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Broncos positional look: Cornerbacks

Newly acquired A.J. Bouye has different style than Chris Harris. Callahan's return is key. Ojemudia has chance to become rare rookie CB starter.

Just because two players have similarities doesn’t mean they’re comparable.

Former Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and his replacement A.J. Bouye have much in common.

Both were undrafted. Both are cornerbacks. Both overcame long odds to become starters, Pro Bowlers and, through the negotiating work of the same agent Frederick Lyles, rich.

But in terms of playing style, Harris and Bouye are about as comparable as quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers.

Harris flourished from the slot, where he grapples, jaws and competes and possessed the type of ball instincts that made him arguably the NFL’s best slot corner from 2015-17 -- one bad game against Antonio Brown notwithstanding.

On the outside, though, Harris’ 5-foot-10 stature and relatively average speed made him vulnerable in the second half of last season.

Bouye is an outside, coverage corner who is long at 6-foot, 190 pounds. There is finesse to his game, which is typical of cover corners.

Harris changed agents late last season and moved on to the rival Chargers who will pay him $9.5 million this year. Bouye kept Lyles and the trade to Denver allowed him to keep his contract that will pay him $13.438 million this season.

So while there are similarities between Harris and Bouye, they are not the same.

“Honestly, when I was studying Chris a lot, especially early in the league, I always watched him on the inside, but I don’t really play on the inside,’’ Bouye said this week in a Zoom interview with the Denver media. “This was the first time I really got to see him play on the outside (in 2019), and I liked everything that I saw.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) breaks up a pass intended for Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson (12) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

RELATED: Longtime Bronco Chris Harris Jr. joins rival L.A. Chargers

“I don’t really listen to the outside noise and comparisons because at the end of the day, it’s a new year. It’s a new football year. I have to focus on what I have to do to be the best. I can’t focus on trying to live up to someone else who’s not even here anymore.”

Harris’ departure means the entire No Fly Zone secondary he dubbed during the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 season of 2015 season is gone. Strong safety T.J. Ward was cut prior to the 2017 season. No. 1 corner Aqib Talib was traded away prior to the 2018 season. Free safety Darian Stewart and No. 3 corner Bradley Roby were set loose to free agency prior to the 2018 season.

And then Harris was set free for 2020. The No Fly Zone is dead; long live the Broncos’ secondary.

Here’s a look at the Broncos’ 2020 cornerback position:

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell during drills at the team's NFL football training camp Friday, July 19, 2019, in Englewood, Colo

Coach: Ed Donatell

A defensive coordinator for his 10th NFL season and fourth team, Donatell’s specialty is the secondary. As his top assistant coach Renaldo Hill is a former NFL safety, Donatell is the primary cornerback coach.

Donatell is in his third stint coaching the Broncos’ secondary as  he was here during the start of the Mike Shanahan era from 1995-99, came back for the Josh McDaniels’ term in 2009-10 and then returned with coach Fangio last year.

Projected starters: A.J. Bouye, Michael Ojemudia, Bryce Callahan

The cornerback position represents the team’s biggest question mark. Mainly because Callahan’s health is such a huge question.

After a screw from a December 2018 foot surgery got bent during a training camp scrimmage in August 2019, Callahan missed the entire season.

He had another foot surgery last December and after drawing $6.5 million last year, Callahan agreed to take a pay cut to $4.75 million this season for the chance to have a comeback season.

A nickel corner his first four years with the Bears, Callahan was going to be a starting outside corner when he signed with the Broncos last year, but he may go back to the slot this year. After back-to-back foot surgeries and a missed year, it wouldn’t be wise to expect him to be an every-down corner.

Ojemudia, as the first of the Broncos’ three, third-round draft picks last month, is vying to become the Broncos’ first season-opening, rookie starting cornerback since Calvin Jones in 1973. That would be a feat.

Ojemudia got mixed evaluations from NFL scouts as the two-year Iowa starter entered the draft last month, but Broncos general manager John Elway and head coach Vic Fangio really liked him and that’s all that matters.

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan takes part in drills during an NFL football organized training activity session at the team's headquarters Monday, May 13, 2019, in Englewood, Colo.

Backups: Isaac Yiadom, Davontae Harris, Duke Dawson Jr., Shakail Taylor

Yiadom was a third-round draft pick in 2018. He has 9 starts in two seasons. He opened as the starting corner last year but was benched in Game 3 at Green Bay in favor of De’Vante Bausby. When Bausby suffered a season-ending neck injury, Davontae Harris started the next six games until he was benched in favor of Yiadom.

Harris was a waiver pick up from the Bengals at the start of the season.

Dawson, acquired from New England prior to the start of the season, started three games as a nickelback last year.

Taylor appeared in five games with the Colts as a rookie last year. The Broncos claimed him off waivers in late-November. 

Competing: De’Vante Bausby, Essang Bassey

Bausby emerged from the defunct Alliance of American Football league to start two games for the Broncos last year. A scary neck injury in a game at the Los Angeles Chargers ended his season and makes him a longshot to make the roster this year – just as he was when he made it in 2019.

Bassey is a smaller, slot corner from Wake Forest who should make the Broncos’ practice squad as a rookie.

Comment: This position would be a greater concern if not for Fangio’s defensive system that protects its corners through various zone coverages and deep safety alignments. Fangio band-aided two of his three corner positions last year and the Broncos’ still ranked No. 11 against the pass.  

Credit: AP
Iowa defensive back Michael Ojemudia runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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