ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Blame Peyton Manning. Or Tom Brady. Or Drew Brees. Or the Greatest Show on Turf. Or anyone else who has piled up the passing yards and touchdowns on the way to a throw-first mindset.
But no matter who made it this way, cornerback is now a high-value position. Not the level of franchise quarterback value, but evidence points toward a bull market on the rise after every pass-happy game.
Or as Denver Broncos general manager George Paton put it: “It’s a space and cover league, and you just can never have enough corners. That’s the reality, that's a fact and it’s not going anywhere.’’
Scan all that happens Sunday when the Broncos face the New York Jets in Empower Field at Mile High and it won’t take long to realize Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II and Jets cornerback Ahmad “Sauce’’ Gardner are now on the poster of what every defense needs. They are do-it-all cornerbacks, tossed into the lineup from the moment they are handed a helmet.
In the 30 NFL drafts held between 1980 and 2009, there were 14 years when no cornerback was selected among the top 10 picks -- 46.7% of the time. In the 13 NFL drafts since, there have been only three years when no cornerback was selected in the top 10 -- 23% of the time.
A year before acquiring Russell Wilson, Paton selected Surtain with the ninth pick of the 2021 draft, passing up Justin Fields, Mac Jones and tackle Rashawn Slater to make Surtain the second defensive player off the board.
Gardner, meanwhile, was the fourth pick of this year’s draft as Jets general manager Joe Douglas used the first of his two first-round picks to select Gardner in front of every quarterback on the board. Gardner was the fourth defensive player selected among the top four selections and the second cornerback off the board, behind No. 3 Houston Texans pick Derek Stingley Jr.
“It’s pretty clear when you’re on defense, you need those guys more than ever,’’ said Broncos safety Kareem Jackson, who spent his first nine seasons as a CB after he was selected 20th in the 2010 draft. “Mentally you have to be prepared for every mistake to be a potential touchdown and physically you have to do all of the things it takes to even play there. That’s why guys like [Surtain] are rare but coveted.’’
Surtain has already been matched up against some of the league’s best by Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. Through six weeks on the season, has battled Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf, San Francisco 49ers WR Deebo Samuel and Las Vegas Raiders WR Davante Adams -- none of whom scored a touchdown. Only Adams had more than 80 receiving yards against Denver.
“I think that’s probably as good as it gets covering [Adams],’’ Evero said. “He’s probably the best receiver in the league and [Surtain] did a good job and stood toe-to-toe.’’
Surtain, having taken many of his cues from his father Patrick Surtain, a longtime NFL defensive back and current Dolphins assistant coach, as well as Alabama coach Nick Saban, presents a reserved exterior. Teammates say he acts like “a 10-year vet,’’ as fellow CB Ronald Darby put it.
Gardner has started all six of the Jets' games as a rookie and played every snap in four of them. The Jets play zone roughly 60% to 70% of the time, but Gardner is active with eight pass break-ups to go with an interception against the Miami Dolphins in Week 5.
The rookie, who did not surrender a touchdown in 37 career games at the University of Cincinnati, has also played without many rough edges. He's been flagged just twice for pass interference, one of which was declined.
“He’s an interesting young man, Sauce is,’’ said Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, “A lot of youngsters, they get overwhelmed. They get overwhelmed by the moment at times. I haven’t seen that from him. You say something like that to him and it’s like he lights up. … He’s just built that way.’’
Gardner donned a cheesehead hat after the Jets’ win over the Green Bay Packers last week – Packers wide receiver Alan Lazard eventually swatted it off Gardner’s head -- and dropped $50,000, to teammate D.J. Reed for his No. 1 jersey.
“He's very talented,’’ Lazard said. “Sauce, that's a cool name, too. I can't be mad. It's just a little competitive spirit. Nothing too harmful in that aspect or anything. I'm sure he probably would've done the same thing if I was wearing a Jets hat or helmet walking off their field.’’
And between the lines, players like Surtain and Gardner, who can start, survive and flourish immediately at the position in the current climate are no longer players GMs will wait very long to select.
“Last year’s draft was about Patrick Surtain, our whole building fell in love with him, and we were going to take him no matter who was there,’’ Paton sad. “ … That’s how you have to look at defense, how you construct a big part of your team.’’
After six weeks there are already four quarterbacks who have topped 1,700 passing yards – Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen, Indianapolis Colts QB Matt Ryan, Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert. Allen has thrown for a league-leading 1,980 yards (330 yards per game average), a pace, with the benefit of a 17th game, that would surpass Peyton Manning's single-season record of 5,477.
Quarterbacks have topped 5,000 passing yards in a season only 12 times in a 16-game schedule, 11 of those since 2008, while Tom Brady and Justin Herbert did it last year in the first 17-game season.
“Look, when I came in [the league in 1999], you wanted to have good corners, it’s always been important, but now it’s a whole other level,’’ Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey said. “Every 5,000-yard passing year since (Hall of Famer Dan) Marino's is like in the last 12, 14 years, I think. Because now, it's wide open, everybody is in three wide on offense, everybody is in the nickel on defense and you’ve got minimum three corners on the field almost all the time. Then all three of those guys have to survive when you can’t put hands on anybody any more and your top guy has to go against the best receivers. And, well, if you don’t have the matchup guy, you can’t play defense. A guy like Pat, I’ve said, is phenomenal, that kind of player, because he impacts every decision you make on defense.’’
Rich Cimini contributed to this report.