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Broncos' secondary needs to get picky, picky to become top 5 group

Justin Simmons, Pat Surtain consistently deliver big plays
Broncos Football
Posted at 6:44 PM, Jul 09, 2022

ENGLEWOOD — The Broncos' offseason reverberated with change. New owner, new coach, new quarterback.

There has not been this much straight-faced optimism since 2015 when Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware and coach Gary Kubiak patrolled the sidelines. But lost in the hype is the small type about the Broncos' rejuvenation package: Some Assembly Is Required.

Even if coach Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson's offensive vision crystallizes from jump, the Broncos will need help. Part of the reason they have missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons goes back to the inability to play complementary football. Individuals receive honors. Teams win games.

As such, I will begin my periodic look at Denver7 storylines before training camp, which starts July 27 and features a padded practice against the Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 11.

Today's topic focuses on the secondary. Recently, Pro Football Focus ranked the Broncos' group 12th entering the season, an interesting choice given Denver topped the list a year ago. Both appear mistakes. Last year, PFF overvalued Kyle Fuller, who was benched after three games, and leaned too heavily on Bryce Callahan's health. The pair is gone, Fuller to the Ravens and Callahan to the Chargers.

Denver is arguably stronger this season with the addition of nickel corner K'Waun Williams, paired with outside corner Ronald Darby, veteran standout strong safety Kareem Jackson and stars Justin Simmons and Pat Surtain. To be fair, it would be a stretch to place this group first, but it should be in the top 10. The PFF list was as follows: Ravens, Buccaneers, Browns, Packers, Dolphins, Bills, Saints, Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Titans and Broncos.

All of these secondaries brim with potential worthy of praise. The Broncos have a realistic chance to be in the top-five conversation at season's end if two things happen — the offense actually produces leads, forcing opponents to take more chances through the air, and the defensive backs get picky, picky.

The Broncos averaged 19.7 points per game a year ago, and scored one touchdown on the game's first possession, leaving Denver endlessly trailing. With Hackett and Wilson in charge, the number should jump to 25 points per game, if not 28. That means more opportunities for takeaways, and, specifically, interceptions.

Denver finished with 13 last season — nine by Simmons and Surtain — ranking 15th in the league. They recovered six fumbles, tied for 26th. Their 19 takeaways, knotted for 21st.

Simply put, that's not good enough.

Simmons, the game's best center fielder, and Surtain, better with a year to study opponents, are ascending players with All-Pro accolades within reach. For this secondary to take a step forward under new defensive boss Ejiro Evero, Ronald Darby and K'Waun Williams must deliver.

General manager George Paton signed Darby before last season to serve as a No. 1 corner. He brings championship pedigree, having won a ring with the Eagles.

He stated the Pro Bowl as his goal when arriving. It never materialized as Darby dealt with a hamstring injury. What we learned is that Darby, even as a vet, needs practice reps. He was rusty when he returned. Healthy now, he must get his hands on the ball. Darby averages one pick every 10 games in his career, but has zero in his last 30 and one in his previous 36. That has to change, especially if quarterbacks begin shying away from the Saran Wrap-tight coverage of Surtain.

Williams brings a big-play resume with sacks on blitzes. But can he contribute a few picks? He has one in his last 33 regular-season games.

This defense will provide more chances, particularly if Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory find synchronicity as pass rushers. Jackson owns two interceptions in his last 32 games. That number is functional given that his job is to inspire more fear than the villain in "Stranger Things."

Why are Simmons and Surtain so important? They catch like receivers. Simmons has 21 career picks, including 10 in his last 31 games. His five last season tied for first among safeties. Surtain produced four in 16 games as a rookie. The talent is real with this group, and could get a boost from Michael Ojemudia in dime coverage after his impressive growth in OTAs and minicamp.

"We see what we have. We know the opportunity that we have. But we have to put it out on the field. It has to translate to wins," Simmons told Denver7 this offseason. "We have to take it in full force and run with it. Whatever it looks like to get a win. We want to start stacking up wins to host playoff games and get back to those title games."

To be discussion to be a first-place team, the secondary clearly cannot reside outside the spotlight.