Broncos roster breakdown: Defensive backs

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine now underway and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the eighth installment of a series looking at where the Denver Broncos stand at each position group on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Defensive backs
Saturday: Specialists

There is no spot on the Broncos' depth chart that needs more attention or faces more potential turnover than the secondary.

The Broncos have six defensive backs who are in line for free agency, either as unrestricted or restricted free agents, and the team could be facing some kind of decision over Champ Bailey's future as well. So the Broncos may have to give the secondary a little more attention in the early part of the draft. And that's not something they've done that much over the past 25 years, especially in the first round.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Champ Bailey
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesWith Champ Bailey set to turn 36 before the season, the Broncos need an infusion of youth at cornerback.
The Broncos selected cornerbacks in the first round in back-to-back drafts in 2000 and 2001 -- Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks, respectively -- and have not taken a cornerback in the opening round since. In the three drafts under John Elway's watch, the Broncos selected cornerback Kayvon Webster in the third round of the 2013 draft and Omar Bolden in the fourth round in 2012 -- Bolden has since moved to safety. The last safety the Broncos selected in the first round of the draft was Steve Atwater in 1989.

In a passing-first league, the Broncos have plenty of questions to answer when it comes to slowing down opposing quarterbacks.

The Alpha: It has, for the last decade, been Bailey. But he played in just five games during the 2013 regular season due to a foot injury, and he's now approaching his 36th birthday. Bailey has a $10 million salary-cap figure for the coming season, something the Broncos are expected to try to address in the coming weeks. After Bailey, Chris Harris Jr. has steadily evolved from undrafted rookie in 2011 to a leader in the secondary due to the competitiveness and toughness in his game.

Salary cap: Bailey leads the way in what is the final year of his current contract. Webster is the only other cornerback who finished the past season on the 53-man roster and is under contract for 2014. He has a $641,950 cap figure. At safety David Bruton leads the way at $1.65 million with Rahim Moore at $1.415 million, Quinton Carter at $758,750 and Bolden at $688,607.

Pending free agents: The list is long and full of regulars. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, safety Michael Huff and cornerback Quentin Jammer are all unrestricted free agents while Harris and cornerback Tony Carter are restricted free agents. Safety Duke Ihenacho is an exclusive rights free agent who can only negotiate with the Broncos.

Who could stay: The Broncos could make Rodgers-Cromartie some kind of offer. The Broncos also got more out of him than he showed in his time in Philadelphia, so they have enhanced Rodgers-Cromartie's potential in the open market as well.

They are expected to tender Harris, who is working his way back from recent ACL surgery, with enough attached compensation to chase any potential suitors away. The Broncos believe he will return from his injury to his former place in the lineup and that's significant since he plays in both the Broncos' base defense and all of the specialty packages.

Who could go: They will have some competition for Rodgers-Cromartie that could affect their ability to bring him back. But they are expected to let Jammer, Adams and Huff test the market. Adams would be a consideration to return if he doesn't have a deal in place after the initial wave of free agency.

Adams started 23 regular-season games for the Broncos in the past two seasons, including seven in 2013. He's a quality player in the locker room and understands the team's scheme, but the team will look hard to add more speed and athleticism at the position.

What they like/want: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is always willing to mix-and-match several personnel groupings to address what's happening across the line of scrimmage from his defense.

And he will have some new faces in the secondary in the coming season. The Broncos will need to have enough speed and athleticism in coverage to deal with the three-wide-receiver sets they'll face, but they will need options to play the run as well.

The schedule rotation means they will make the lap through the NFC West next season. Though they defended the run with effectiveness in the Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks -- one of the few things that went right -- they will likely have to play more run looks in 2014 to be in position to play for the title again. In 2013, they had just two games in the regular season -– wins over Washington and Tennessee -- where they were in their base defense for more snaps than they were in their specialty looks (five, six or seven defensive backs).

But overall, Broncos head coach John Fox, a secondary coach when he broke into the league on Hall of Famer Chuck Noll's staff, prefers coverage players with enough reach and size to match up with the bigger receivers in the league and some of the bigger cornerbacks on this draft board will get a long look.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 5

It is the position of highest need on the roster. The Broncos have two cornerbacks under contract at the moment, one of those being Bailey, and four safeties.

Two of those safeties, Moore and Carter, were on injured reserve this past season. And Carter has played just three games over the past two seasons because of injuries.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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