There have been plenty of shortcomings for the George Paton-era with the Denver Broncos, but one area that has thrived under his watch is cornerback.

Since taking over as general manager, the Denver Broncos have added arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, who somehow projects to only get better; added a terrific perimeter pairing for that aforementioned superstar; found a nickel cornerback that somehow upgraded upon what Denver already had at the position; and unearthed an idyllic long-term pairing for their young cornerstone at cornerback.

Just how amazing were the Broncos’ cornerbacks this season, and how can they look to improve in 2023? Let’s look.

Patrick Surtain II

If one were to design their perfect create-a-player cornerback in Madden, to unfairly tilt the video game’s landscape in their favor, they would build something a lot like Patrick Surtain II.

They would give their perfect test-tube corner a large, lengthy build, yet pair it with elite quickness, agility, and top-end speed so that he could thrive against any type of wide receiver. Then, they would give him high awareness and coverage ratings, so that the computer-generated juggernaut had the intelligence and the technical skills to execute what was being asked of him at a high level. They’d also tweak his character traits to make him a consummate leader and a reliable professional, who would develop at a jaw-dropping rate.

Just like that, voila. You have Patrick Surtain II.

The sheer depth of Surtain’s bag is something we rarely see at the position, especially this early. As a result, Surtain has set a perilously high bar for himself, and outside of (along with Sauce Gardner this season) becoming the first 22-year-old to be named a first-team All-Pro at cornerback since Ronnie Lott (arguably the greatest defensive back in NFL history), nothing captures that better than the reactions to Surtain’s poor performances this year.

In their rematch, Davante Adams diced Surtain up, and in the next game, D.J. Moore exacted his pound of flesh.

As a result, Broncos Country was briefly thrown into chaos, as a vocal minority questioned just how great Surtain truly was.

The funny thing about that is, cornerback (much like offensive line) is a position that is defined by one’s failures as opposed to one’s successes, and no matter what you do, those failures are coming. Even the most dominant cornerback seasons featured lost reps, and allowed receptions. Those seasons are heralded for allowing so few, and for losing so few, not for pitching no-hitters.

Surtain had two strikeouts in 2022, and there’s no escaping that, but those strikeouts came at the hands of a future Hall-of-Famer that Surtain had previously conquered, and one of the NFL’s most underrated receivers in Moore. Get Carolina a quarterback and watch how Moore blossoms and how much more reasonable that ugly showing from Surtain becomes.

The fact those two stand out so much is the ultimate testament to just how flawless Surtain has been at arguably the hardest position in the entire sport — where failure is copious, just not for PS2.

As Surtain enters 2023, he’ll look to summit even higher peaks, and, given his bottomless well of talent and how much he’s refined his game so early into his NFL career, there’s no reason to think he can’t take another leap. The Broncos should have an All-Pro, cost-controlled cornerback for each of the next two seasons, and that’s tremendously exciting.

What Von Miller was for a decade to the front seven, Surtain can be to the secondary.

Ronald Darby

The Denver Broncos endured many tragic injuries in 2022, but few were more tragic than Ronald Darby’s torn ACL, as Darby was in the midst of a career-best season, and was forming arguably the league’s best cornerback tandem with Surtain, prior to his injury.

Darby was tremendously sticky and refined in coverage, allowing a reception on just half his targets, 5.6 yards per target and a passer rating of 66.9 — all good for the best marks of his career. Perhaps most impressive though, is that his coverage was even stingier than Surtain’s at the start of the season.

All off-season long, everyone rightfully predicted Patrick Surtain II’s ascension to being the league’s best cornerback, and yet, as long as Darby was on the field, teams were more fearful of targeting him than Surtain. Darby played 280 snaps over his five games and was targeted 20 times (4.00 per game, 0.07 per snap), while Surtain played 289 snaps over that span, and was targeted 31 times (5.20 per game, 0.11 per snap).

Mathis played great football in relief of Darby, but there was still a notable drop-off once the Denver Broncos lost Darby for the season.

Unfortunately, Mathis’ close was strong enough that Denver will now have some very difficult decisions to make, as they could free up $9.65 million by moving on from Darby this offseason. Sure, he’s better than Mathis, but is he almost $10 million better? Even if your answer is yes, are you confident in that answer, now that Darby is one year closer to 30 and is returning from a torn ACL?

That’s what the Denver Broncos’ front office will have to dissect in the coming weeks.

K’Waun Williams

Since about 2011, with NFL offenses becoming more and more pass-happy, the nickel cornerback position has increased in both notoriety and respect, and over that span, the Denver Broncos have arguably the proudest lineage in the NFL at the position.

K’Waun Williams only added to that legacy with his tremendous 2022 season.

From Chris Harris Jr. to Bryce Callahan, and now, K’Waun Williams, the Broncos have consistently had outstanding nickel cornerbacks, each with their own flavor. The primary wrinkle Williams added to this regal identity was his physicality. Callahan and Harris Jr. both always played bigger than their stature, but Williams took that to a whole new level in 2022, as both a blitzer and a run-defender.

The 2022 addition rushed the quarterback 31 times in 2022, while missing three games, and created seven pressures and a sack off those opportunities. Chris Harris and Bryce Callahan combined totaled just 26 pass rushes for the Denver Broncos since 2018, with seven pressures and two sacks. Dating back to 2014, the Broncos saw those two rush the quarterback just 62 times, totaling 15 pressures and three sacks. It was a rarely used change-up, as opposed to a valued element of the defensive identity.

Plus, in the pursuit of that physicality, Williams didn’t sacrifice any of the coverage skills that the Denver Broncos have come to expect from the nickel corners. He held the slot receivers of the Broncos’ opponents to just 351 yards on the season and didn’t allow a single touchdown, while forcing eight incompletions (14.54% of targets). Among Broncos with at least 50 coverage snaps, only Darby had a better rate of forced incompletions (pass breakups + interceptions).

Williams has missed time in every season of his NFL career and he’ll turn 32 before the start of next season, so the Broncos would be wise to invest in a solid backup plan, although Williams showed no signs of decline in 2022, arguably turning in the best season of his career.

Damarri Mathis

The Denver Broncos found an absolute steal in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft with Damarri Mathis.

From early on in camp, Mathis stood out from an athletic standpoint and made crafty plays you typically only see from veteran cornerbacks who have already taken their lumps. One play that encapsulated all of this was when he baited Brett Rypien into an ill-advised pass, by trailing Kaden Davis on a drag route, and then floored the accelerator to make a diving INT, all while remaining to stay in bounds.

As exciting as those glimmers of brilliance were, Mathis had some ugly preseason performances that left Broncos Country a little nervous about what would happen to the defense in Week 5, when Darby left the lineup.

Then, despite playing well in relief, against the Colts, Mathis’ flag-happy Week 6 starting debut ratified a lot of the fears fans and media members had about throwing the Day 3 rookie into the fires of being an NFL starting cornerback.

The rebound from there, however, was tremendous, and helped shape the final two-thirds of the Denver Broncos’ season.

Over the season’s last 11 games, Mathis started 10 times, and the only one he missed was the result of injury. That stretch saw him play so well, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of a starting role in 2023, as he was just so strong in all facets of the position.

Immediately following his shakey Week 6 game, the Jets attacked Mathis relentlessly, and he allowed fewer than five yards per attempt, a woefully inefficient figure.

Outside of a Week 10 stumble vs. the Tennessee Titans, that was the story of Mathis’ season — a twitched-up, lengthy cover corner, who will make every target a tense one, and can quickly bring the play to an end, even if you manage to complete a pass his direction.

Mathis’ tendency to strike with a tad too much aggressiveness, leading to missed tackles, is the one big hole in his game he’ll have to shore up this offseason, and if he’s able to, we’re primed to watch a training camp battle for the ages at the outside cornerback spot opposite Surtain.

Essang Bassey, Lamar Jackson, Darius Phillips & Faion Hicks

This tier is for the rest of the cornerback room, as these four players all combined to play 274 snaps, six fewer than Ronald Darby (who has the fewest snaps of the first four players we discussed).

Faion Hicks barely played, but showed some promise on special teams, and should have a chance to earn a roster spot once training camp rolls around, though we already provided a more thorough look at Hicks in our draft grades column.

Darius Phillips didn’t see the field much, with a tally of just seven defensive snaps, and was used primarily as a special teamer. That said, the fact Denver is once again looking to upgrade their special teams, that Phillips had his fair share of gaffes on special teams, and that his contract is expiring, all make it very hard to see a path for him to return.

Lamar Jackson saw the field in just one game for the Denver Broncos this season — the narrow Week 17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs — and performed well. Mahomes looked his way 10 times, and Jackson allowed just five receptions while breaking up two of Mahomes’ passes. Now, last season’s Ojemudia game should teach us not to put too much stock in a strong late-season showing vs. KC, but still, Jackson’s blend of size and ball skills is at least intriguing, and keeping him around for a training camp look seems smart.

JaQuan McMillian should also be mentioned, though we discussed him at safety, after hearing McMillian might get a look there in 2023.

Finally, there’s Essang Bassey, who likely has the best chance to return among the players in this tier. Bassey was the team’s go-to reserve solution in nickel and barring an off-season addition, that shouldn’t change. Also, considering K’Waun Williams’ injury history, the need for a reliable depth option isn’t going anywhere. Bassey has a fairly shaky offseason, and was torched by Jerry Jeudy regularly in camp, but turned on the gas for the regular season. Bassey’s passer rating allowed when targeted was second-best among the Broncos’ cornerbacks this season, trailing only Ronald Darby.

The Broncos will have to re-sign Bassey if they want him back, as his contract is set to expire, but his price tag should be cheap enough to warrant picking him up.