Broncos' secondary needs serious help before 2021 NFL season

The Broncos are wafer-thin at cornerback and face the possibility of remaking an entire secondary if some big checks don't get written. Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- While Drew Lock's future at quarterback and Von Miller's future at linebacker are already discussion in full swirl early in this Denver Broncos' offseason, a very real down-to-down football problem is staring the team in the face as well.

The Broncos are wafer-thin at cornerback and face the possibility of remaking an entire secondary if some big checks don't get written.

"Those are things [general manager] George [Paton] will have to look at," said Broncos president of football operations John Elway.

Cornerback A.J. Bouye, who missed the final four games of this season and will miss the first two games of 2021 due to a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, faces an uncertain future and could potentially be released. Cornerback Bryce Callahan, who was playing some of the best football in his career before he injured his foot this season, has now missed 22 games over the past two seasons with injuries.

Cornerback Michael Ojemudia just had knee surgery, and while the Broncos expect him to recover in time for training camp he leads a long list of Broncos cornerbacks now coming back from surgery. The team went through a stretch as November turned to December when it lost five cornerbacks in three weeks.

And at safety, the Broncos have financial decisions to make with a team option on Kareem Jackson's contract for 2021 while Justin Simmons is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

The Broncos must make the secondary a priority in the weeks and months to come, a notion Vic Fangio addressed just few weeks ago when asked about evaluating college cornerbaks.

"The ball is being thrown much more in college football than it ever has been," Fangio said. "Now, a lot of it is the short stuff, but you do see corners in today's college game being challenged more, whether it be short, intermediate and deep, and having to tackle more."

The Broncos finished tied for 23rd in the league with just 10 interceptions on defense in 2020, and were plagued by the most interceptions on offense which led to an NFL-worst minus-16 in turnover margin.

Residing in a division with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and rising star Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, a player such as Alabama's Patrick Surtain II could be a possibility in the first round of next April's draft, where the Broncos currently have the No. 9 pick.

Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley is another who could receive a top-20 grade.

The moment Callahan went to injured reserve in early December the Broncos' plan unraveled in the secondary and gave a glimpse of how much work it may take to fix it. Bouye was suspended soon after as Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson and Kevin Toliver each tore an ACL in that three-week span. It means Callahan, Bassey, Ojemudia, Dawson and Toliver are all in the early stages of their injury rehabs as the Broncos have to make decisions about what to with the depth chart.

"One thing with losing Bryce, we lost some versatility in our secondary," Fangio said.

At safety, Jackson will turn 33 in April and has an option bonus in his contract that must be picked up before the start of the new league year in March. Simmons would potentially be one of the most coveted defensive players on the open market if the Broncos don't finish a long-term deal or try to use the franchise player tag once again.

Simmons has played every defensive snap in each of the last three years, fits Fangio's scheme and everyone seems to want him back, but there's a lot of work yet to do before getting his signature.

"It's just uncertain what the future holds -- just being truthful with this next season," Simmons said. "I've always talked about wanting to be here. I hope it's mutual and all that stuff. We just have to -- I don't know, see. Like I said to start, I just want to choose my words wisely. I'm still a little raw and emotional about the season ending."

Bottom line: The team's top safety is a pending free agent with every cornerback who started a game -- except Parnell Motley, who started the finale -- either coming back from injury or a suspension in Bouye's case. Just another item on Paton's radar.

"George has a vision, he wants to build the team through the draft as we all do," Fangio said earlier this week. "There are other avenues to improve the team, and they are well versed at that in Minnesota. George was right in the middle of all that. We'll explore all values and all avenues to improve the team."