ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It shouldn’t take long for Pat Surtain II to find his way onto the field for the Broncos.
It’s true that Denver’s 2021 first-round pick will join a talented secondary that General Manager George Paton bolstered during free agency. The Broncos signed Ronald Darby in the first wave of free agency and then added Kyle Fuller after he was released by the Bears as a salary cap casualty. Both Darby and Fuller figure to be key starters, along with Bryce Callahan in the team’s nickel package (five defensive backs).
Surtain, though, may be too good to keep out of the lineup — and he should have the positional flexibility to play almost anywhere on the field.
During his three years as a starter at Alabama, Surtain played the majority of his snaps at one of the team’s outside cornerback spots, but he played more than 150 snaps in the slot in 2019 and played another 40 there in 2020. If Surtain begins his career with Denver as a slot player, he could push for snaps in the team’s nickel package right away and could give Denver the personnel it needs to play dime (six defensive backs).
No matter where he played, Surtain was highly effective. In three years as a starter, Surtain gave up just four touchdowns in 41 games as he picked off four passes. According to Pro Football Focus, Surtain allowed fewer than two receptions per game for an average of 11.8 yards per reception.
Surtain’s success against opposing receivers begins at the very beginning of a route. He’s physical and efficient in press coverage, and he’s experienced in that area. Surtain has played more than 650 snaps of press coverage over the last two seasons. Surtain’s physicality with receivers at the line of scrimmage slows down their routes and disrupts their timing, which helps Surtain gain an instant edge.
Then, on the rare occasion when the ball is thrown his way, Surtain does not panic with the ball in the air. His fluidity and awareness helped him force 10 incompletions in 2020, which ranked seventh among cornerbacks.
Surtain particularly thrives in zone coverage, and while some critics are concerned with his flat-line speed, he was difficult to complete passes against down the field. Ten of the 19 completions Surtain allowed in 2020 came within nine yards, and he allowed just two completions on 14 targets of at least 20 yards.
Add in Surtain’s propensity as a run defender, and it seems clear the Broncos will find a way to get him on the field.
“What I like about him is that he has shown that he is very capable both in man and zone,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said after drafting the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. “I think that he has good eyes, meaning that he sees more than just the man he’s lined up on. [He’s] a good tackler in the running game and has good ball skills. I think he has the versatility even though we haven’t seen in it on tape. Everything we know about him and what he’s shown, I think that there’s a chance that he can play inside if we need him to as a fifth or sixth DB.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in evaluating Surtain is that there’s not much to watch. The consensus All-American was such a dominant player for the national champion Crimson Tide that teams chose to avoid throwing at him.
“As you scout the other Alabama players, No. 2 sticks out,” Paton said after Round 1. “He always did on tape. What really impressed us about Pat is the intangibles. Everything off the field. He’s smart. He’s a great teammate. He’s great in the locker room and he’s great in the community. That’s really what resonated with us. When you turn on the tape, that’s what a corner should look like. They shouldn’t move like he does. He’s long, he’s athletic. He fits everything Vic wants in a corner. He can play man, he can play zone and he can press. He tackles and he’s physical. He was at Alabama for three years and he started every game — 38 games and [was] 36-2 while at Alabama.
“When you watch Patrick, you can get bored because they never throw to him. He only had 48 targets this year. They only completed 21 passes. You love the movement. For a guy this big, he is always in phase. He’s hard to throw at for quarterbacks. That’s what really resonated.”
And despite the wealth of talent at the cornerback position, it’s clear that Surtain has the talent to quickly identify himself as one of the best players on the Broncos’ defense.
The addition of Surtain — along with the team’s free-agent signings — should help a passing defense that ranked 17th in passing yards allowed in 2020. It’s also likely that Surtain can help boost the team’s interception numbers. Only four teams had fewer picks than the Broncos’ 10 last season.
In the NFL, a strong secondary is a must — and Surtain could be the piece to ensure the Broncos’ defense takes a step from good to great.
“Everybody just needs to have confidence in the guy,” Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey said of Surtain. “The guy is special. Give him a chance to show what he can do.
“In due time, people will start noticing.”