Denver Broncos' secondary dripping with potential, but 'that's on paper'

Broncos rookie Pat Surtain II returns an interception 30 yards for a touchdown during a preseason game against the Vikings. AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Right now, all the Denver Broncos can do is line up hope, optimism and big plans in their defensive secondary. With every batted pass, interception and harmless incompletion at training camp, there's a lot to feel good about a season after losing five cornerbacks in a week.

But one rather large caveat remains.

"We do have a lot of talent on paper," safety Justin Simmons said. "Again, right now, that's on paper, on paper. ... And we want to take it from that and also play the best, I've said we want to be the best, no ifs and buts about it."

The Broncos' offseason makeover of their secondary was all-encompassing and could have a major impact on how things go during George Paton's first year as general manager.

The Broncos kept one of their core players, signing Simmons to a four-year, $61 million deal after he had played last season on the franchise tag. They also opened their checkbook in free agency, signing veteran cornerbacks Ronald Darby (three years, $30 million) and Kyle Fuller (one year, $9.5 million).

They reeled safety Kareem Jackson back in after the Broncos didn't engage an option year in his previous deal.

"I think we have a great group of guys here, coaching staff obviously, and this particular scheme that I'm able to play in here, for me it was key to be in a great scheme," Jackson said earlier in training camp. "So just coming back here where I'm comfortable -- been here the last two years. Not only that, I didn't want to move. Moving's a headache. Picking up and going to another city, that's not something I was ready to do. … I think we've got a lot of talent on this team, and we've got a lot of pieces in the right places to play some good ball and to get in the playoffs, and to make some noise this year."

And on draft day, Paton didn't trade down from the No. 9 spot, didn't pick a quarterback and added cornerback Pat Surtain II. The rookie has already shown, with uncommon maturity, he can be a movable player who allows Broncos coach Vic Fangio to actually use whatever defense he can dream up.

The group's talent is having an impact on the Broncos' quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater as well. Bridgewater said there was a noticeable difference against the Vikings in the preseason opener, as the Broncos ran several successful plays that had not worked nearly as well on the team's own defensive starters.

"You watch different guys go out there compete at a high level making plays, you sit back and you realize, man, the work we put in back in the spring, past couple of weeks meant something," Bridgewater said after he and Lock combined for 225 passing yards and three touchdowns in 37 snaps against the Vikings.

For the Broncos, the gold standard of secondary play is the "No Fly Zone" group from 2015 to 2017. The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 to close out the 2015 season after finishing No. 1 in the league in pass defense. They also finished No. 1 in 2016 and No. 4 in 2017.

Securing the secondary has been a chief concern for the Broncos, who play in a division ruled by Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes -- the Broncos haven't beaten the Chiefs since September 2015 -- and where all three of the division's other teams had a 4,000-yard passer last season.

"Having that many DBs out there -- first of all, we have to be capable to be able to do it," Jackson said. "With having Pat and having him be able to play the dime [six defensive backs] with the size that he has, long arms, a big corner, you can put him in there No. 3 on some tight ends. If they have four-wide, he can still play in the slot as well. I think we're a pretty versatile defense as far as our personnel, so I think that's going to be good for us this year."

It's all still on paper at the moment, with one preseason glimpse against the Vikings and another to come Saturday in Seattle. But there have been flashes, such as Surtain knocking one pass away against the Vikings and returning another for a pick-six.

"I just feel like all our guys are ballers," said cornerback Bryce Callahan. "I feel like if one guy goes down, the next guy will come up and we won't miss a beat. I feel like all of our guys can play."