Aug 9, 2021
Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer
- Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
- Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
- Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
of Selectors since 1999
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before John Elway made Jerry Jeudy his final first-round draft pick as chief football decision-maker of the Denver Broncos back in April of 2020, it had been 16 years since the Broncos had used any draft pick on any player from the University of Alabama.
But the Broncos have now gone to the Crimson Tide in back-to-back first rounds after taking cornerback Pat Surtain II in 2021. And if what the Broncos have seen during the first days of training camp continues into the season, a Bama breakout could fuel this youthful team’s re-entry into the postseason conversation.
Broncos safety Justin Simmons mulled the immediate future of both players in recent days.
On Jeudy he said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Jeudy can have an All-Pro, Pro Bowl season this year. He’s just that good. Everyone wants to talk about what happened last year [with some drops], but I’m not worried about it one bit. … I know he’s going to be tremendous for us this year. He’s going to be big.”
And on Surtain, Simmons offered: “Man, Pat is awesome. He’s great. He’s just so mature. … The way he carries himself and the maturity is great. He gets it. … He has his head on his shoulders the right way. It’s going to be great.”
Typically, training camp is sunshine-and-rainbows season, when optimism blooms robustly in the summer sun.
Y’all ain’t seen nun yet…⏳ https://t.co/CDY7EzxmKv
— Jerry Jeudy⁴ (@jerryjeudy) August 6, 2021
Jeudy has churned out one big play after another, though. The second-year receiver flashed high-end route-running skills last season and had 52 catches for 856 yards a rookie, but he also had double-digit drops along the way, including a five-drop day against the Los Angeles Chargers last December. He spent his offseason trying to make sure his second year was far more consistent than his first. Amid a quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater that has jumbled personnel groupings to make sure the quarterbacks have an even playing field this summer, Jeudy has consistently shaken loose deep down the sideline or taken a short toss and turned it into a big play.
“He just is a unique talent,” Broncos safety Kareem Jackson said. “I mean, it’s not a lot of guys that young able to run routes the way he [does]. Just concept-wise, the speed that he possesses to get in and out of his breaks.”
Said the perpetually low-key Jeudy: “Really, I just needed to focus on the stuff that I didn’t do so good last year. So during the offseason I just focused on that … Just concentration on the ball, my catching, hand strength — stuff like that.”
Across the line of scrimmage, Broncos coach Vic Fangio has called Surtain’s ability to digest virtually any and all information the Broncos have piled onto his rookie plate early on as “rare.” Fangio has already lined up Surtain at several spots in the formation, including the weak-side linebacker spot in the dime (six defensive backs).
“He’s just a do-it-all type of guy,” Simmons said. “He gets football and he understands it. He gets conceptually what we’re doing on defense. It’s awesome watching him play.”
“Oh yeah, [Surtain is] probably one of the quickest I’ve seen a rookie acclimate to a defense and pick up multiple spots,” said Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Fangio had Surtain playing at left cornerback, right cornerback and in the slot early during the team’s offseason program and then added work in the dime during camp. Surtain, schooled by a longtime defensive backs coach in Nick Saban at Alabama and a father, Patrick Sr., who was his high school coach and a three-time Pro Bowl selection during an 11-year career at the same position, has simply turned the unusual into business as usual.
“I’m just taking it day-by-day, learning every position just in case the team needs me in certain spots,” Surtain said. “I’m just picking up on the playbook and translating it on to the field.”
The pair’s success would continue a draft resurgence. Of the 16 players the Broncos selected in the 2016 and 2017 draft combined, only Simmons remains on the roster. Those two draft classes were at least part of the start of a string of five consecutive playoff misses. But the last four drafts, including this past April, could push the team back into meaningful games after Thanksgiving.
The Broncos, including rookie safety Jamar Johnson, second-year cornerback Essang Bassey and rookie linebacker Baron Browning (Johnson is on the reserve/COVID-19 list while Bassey and Browning are on PUP as they return from injuries), have 41 players who are designated first- or second-year players, or just over 50% of the training camp roster.
“It’s a good energy in the locker room,” Jeudy said. “… I feel like the energy is a lot more different from last year to this year. Everybody just knowing each other a lot more and that builds a lot of chemistry. I feel like we’re going to have a big year this year.”