The Denver Broncos are set for their first NFL Training Camp under new head coach Sean Payton. With the return of Christian Parker as the defensive backs coach, how will the duo of Patrick Surtain and Damarri Mathis do in their first full season together, and how might depth at the position play out?

Denver Broncos expected starters at cornerback feature Patrick Surtain and Damarri Mathis

Patrick Surtain exceeded every expectation he had previously faced when selected as the 9th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, with fans seemingly questioning why Denver went the path of cornerback over potentially selecting quarterback Justin Fields.

Two years after the fact, Surtain was a home run pick for Denver Broncos general manager George Paton. In just two seasons, Surtain has become a household name and has received recognition from various players around the NFL as one of the league’s best cornerbacks. He was named to his first ever Pro Bowl selection in 2022 as well as selected as a First-Team All-Pro selection at cornerback, and was voted on by his peers who play wide receiver to the NFLPA’s first-ever player voted on All-Pro team.

Now he prepares for his third season in the NFL despite carrying himself like a savvy 10-year veteran. The expectations for the Broncos were high last season, but it feels like they’re even higher going into this season with Payton’s arrival. Surtain played and started in all 17 games last season and shadowed the opposing team’s top receiving threat.

He came away with two interceptions and ten passes defensed after coming away with four interceptions and 14 passes defensed as a rookie. Whether or not teams continue to try and test him this upcoming season will be an intriguing storyline to follow, but one thing is certain — Denver has a legitimate lockdown cornerback.

If teams do, in fact, shy away from looking in Surtain’s direction, that could mean more opportunity for second-year cornerback Damarri Mathis to continue his development as a starter. Last season, Mathis stepped up in a big way for the Broncos secondary — filling in as a starter for former cornerback Ronald Darby who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts.

He appeared in 16 games for the Denver Broncos and started 11 of them. What stood out the most about Mathis was how quickly he picked up the Broncos’ defensive scheme and elevated himself during training camp last year and, ultimately, the preseason. Defensive backs coach Christian Parker easily developed trust in the rookie from Pittsburgh, and now he’s primed to start for a full season opposite of arguably the NFL’s best cornerback.

Mathis had seven passes defensed last season, where three of them were nearly interceptions. If he can turn one or two of those passes defensed into a takeaway, Denver’s defense will see an even bigger increase in potential production. On top of that, Mathis showed that he’s willing to get his hands dirty in the run game, rallying for 65 total tackles last season, 54 of them coming as solo tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on during training camp will be how Mathis and the rest of the secondary continue to pick up Vance Joseph’s defense after Ejiro Evero called the plays last year. Parker has helped bridge the gap with Joseph’s defense by carrying over similar terminology that will hopefully help the Broncos’ defense carry over some of the success they found last season.

What does the Denver Broncos depth at cornerback look like behind the starters?

Behind Surtain and Mathis, opportunity awaits several young players currently on the Broncos roster. In the 2023 NFL Draft, Paton and Payton moved up in the third round to select Riley Moss from Iowa. With Moss’ experience of playing five years with the Hawkeyes’ defense, he emerged as a playmaker who was always near the football, generating 14 total takeaways at the collegiate level.

The moment Moss was drafted, it created speculation that he’d contend with starting opposite of Surtain, but based on minicamp and organized team activities — it appears the Broncos are taking the path of development with Moss where he’ll likely play a role on defense in certain packages, but he’ll have to cut his teeth on special teams primarily.

Behind Moss, last year’s undrafted rookie free agent Ja’Quan McMillian demonstrated the ability to play at a high level in his first-ever NFL game in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Chargers. McMillian got the start as Mathis sat out due to a concussion — he had seven total tackles while allowing six catches on 12 total targets for 94 total yards, according to Pro Football Reference. Justin Herbert had a 76.4 passer rating when looking McMillian’s way, and his performance helped the Broncos win the final game of the regular season against a playoff-bound Chargers team.

McMillian has been one of the Broncos’ top players who stood out during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. While Mathis is the expected starter, McMillian’s current momentum has him primed to be the team’s first option in the event Surtain or Mathis were to miss any time.

While McMillian played outside cornerback last season, he has positional flex ability — being able to play both outside and inside the slot which gives him an opportunity to secure a role in the Broncos dime package. The CB3 job will be one of the more interesting position battles to watch during training camp.

McMillian and Moss will be two of the names to watch, but Essang Bassey will also be in the mix even though he’s considered the top backup option to nickel corner K’Waun Williams who should have the position on lock after turning in an impressive season last year.

The Broncos added veteran cornerback and special teams option Tremon Smith with a one-year deal in free agency. Despite playing only 2% of the Houston Texans’ defensive snaps in 2022, he’ll get every opportunity to get reps on the outside during camp and preseason.

There are three other names to keep an eye on, undrafted rookie free agent Art Green, former seventh-round draft selection Faion Hicks, and Delonte Hood, who signed a futures contract after the season ended last year. Green’s size and athleticism stood out in particular during Broncos OTAs, and Hood made several plays on the football during the offseason program. Hicks was released after the preseason last year but was brought back onto the team’s practice squad.

What will help determine a variety of the position depth battles at the cornerback position will revolve around consistency during training camp practices, but the main evaluation will come from playing in the preseason. While Denver starters are expected to play some, players like Moss, McMillian, Hood, Smith, Green, and Bassey will receive plenty of reps.

Whoever comes up in run fits consistently, makes plays on the football, and prevents big plays from happening will draw serious consideration for Payton and his staff — but depth at the position will be crucial to discover who will make the active roster.

Broncos cornerback roster overview

Cornerback: Patrick Surtain, Damarri Mathis, Faion Hicks, Delonte Hood, Tremon Smith, Ja’Quan McMillian, Riley Moss, and Art Green.

Nickel: K’Waun Williams, Essang Bassey

Storylines to watch

  • Will Damarri Mathis solidify himself as the legitimate CB2?
  • Could Ja’Quan McMillian go from undrafted last year to making the active roster this year?
  • What type of role will Riley Moss have on the defensive side of the ball?
  • Who solidifies the Broncos’ CB depth behind Patrick Surtain and Damarri Mathis?
  • Will K’Waun Williams have an even bigger impact in Vance Joseph’s scheme this season?

What’s next?

The Denver Broncos will report for training camp on July 28 with the first fully padded practice set for July 31.