'He's phenomenal': Why Broncos CB Pat Surtain II is drawing rave reviews

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Patrick Surtain tried to recall the moment he first noticed his son, Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II, possessed an unusual calm in the face of sports mayhem, and one memory from a high school game stood out.

"The quarterback is avoiding him all day, he's getting no action, and finally the kid throws one over there and completes it, right in front of Pat,” said the elder Surtain, who is a former 11-year NFL veteran and first-team All-Pro with the Miami Dolphins. “And his face never changed. He never made an excuse, didn't even blink.

“It wasn't a touchdown or anything, but there was just something about that moment where it hit me just how calm he was. And I think that still serves him well and always will, especially at that position where your mistakes are touchdowns.''

Others have made the same observation about Surtain, from teammates to all-time greats. Surtain is a 22-year-old cornerback who the Broncos hope can help lead the franchise from the no-playoff wilderness where it has wandered for the last six seasons. And if the Broncos are going to achieve their lofty goals this season, especially after a rocky 1-1 start, they’ll need Surtain to continue his ascension into an elite cornerback.

The next step is Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), although Surtain suffered a left shoulder injury in the Broncos’ win over the Houston Texans in Week 2, and after returning to practice Thursday, his status is listed as questionable.

“[He’s] always the same,” said Broncos safety Kareem Jackson, now in his 13th season. “Work, study, games, same approach, he’s like a 10-year vet in that 22-year-old body. Patient, calm, no matter what.’’

The elder Surtain isn’t surprised.

"I think he's just always been that way, going back to when he was very young,'' said Surtain, who is now an assistant coach with the Dolphins. "He just seemed, even as a young, young person where nothing really bothered him, and it really didn't bother him, he wasn't covering anything up.''

Champ Bailey was long the calmest face in the crowd on any football field. All of the physical attributes a cornerback needed to flourish with unwavering confidence.

Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once said: “Champ didn't talk after plays, he didn’t say anything, no matter what anybody said to him because he didn’t have to. He knew you didn’t catch the ball in front of him anyway.’’

Bailey is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and like many of the best defensive backs, he has studied Surtain with the benefit of experience and a growing anticipation of where his career might lead.

“Patience is hard, because everything about the job demands you go fast and be explosive,’’ Bailey said. “But there is that element of patience, of when to do something, of how you move with the receiver without surrendering your balance and your positioning.

“All you have to do is watch him play and you see it. I’ll tell you, I love to watch that young guy play. That’s it, I guess that’s the bottom line, I love to watch that young guy play. You know what he is? He’s phenomenal.’’

From the moment he was the Broncos’ first-round pick – ninth overall – in the 2021 draft, Surtain has shown he plays well beyond his years.

"I think from a competitive standpoint, he's churning in there, because he doesn't want anybody to catch a pass on him,'' the elder Surtain said. "But that demeanor, the way he approaches it, that's how he wants to play, that's how he wants to be.''

Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who was an assistant with the Rams last year, remembers noticing Surtain’s demeanor leading into the draft.

“There is that composure at the snap, composure at the catch point,” Evero said. “There is no panic in his game.’’

Surtain is 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, tall for a cornerback – “long’’ as the scouts would say. He was one of the fastest players on the draft board at his position (a 4.42-second 40-yard dash in his pre-draft workout) and Alabama coach Nick Saban called him one of the smartest players he had ever coached.

Surtain's father said he always tried to teach his son the nuts-and-bolts elements of the position from an early age, even as Surtain piled up sports trophies of all kinds to go with an array of track and field medals.

Bailey breaks the position down into a handful of essential elements and said Surtain, unlike most young cornerbacks, is already proficient at all of them -- "as complete as I've seen in a long time, and that's before you even get to his length, speed and the rest of it.''

Bailey pointed out Surtain's footwork in the Broncos' season-opening loss to the Seahawks when DK Metcalf attempted a double move early in the game, and Surtain smoothly matched Metcalf''s movements without getting his own feet tangled while the ball went somewhere else.

His length prevents most wide receivers from pushing him away because his hands are already on them, and they can't reach him. And he plays with enough self awareness not to get in a wrestling match at the line of scrimmage with the bigger receivers.

And when the speed receivers try to leave him behind, "he understands the spacing, where he needs to be with the route recognition to know where they are going to go, and he has enough of his own speed to get there,'' Bailey said. "And he's tall, but he's not a long-strider, they can't just duck in on him because he can't get his hips around.''

Surtain started 15 games as a rookie last season and finished with 58 tackles, four interceptions and 14 passes defensed – totals that earned him a spot on multiple all-rookie teams. And when he limited Metcalf to 36 yards receiving on seven catches, some of the best-known defensive backs weighed in on Twitter.

Darius Slay called him “one of the best press technicians in the game,” and Richard Sherman tweeted that he looks like a 10-year vet. Asante Samuel said “you are going to be a great player in the NFL.’’

“The technique, the patience, the anticipation,’’ Bailey said. “He moves fast, but he’s never in a hurry ... and his combination of size – no matter what any receiver tells you, that size has got to be a little intimidating – the speed, the patience, an obvious head for the game. You don’t see that in somebody that young.

“He’s doing things now, in his approach, with his technique, I really didn’t do until my fourth or fifth year. He will play as long and be as good as health allows him to be.''

For his part, Surtain usually accepts those compliments with a courteous nod, often says it is “exciting’’ and that he tries to “embrace the idea guys of that caliber like what you do, so it gives you a little bit of confidence.’’

Evero said he has no hesitation asking Surtain to line up against the league’s best at wide receiver. After matching up with Metcalf, Surtain covered the Texans’ Brandin Cooks until the injury.

“I think his demeanor shouldn’t be confused with a lack of intensity,’’ Evero said. “You see, in his play, there is a lot of fire, his personality is such he isn’t going to show that intensity on his face, it’s in how he plays.’’