ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Call it the sign of the times, but this year’s NFL scouting combine featured the biggest of finishes.
When the annual workout festival wrapped up in Indianapolis earlier this week, it was believed to be the largest group of defensive backs ever assembled at the event -- 70 in all.
In a pass-first league that just featured the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history, things have reached a threat level of red for defenses. And consider the search on, more than ever, for more players who can cover the pass-catchers flooding the field.
“It’s a bunch of corners that can play,” said Broncos coach Vance Joseph, a former defensive backs coach. “I want guys that can play press-man. That is what we do. We want guys with great long speed and great length so they can press and run with guys. It’s a draft full of those guys this year.”
Consider the Broncos one of those teams in a position of need, especially if they part ways with cornerback Aqib Talib to get the $11 million in salary-cap space his departure would create. However, the gap left behind in the defense would be significant given in his four seasons with the Broncos Talib has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of those years, has had six interception returns for touchdowns and he has been at least tied for the team lead in interceptions in three of those seasons.
Talib is the player who allowed the Broncos to consistently move Chris Harris Jr. into the slot – where many in the league consider him the best in the league – and to use Bradley Roby on No. 2 and No. 3 receivers on the outside when the Broncos went to their five- and six-defensive back packages. Talib was then matched on the opposing offense’s biggest receiver or top pass-catcher on the outside.
But even with Talib, the Broncos are also coming off a season when they struggled to keep opposing receivers out of the end zone, especially when the defense was asked to deal with subpar field position as it tried to respond to the bevy of Broncos’ turnovers on offense.
Or as president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it at the scouting combine: “I’d like to see us respond a little better after turnovers. I don’t think we responded very well. ... Because it happened so many times, that probably had a lot to do with it.”
Overall, despite yet another finish among the league’s top five in total defense – they were No. 3 – only four teams surrendered more touchdown passes this past season than the Broncos’ 29, a big reason Denver finished 22nd in scoring defense, having allowed 23.9 points per game. Opponents scored 142 points – 8.9 per game – on drives immediately following the Broncos’ turnovers on offense.
It has the Broncos with an especially keen eye directed toward the defensive backs in this draft. They believe Roby, a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, is ready to be a full-time starter should they release or try to trade Talib. That would put Roby and Harris as the starters in the base defense with help needed, as in rookies who can compete to play, when they go to their situational personnel groupings.
At the top of this year’s board are potential rookie starters with plenty of chops in coverage in Alabama safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, Florida State safety Derwin James, Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes, Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander, Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, LSU cornerback Donte Jackson, Colorado cornerback Isaiah Oliver and Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison just to get started among the draft's top 50 players or so.
With 10 picks, the Broncos might even have to use more than one of those picks on potential fits in the secondary. In Elway’s tenure – seven previous drafts -- the Broncos have used two picks in a draft class on defensive backs three times, but have not used three or more picks in one draft class on the position.
“That’s where the league is,” Joseph said. “ ... It’s now a league where you’re playing in space with receivers who line up anywhere in the formation. You’re always going to want those cover guys to give you solutions.”