After one of the most exhilarating offseasons in Broncos history, the 2022 season is close at hand.
In a little more than a week, the Broncos will gather for training camp and begin to prepare for the regular season. The task is simple: Return to the playoffs for the first time since a Super Bowl 50 win — and perhaps challenge for another Lombardi Trophy.
As the Broncos embark on that effort, though, they’ll need to answer a series of questions that will help determine whether they can find success in Year 1 of the Russell Wilson era. Leading up to training camp, we’ll take a look at those questions that span across the roster.
Up next, we’ll take a look at the Broncos’ promising young cornerback.
HOW GOOD CAN PAT CERTAIN II BE THIS SEASON?
It’s hard to believe Pat Surtain II was just a rookie in 2021.
The ninth overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft found near-immediate success with the Broncos, as he quickly earned a starting role and inserted his name among the best cornerbacks in the league.
Surtain’s size, speed, technique, and game knowledge helped him transition from being the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year to a top-tier NFL starter — and he made the jump quickly.
In 15 starts, Surtain posted the most interceptions by a Broncos rookie since 1976 and tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s history. He finished with the second most passes defended by one of the team’s rookies since the data began being tracked in 1999, and he earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after a two-interception performance against the Chargers.
In that Broncos win over Los Angeles, Surtain may well have been the best player on the field. He baited Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert into an end-zone interception in the fourth quarter before sealing the win with a 70-yard pick-six later in the quarter.
Surtain ended the season as a first alternate for the Pro Bowl and earned All-Rookie honors, and the expectations are even higher in 2022. Most players take a leap from their first season to the second year, and Surtain could be poised to cement himself as a lockdown corner. Though it’s not fair to compare him to a Hall of Famer in Champ Bailey, it’s worth noting that Bailey earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors in his second season after posting a similar rookie stat line to Surtain. In 1999, Bailey recorded five picks, 16 passes defensed and one touchdown. Surtain was just one interception and two passes defensed off that pace during his own rookie season.
“Pat — I don’t even know if I want to put expectations on him,” safety Justin Simmons said in April. “I feel like I’d be selling him short. … You can tell in his technique. Anyone who watches the game and watches the corner position and his approach [can see] his technique. I said it before, but he just has been drilled and coached at such a young age that it’s just natural. Any time you have those basic fundamentals as a player, the sky’s the limit. You can go above and beyond the expectations that you have for yourself. There’s no doubt in my view that Pat is arguable — and this is just my opinion — obviously going to be a top-five corner in this league for as long as he wants to play, every single year.”
Though opposing quarterbacks may be wary of throwing at Surtain, the Broncos’ moves elsewhere on the roster should still give him an opportunity to make the plays he needs to get noticed around the league. Denver’s revamped offense should give the defense leads to protect, which will force opposing teams to throw the ball downfield rather than play in a conservative fashion. And on the defensive side, the Broncos’ additions at the edge rushing position should give quarterbacks less time to throw and force them into poor decisions.
It remains unclear how the Broncos will use Surtain in Year 2. Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero and Surtain have each spoken about the possibility that Surtain could shadow an opponent’s top receiver during a game, but he could also remain on one side of the field to lower an opponent’s play-calling options. During training camp practices and preseason games, early signs of the Broncos’ strategy may be evident. In all likelihood — as Evero noted during the offseason program — that decision will be made on a game-by-game basis.
No matter where he plays, the expectations are high. Surtain came in at No. 7 on a ESPN list of top cornerbacks that was voted on by league executives, coaches, scouts and players. Several executives even ranked Surtain as the best cornerback in the league entering the 2022 season.
It’s no stretch to say Surtain should improve upon his four-interception campaign, and a Pro Bowl nod could be in his future. If defenses continue to challenge the young cornerback, he may even have the opportunities to earn All-Pro honors or lead the league in interceptions.
It’s clear that he’s talented enough to be mentioned among the top cornerbacks in the league. Soon enough, we’ll get to see him prove it.