a top-10 defense in the league. They can do that – or not do that – depending largely on how these corners play in 2020. The fate of the Broncos might be in the hands of these players.