Moments after the final gun sounded, signaling the end of Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver Broncos Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway wasted no time showing his disgust with the effort of his team on the game’s biggest stage. He and the Broncos’ front office threw down the gauntlet in the opening hours of the 2014 free agency period and immediately started overhauling what they believed to be the Achilles heel of the team: the defense. While I am not totally in agreement that defense was largely to blame for the Super Bowl embarrassment, I definitely understand that there is a need for upgrades. The Broncos have addressed some of these needs, and others, in free agency with cornerback, Aqib Talib, safety, T.J. Ward, DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware, offensive linemen, Winston Justice and Will Montgomery, and wide receiver, Emmanual Sanders. Denver still needs a middle linebacker or two and quality depth on the offensive line. However, in this edition of my mission, I am spotlighting the cornerback position (what a poet).
With the departure of Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and the unknown injury status of Chris Harris, Jr (ACL tear), the cornerback position has all of a sudden become a major concern and subsequently a focus for the Broncos’ brass. Even though Denver’s draft position is at the end of each round (31 , 63, 95, 131, 171, 207, and 246), there is still value to be had..at least on paper. The dilemma becomes whether or not they should prioritize CB or ILB. For the sake of this enlightening article (if I do say so myself), we’ll assume the answer to that is CB.
1st RD) Jason Verrett, TCU
Strengths: Verrett displays very good footwork and fluid hips which allow him to change direction and close on receivers more quickly. He’s an aggressive defender who doesn’t give ground at the point of attack. He displays football smarts and quality ball-hawking skills. He was also an asset on special teams at TCU, making several big plays. Jason’s special teams prowess may be equally as attractive to the Broncos as his cover corner skills.
Weaknesses: Verrett’s size is an issue (5’9″, 189 lbs). He does not possess the height and length that is becoming the prototype in today’s NFL. We saw, first hand, what big, strong, quick, physical corners can do to an elite receiving corps. And since this is a copy-cat league, he doesn’t measure up to the likes of Richard Sherman, et al. His frame limits him in relation to how much he can actually fill out. Jason has a tendency to play a little undisciplined and is not a good fundamental tackler. One of the things that’s an asset is also a liability. His aggressiveness and tight play on receivers makes him susceptible to penalties.
If cornerback, Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech or ILB C.J. Mosley from Alabama should fall to 31 in the first round, I believe therein lies the greater value. However, Verrett is still a good buy at that spot and most of his weaknesses can be tweaked with proper coaching.
3nd/4th RD) Dontae Johnson, N.C. State
Strengths: Unlike Verrett, Johnson has no problem in the size department (6’2″, 200 lbs). Like Verrett, he has good footwork and balance. He is versatile as he has played corner, safety, nickel, and special teams. In fact, he played in all 12 of N.C. States games in 2013 (5 at corner and 7 at safety). He has a propensity to shed blocks well and is a solid tackler.
Weaknesses: Johnson is described as having short arms and small hands (keep your comments to yourselves). He’s a bit lanky and needs to put on some muscle mass. His read and react skills leave a little to be desired and he tends to take bad angles in coverage. Unfortunately, we know all too well about DBs taking bad angles (NO! I will not let it go!). Johnson’s ball protection skills don’t stand out enough like an elite corner, such as Champ Bailey in his prime.
I think that Dontae Johnson might be available to the Broncos in RD 4 (131 overall). If drafted, he will (likely) eventually be moved to safety unless he tightens up the aforementioned weaknesses. And that might not be a bad thing as he appears to have the raw skills to be a good run support guy in the box.
5th RD) E.J. Gaines, Missouri
Strengths: It doesn’t seem consistent with conventional wisdom that a guy who was voted 1st team all SEC would be projected in the 5th round, but that is where the pundits and experts have E.J. Gaines slotted. He compiled 75 tackles and 5 interceptions, playing in all but two games (leg injury) in 2013. Remember, this Mizzou defense led the Tigers to the SEC Championship game and Gaines was a big part of that success. He has a prototypical body frame for the modern day corner. He supports the run well and is a veracious hitter. He possesses good competitive energy, good route recognition, and offers value on special teams; both kick return and coverage teams.
Weaknesses: Like Johnson, he has short arms. Unlike Johnson, he is a little on the short side at 5’10″. Gaines does not have fluid hips, which is important when it comes to adjusting to route hitches. He lacks good closing speed and burst. He doesn’t shed blocks too well and most of his interceptions in college came via the tipped or overthrown ball.
If E.J. Gaines falls to the 5th round (171 overall), it could be another value pick for Denver. And depending on who is available in the 4th rd, he might still be of decent value if selected there; so long as a there is not greater value at another position of need. Gaines could be an asset on special teams, and due to his college experience, in the nickel.
There are other cornerbacks certainly worth taking a look at. However, the likelihood that these guys are on the board when the Broncos select is not favorable.
Remember when reading about these world class athletes that both the strengths and weaknesses are relative. I believe that these guys are as capable of being an asset or assets to the Broncos or any other team which might draft them…and so do the experts.