Broncos nickel cornerback shines in season debut with starting opportunity

How well did starting slot cornerback Essang Bassey play in his 2023 season debut?

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos / Justin Edmonds/GettyImages

Among many things that went wrong for the Denver Broncos' defense during their season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, starting nickelback Essang Bassey can proudly say he was one of the few strengths that held the secondary together throughout the entire game. The former undrafted free agent CB out of Wake Forest was nothing short of excellent matching up against two premiere route runners in WRs Hunter Renfrow and Davante Adams.

Earlier in the offseason, projected starting slot cornerback K'Waun Williams underwent surgery on his left ankle after receiving a second medical opinion on the ankle injury he suffered in a practice in early August. The Broncos then turned to fourth-year CB Essang Bassey as their temporary starter during training camp and preseason while Williams would recover with the hope of playing in the season opener. However, after his recovery did not go as planned, the Broncos placed their veteran starting nickel back on the short-term IR, officially ruling him out for the first four weeks of the season.

Meanwhile, Bassey had strung together a very impressive preseason with an interception in all three consecutive games including a few outstanding performances during joint practices with the Los Angeles Rams. Heading into the regular season, there was a large portion of disbelief and lack of optimism regarding Bassey's ability to start in the NFL. Dating back to his rookie season in 2020, Bassey has always served as an average coverage player in the secondary with an exceptional job of sticking his nose in the run game and making tackles at the line of scrimmage. However, the question has always remained: Can the 25-year-old corner perform at a high level?

Boy did he answer that on Sunday.

Lining up against two of the league's most established route runners at the receiver position, Essang Bassey allowed a total of zero yards in pass coverage. Yes, you read that right. According to Pro Football Reference, Raiders QB Jimmy Garoppolo did not target him a single time throughout all four quarters. Not even once. The play by Bassey on Sunday was All-Pro caliber play, especially against WR Davante Adams who excels in the slot and is arguably a top-three receiver in the game. Mind-blowing stuff.

Bassey may have only had two tackles but the film speaks for itself in terms of his coverage on that football field. In the preseason, he made it very clear that one of his strengths was ball-hawking in the secondary and even proved it throughout training camp. On the other hand, one of his clear weaknesses through his first three NFL seasons was covering receivers in man coverage. However, the Broncos' new starting slot CB appeared to be a whole different player out there on Sunday.


Assuming K'Waun Williams returns by Week 5 against the New York Jets, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and the Broncos will have a very tough decision to make. If Bassey continues to consistently perform at the level he displayed during the season opener, Denver may just have to keep him in there until he shows any signs of slowing down because why change something that is already working for you? This does not change the fact that the Broncos have an elite slot CB on their roster in Williams however, does not mean they can't have two.

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