<
>

Countdown to camp: Defensive backs

7/21/2014

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the first time in a decade, players will exit one of two doors to the Denver Broncos' training room that feed into the locker room and cornerback Champ Bailey won't be the guy whose locker is directly in front of them.

That's because after 10 seasons since the blockbuster trade that sent Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins and brought Bailey and second-round draft pick (eventually running back Tatum Bell) to the Broncos, Bailey won't be in Broncos' gear. After an injury-marred 2013 season for Bailey, the Broncos released the 12-time Pro Bowl selection without an offer to take a pay cut and stay.

Bailey signed with the New Orleans Saints, and while he didn't play much in the Broncos' run to the Super Bowl last season -- 188 snaps on defense over the course of five games in the regular season -- he has been the foundation at the position for the team, a sort of cornerback Google for any and all queries.

"I think we all went to Champ when we had questions about anything," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "People always talk about how Champ played and all that, but he saw everything on the field, he knew what offenses were going to do, what receivers were going to do. And he would always help. We all were better for that."

Bailey's departure marked the beginning of the makeover in the team's secondary and the position got plenty of high-dollar attention in free agency when the Broncos signed cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Both are physical players who the Broncos believe will improve the athleticism of their secondary overall.

They should also improve the tackling behind the front seven as well, a significant problem last season with Bailey ailing since Bailey had been a top-tier tackler for the team. Talib and Ward will have to help a young group overall, but Harris Jr., in just his third season, is suddenly the sounding board for many because of his experience in the defense, having played both outside and in the slot.

"Maybe, a lot of people don't know my face because I didn't come in with first-round hype or anything like that, maybe any hype," Harris Jr. said. "Maybe people are just starting to get know me. But here I want to help the guys, I'm ready to be there."

It's all part of a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team as training camp approaches.

Today: Defensive backs.

How many coming to camp: 17.

How many will the Broncos keep: When Bailey was injured in the preseason loss in Seattle last August, it set in motion a mix-and-match kind of year for the Broncos. In the end, the Broncos also elected to carry Bailey on the roster rather than place him on injured reserve as he continued to try to work his way back for most of the season.

As a result the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs in their initial cut to 53 -- six cornerbacks and five safeties, including Omar Bolden who was moved from cornerback to safety. That was up from the 10 they kept in 2012 and nine in 2011.

They figure to come down at either nine or 10 this season, depending on how the special teams duties get sorted out. Harris Jr., who is coming off ACL surgery will see Dr. James Andrews in the coming days to see when he will be cleared for full duty in training camp and into the regular season.

Harris Jr. said his timetable is still a return to full practice participation by the halfway mark of the preseason and that he still expects to be in the starting lineup for the regular-season opener. The Broncos figure to start Harris Jr. and Talib in the base defense and want rookie Bradley Roby to come in for the nickel at Harris Jr.'s outside spot so Harris Jr. can then move down into the slot.

The battle for the fifth cornerback spot and Tony Carter will have a tall order to hold off a group of bigger cornerbacks the Broncos brought in to try to find at least one to stick on the depth chart.

Safety is crowded with Ward, Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter having gotten plenty of work with the regulars in offseason workouts while David Bruton was the team's special teams captain last season. Bolden could help his own cause if he can show some value in the return game as well.

Break it down: If Harris Jr.'s knee holds up and Roby shows himself to be ready for plenty of work in the nickel -- the Broncos played nickel on 66 percent of their snaps on defense last season -- they will have a physical, athletic secondary to stand up against opposing passing attacks even with yet another crackdown expected on defensive holding and pass interference from the league officials.

Talib hasn't played 16 games in a season in his career and any player returning from ACL surgery will always have a few question marks in tow, so the Broncos do have some hurdles to clear. For his part, Ward will almost certainly prove to fit what the Broncos do on defense. And he should compete for a Pro Bowl spot given the Broncos will move him all over the field to get him around the ball, including some work at weak-side linebacker in some of their specialty packages.

All in all, opposing quarterbacks should find a Broncos defense more able to disrupt the timing of an offense and a better ability to limit plays down the field than it did last season.