Call it what you will, Broncos hope Su'a Cravens can do what's needed

Travis Kelce has had some career days against a Broncos defense that has problems matching up against the big tight end. AP Photo/Ed Zurga

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In trading for Su'a Cravens the Denver Broncos added a safety who hasn't played a regular-season game since December 2016 and who plays a position where both of the team's starters are still on the depth chart.

In fact Cravens says his best position is strong safety, where Justin Simmons happens to play for the Broncos. Though the Broncos consider their safeties interchangeable in the base defense, the bottom line is Simmons is simply one of the team's best emerging players.

At the other spot is Pro Bowl safety Darian Stewart, who has missed just one regular-season game in the past three seasons. So, at least until coach Vance Joseph or general manager John Elway says otherwise, the Broncos took a flyer on Cravens to help fill in at other areas of the defense.

"I feel like I'm a versatile player," Cravens said this week. "I think I'm a guy that can cover running backs and tight ends. I'm heavy in the run game and can blitz. Whatever they need me to do, I'll be ready to go."

The Broncos likely added Cravens to help cover the 63 percent of snaps they spend in something other than their base defense. When T.J. Ward had a similar role on the team, he would line up at safety or at weakside linebacker. He was tasked with covering running backs and tight ends and rushing the quarterback.

Though some of the Broncos' 2017 defensive numbers were good -- they finished No. 3 overall -- opposing tight ends and running backs did far too much damage in the passing game and the unit surrendered too many touchdown passes (29) as a whole. Last season, they allowed a league-high six touchdown receptions to opposing running backs and were one of just three teams to have surrendered at least 1,000 yards receiving to opposing tight ends. The nine scores they allowed to opposing tight ends tied the unit for fourth-most in the NFL.

Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods have said this matchup problem is "something we need to look at."

At his best, Cravens is an athletic, safety-linebacker hybrid who can play at different spots in a defense. But since the Redskins drafted him in the second round of the 2016 draft, injuries have limited Cravens to just three starts and a total of 11 games. He has been plagued by elbow and knee injuries and missed the 2017 season with a concussion.

Cravens said Monday he was medically cleared to return to the field in December.

"I think I'm a strong safety, but as far as where I think I'm the best, that's not really my call," Cravens said. "There are guys upstairs that get paid the big dollars to make those decisions, so wherever they decide to put me I'm just grateful to be on the field."

In AFC West play, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has been a particular thorn in the Broncos' side. Of Kelce's 12 career 100-yard receiving games, three have come against the Broncos, including a 133-yard effort last season. Two of Kelce's top three games -- 160 yards receiving on Christmas night in 2016 and last season's 133 -- have come against the Broncos.

"It's a matchup league," Joseph said. "... We want to be able to create, and deal with, the matchups we have."

"If you love football and you like to watch a defense that flies around, then you watch the Broncos," Cravens said. "From what I've seen last year and years prior to that, they play hard. Everybody flies to the ball, but it seems like everybody has fun. I want to be a part of an atmosphere that's energetic and guys that just want to win no matter how they get it done. I feel like that's what they have here."