When the Denver Broncos selected cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, many in Broncos Country bemoaned the choice and questioned the intellect of first-time general manager George Paton.
But flashforward one month into the 2021 season, and there are crickets abound.
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The outside noise has died down, which has everything to do with the stellar play of Surtain II, while the quarterbacks that many in Broncos Country yearned for — Chicago Bears signal caller Justin Fields and New England Patriots passer Mac Jones — have looked like struggling rookies.
Surtain has been so great filling in for the injured Ronald Darby, that there could be a scenario where a veteran Broncos cornerback could see his role diminished considerably, as the rookie gets more comfortable in his role.
Darby, who is on short-term IR, may return in time for the Week 5 tilt at the Pittsburgh Steelers, but when he returns, head coach Vic Fangio has a great problem on his hands. Does he stick with the rookie phenom, or re-insert Darby, who is coming off a hamstring injury?
When the Broncos signed Darby to a three-year, $30 million contract in March, 2021, they were also getting a player who has battled maladies in the past. Although he played all 16 games for the Washington Football Team in 2020, Darby has a recent injury history, including a damaged ankle in 2017, an ACL injury in 2018, and a hip ailment in 2019. It may not be Darby who loses his starting gig, but someone may have to move so Surtain II can stay in the starting lineup.
Minus Darby, Surtain II has flourished in the two weeks as the starter opposite Kyle Fuller. Veteran Bryce Callahan has remained the team’s “nickel back,” any time the Broncos employ five defensive backs. Callahan has annually been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, so his role is likely safe. Callahan had a stellar 2020, as Pro Football Focus had him rated as the best slot corner in coverage. He had a 90.0 grade in coverage and opponents only have a 64.7% completion rate against him in coverage.
No Fly Zone
Surtain has been flat-out excellent as the starter. Since taking over for Darby, quarterbacks have been unwise to test him.
Yes, they were rookie quarterbacks (Jacksonville Jaguars Trevor Lawrence and New York Jets Zach Wilson), but Surtain II is also a neophyte — and he’s quickly becoming a shutdown corner.
September’s Defensive Rookie of the Month award went to Asante Samuel Jr. of the Los Angeles Chargers. And while that was a fine selection, Surtain II needs more respect on his name. His production has been especially impressive considering he wasn’t a Day 1 starter. He only played on 26% of Denver’s Week 1 snaps and didn’t do anything noteworthy — with the exception of allowing a 37-yard touchdown to the New York Giants wideout Sterling Shepard. But since then, and since being thrusted into the starting lineup, Surtain II has been every bit as good as Samuel, who has started every game.
Surtain II has recorded nine total tackles, two passes defended, and an incredible toe-tapping interception of Lawrence. Meanwhile, Samuel has recorded 10 total tackles, four passes defended, and a pair of interceptions.
That’s the sound — or lack thereof — coming from dissenters who didn’t want Surtain II. The draft-night controversy seems to have dissipated. Those in Broncos Country who wanted Paton to draft a quarterback of the future have been muted. Those who said the Alabama product was a safe pick, weren’t necessarily throwing verbal bouquets at Surtain II, either, because it wasn’t the ‘wow’ selection. But what Surtain II lacks in flash, he’s made up for it with quiet consistency.
Pro Football Focus tweeted a crazy nugget about just how efficient Surtain II has been.
Fields and Jones, meanwhile, have struggled in their starting positions — with the former literally feeling the pains of being QB1. Fields was the primary object of Broncos fans’ affections during the 2021 NFL draft. He was the shiny new toy — the perfect prize on the top shelf. Surtain II was seen as the consolation prize for the Broncos. But if the first month was any indication, the Broncos may ultimately be the real winner in the cornerback vs. quarterback debate.
Follow Tony Williams on Twitter: @TBone8