Broncos' Secondary Has Gone From Weakness To Strength In '21

Denver Broncos cornerback Ronald Darby takes part in drills during an NFL football training camp at the team's headquarters Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos cornerback Ronald Darby takes part in drills during an NFL football training camp at the team's headquarters Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — George Paton inherited a snakebitten secondary when he succeeded John Elway as the Denver Broncos general manager last winter.

Now, it's the Broncos' biggest strength heading into their opener at the Meadowlands against the New York Giants on Sunday.

The Broncos stumbled to another losing season in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic and an injury epidemic combined to throttle the team's efforts to break out of their prolonged funk.

Nowhere were they hit harder than in the defensive backfield, where they lost cornerbacks Bryce Callahan (foot), Essang Bassey (knee) and A.J. Bouye (suspension) in December.

Paton signed cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency, then bypassed QBs Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the NFL draft to select Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick.

Callahan regained his health and form this offseason and Paton also re-signed safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons and drafted Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson as their backups.

“I feel much, much better,” coach Vic Fangio said recently when asked about his pass defenders that should add oomph to Denver's reunited pass rushing partners Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

Miller and Chubb are preparing for their first game together since Sept. 29, 2019, when Chubb blew out a knee that ended his season. Miller missed all of last season with a dislocated tendon in his left ankle.

Fangio didn't have to plead for Paton to make the scrambled secondary priority No. 1 this offseason.

“He went through the same thing we went through last year at Minnesota,” Fangio said. “We both have our scars from that."

Last year in Minneapolis, where Paton was assistant GM and VP of player personnel, the Vikings released Xavier Rhodes for salary cap savings and let fellow starters Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander leave as free agents.

They drafted Jeff Gladney in the first round and Cam Dantzler in the third round, but Dantzler had trouble staying healthy and both rookies were behind after the pandemic took away much of the offseason program.

Mike Hughes, the 2018 first-round draft pick who would’ve been in line to land atop the depth chart, again struggled with injuries and appeared in only four games. At one point in the season, the Vikings weren’t playing any cornerbacks older than 25.

Paton changed teams in the offseason but found the Broncos had a similarly scrambled secondary, one that he quickly fixed.

Miller always blusters over the Broncos' prospects, but this year his words hit different because of the depth and speed on this roster.

“In one year, George Paton, he’s done an incredible job," Miller said. "All the guys that are out here, you can just tell he has his own touch with all these guys. All these guys have a purpose. All these guys are good. All these guys can play. We've got dogs at every single position.

“We’ve done a great job fielding this team and I’m excited to see what we can do.”

What they'll finally be able to do, they believe, is throttle the league's elite tight ends thanks to Surtain, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound rookie who had a pick-6 in his Broncos debut last month.

“I love that guy, by the way,” Miller said. “Pat Surtain, he's going to be on (Chiefs tight end Travis) Kelce and (Raiders tight end Darren) Waller and all those guys. So, I'm excited. We've got a great team and it should lead to a lot of wins for us this year.”

NOTES: Fangio said Chubb (ankle) and TE Noah Fant (leg), who returned to practice Monday, are expected to play next weekend. ... Jackson, Simmons and Miller were elected co-captains by their teammates along with Brandon McManus, Teddy Bridgewater and Courtland Sutton. ... The Broncos signed WR De’Mornay Pierson-El to their practice squad a week after cutting him Pierson-El was on the Raiders’ practice squad from 2019-20.

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AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Minnesota contributed to this story.

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