In the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos were on the clock with the ninth-overall selection.
And they faced a huge decision.
Coming off a 5-11 season, the Broncos needed direction on both sides of the football. Drew Lock, the quarterback Denver drafted in the second round of the 2019 Draft, finished the season having completed 57.3% of his passes for 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
The Broncos were also 4-9 over his 13 starts.
Entering the draft, many believed that Denver would dip their toes into the quarterback market, given the strength of that position in the 2021 Draft class. When the Broncos were on the clock that night with the ninth selection, both Justin Fields and Mac Jones were on the board.
So was another player …
Denver went in a different direction, adding cornerback Patrick Surtain II from Alabama.
Even putting aside how Fields and Jones have performed to date, Surtain looks every bit the part of a premier NFL cornerback. He will take the field tonight against the Indianapolis Colts, and it will be just his 21st NFL game. But Surtain has quickly established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. As a rookie in 2021, Surtain allowed an NFL Passer Rating of just 69.7 when targeted, which was ninth-best in the league among qualified cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus charting data.
Surtain’s immediate success led to many viewing him as one of the league’s top cornerbacks during the summer “rankings” season. ESPN ranked him as one of the top 100 players in the league, and the ninth-best cornerback in the league. In an ESPN poll of players and coaches, Surtain checked in as the seventh-ranked CB in the NFL, and PFF themselves had Surtain ranked 11th, in their second-highest tier of cornerbacks.
Through four games in 2022, that shows no sign of slowing down. Coming out of Alabama, where he played for Nick Saban, Surtain combines his impressive technical skills with elite traits. He excels regardless of coverage scheme, alignment and positioning on the field, and his ability to quickly change directions and drive on throws makes him a challenge for any offense to face.
Take this third-down play from Week 3 against the San Francisco 49ers. Surtain is aligned at the bottom of the screen, in press alignment across from Brandon Aiyuk. Watch as he executes a two-handed jam on the receiver right after the snap, then sticks to his hip as Aiyuk releases downfield:
As Aiyuk gets to the top of his vertical stem, and then cuts inside on his dig route, Surtain mirrors the route to perfection. That’s when the cornerback gets his eyes to the quarterback, enabling him to deflect the throw.
Bring on the punt team.
Surtain faced a big matchup last week, as he and the Broncos took on Davante Adams and the Las Vegas Raiders. While Adams finished the game with 9 receptions for 101 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Surtain fared rather well when he was covering Adams:
Two of the four completions — and 36 of the 46 yards — came on back-shoulder throws, which are very difficult for a cornerback to defend. On many of the other routes, however, you saw Surtain’s strengths as a CB.
Take this red zone play early in the first quarter, with the Raiders facing a 3rd and 5 on the Raiders’ 8-yard line. Surtain beings the play in off coverage over Adams, but watch how quickly he drives downhill, becoming disruptive at the catch point to prevent the touchdown:
Surtain’s ability to be a disruptive force was also evident through this play in the second quarter. Standing right across from Adams in press alignment, watch how Surtain gets a two-handed jam into Adams right at the snap, before sticking to his hip on the receiver’s slant route:
When I see plays like this, I am reminded of something Chris Vasseur said during his livestream coverage of the second night of the 2021 NFL Draft. The defensive genius and former high school defensive coordinator was asked a question about press coverage, and in his response, Vasseur outlined how not every cornerback can execute press technique at a high level, and talked about the supreme confidence you need as a CB to execute press technique.
Becuase one little slip, and you become an instant meme.
Surtain, however, has that ultimate confidence. The self-belief to stand across one of the league’s best wide receivers and get that two-handed jam into his chest off the line.
Later in the game, however, Surtain showed patience when covering Adams. You will find him at the bottom of the screen here, using a soft backpedal as he reads the receiver’s release:
But perhaps my favorite play from Surtain this season came near the end of the first half. It comes with 40 seconds left in the half, with the Raiders near midfield. Surtain is at the top of the screen, aligned in off coverage over Adams. The Broncos are in Cover 3 on this play, with the cornerbacks playing off and giving a big cushion. Adams presses vertically off the snap, trying to sell Surtain on a vertical route. But the young CB’s feel and patience on this play, as he sticks on Adams, stands out, as does his incredible change-of-direction skills, as he flips his hips to drive on the route when Adams breaks back towards the sideline:
That elite combination of traits leads Surtain to the catch point, where he is able to break up this throw from Derek Carr.
Surtain has emerged as an elite cornerback quickly over his young career, and has the perfect combination of technique, athleticism and confidence needed to be a premier CB in the NFL. That combination will be on display tonight as the Broncos take on the Indianapolis Colts, and look to be a big part of Denver’s defense for years to come.