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Offseason Priorities: Sorting Out Denver’s Secondary

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Champ Bailey seems to be pointing toward position switch from cornerback to safety for the Denver Broncos, who would benefit from that move and by restructuring his contract. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Champ Bailey seems to be pointing toward position switch from cornerback to safety for the Denver Broncos, who would benefit from that move and by restructuring his contract. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There are many moving parts that the Denver Broncos must juggle as they try to sort out their defensive backfield for the 2014 season. Coming into last season, the secondary was flush with starting talent, though it lacked depth and faltered when several starters struggled to stay healthy. As a result, opposing quarterbacks often exposed the weak matchups between Denver’s backups and opposing receivers. Heading into the offseason, there are several question marks surrounding Denver’s key players in the secondary.

The Broncos’ premier cornerback over the past decade has been future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. Usually a reliable, every-week starter, Bailey suffered a Lisfranc foot injury in the 2013 preseason that kept him sidelined much of the year. It’s worth noting that he will turn 36 years old this offseason — ancient in cornerback years. After 15 seasons of high-level play, Bailey has clearly lost a step physically and is no longer a shutdown corner.

Following Denver’s Super Bowl loss, Bailey made it clear that he wants to return next season. Considering Bailey’s age and recent injuries, Denver has a tough decision to make considering his cap hit for 2014 is a whopping $10 million (second-highest on the team after Peyton Manning at $17.5 million). Beyond his play on the field, Bailey earns his paycheck as a team leader and an on-the-field player-coach, so it would be surprising if Denver happened to release him. Presumably, team management will work to restructure Bailey’s contract to reduce his cap number while also considering a move to safety where his coverage responsibilities will not rely as much on his declining speed.

Denver picked up former 2008 first-round pick and collegiate track star Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a pleasant surprise in 2013, via free agency. DRC signed a one-year “prove it” deal that gave the speedster cornerback a chance to resuscitate his career after a down year in Philadelphia the previous season. With DRC again a free agent this offseason, re-signing him is likely high on Denver’s list of priorities for 2014. Considering the possibility of Bailey moving to safety and injuries plaguing other members of the secondary, the Broncos may have to rely on DRC to cover opposing teams’ top wideouts every week.

Another major bright spot for the Broncos at the cornerback position these past few seasons has been undrafted up-and-comer Chris Harris Jr., who suffered a torn ACL last month in Denver’s divisional round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers. Harris had surgery to repair his injured knee on Feb. 6, with his timeline for recovery likely to stretch into next season.

As a result, Denver will need to be prepared to begin the year with a replacement for Harris. A possible candidate is rookie Kayvon Webster, who unexpectedly saw a decent number of snaps in 2013 while filling in for the injured Bailey. However, Webster’s play left something to be desired as top-level quarterbacks frequently exposed his inexperience and often moved the chains at will.

Denver will hope for Webster to make a second-year jump, but in the meantime the Broncos will have to consider bringing in some of the tempting talent in the free-agent cornerback pool. Beyond DRC, the best deal on the market is likely the Patriots’ top corner from last seasons, Aqib Talib, whose cap hit for 2013 was $4.9 million. Signing Talib would instantly add depth to Denver’s thin starting lineup while simultaneously removing a key player from the roster of its closest AFC rival. Looking ahead to the latter half of the season, a potentially healthy cornerback group consisting of DRC, Talib, and Harris would match up formidably against even the best passing attacks in the league.

Of course, the Broncos’ other option to replace Harris (and Bailey if he moves to safety) is through the draft. Denver could attempt to select a defensive back with starter-caliber potential in the early rounds, but as the Broncos have learned with Webster, this is a difficult task. And while Denver will almost certainly select a defensive back or two this April, it’s unlikely they will plan to rely heavily on another rookie heading into another season with Super Bowl-or-bust expectations.

Keys to Sorting Out the Denver Secondary:

1.      Restructure Bailey’s contract and move him to safety

2.      Re-sign Rodgers-Cromartie

3.      Sign a free agent, such as Aqib Talib, to fill-in for Harris and add starting depth

4.      Coach up Webster and draft high-upside defensive backs

Note: All player contract information obtained via Spotrac.com.