ENGLEWOOD, Colo—It was a long road that safety Darian Stewart weathered that led him to the Denver Broncos. Going undrafted out of South Carolina in 2010, Stewart’s first NFL home was with the St. Louis Rams.
Stewart fought hard and earned a spot on the Rams final 53-man roster and remained with the team through 2013. He then signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014. In Baltimore, Stewart exhibited traits that put him on Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s radar.
When Kubiak signed with the Broncos as the new head coach, following the “mutual” parting of ways with John Fox, the former backup quarterback to John Elway knew his team was likely going to be in the market for a starting free safety.
Stewart became a primary free agent target of the Broncos. After organized team activities today at Dove Valley, Stewart talked about why he chose to sign with Denver.
“Working with [Head] Coach [Gary] Kubiak last year in Baltimore,” Stewart said. “He’s a great guy, cool coach and I was willing to play for him.”
Since Kubiak is an offensive coach and Stewart a defensive player, it might seem like a bit of a paradox that Stewart’s talents would be noticed and valued by the old coach—especially over the span of just one year. But Stewart explained how the two formed a connection in Baltimore.
“There would be times at practice I would go down and mess with the offense, just to see what they had going on and try to pick their brain and try to learn their plays,” he said. “It was fun working with him.”
There’s no doubt that Stewart’s time in Baltimore helped him to turn the corner in his development as a player. His most productive statistical season was in 2011, when he racked up 87 combined tackles, but 2014 was his overall best performance, as evidenced by his career-high cumulative rating from Pro Football Focus (+3.0). What does Stewart attribute most to his excellent season in Baltimore?
“Just staying healthy,” he said. “When I’m healthy I’m one of the best in the league, I feel like. As long as I’m healthy and staying on the field, my play is going to speak for itself.”
Now that a couple of months have passed since he signed with the Broncos, Stewart has been able to settle in and get the lay of the land. He was reportedly brought in to replace the departed Rahim Moore at free safety. There’s competition from the bottom of the roster, but Stewart sees the starting job as his to lose.
“It’s my position,” he said. “It’s my position to lose. When I line up, I feel like at this level you’ve got to have confidence. When I signed here, I knew it was my job.”
The other three starters in Stewart’s unit—T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr.—all went to the Pro Bowl in 2014. It’s a talented group but the task of fitting in with them is not too tall for Stewart.
“I feel like those guys are proven,” he said. “They’ve had some injuries and setbacks in past years and I feel like adding myself this year—I know where my mindset is and I know what I want to get accomplished and those guys know the game well and I feel like once we combine our knowledge together we’ll be fine.”
Ward and Talib are relative newcomers to the Broncos, having signed as free agents in the spring of 2014. Both players established themselves as lynchpins in the Broncos defense and Ward in particular made his presence felt in the box, but too many times was on the losing end of a passing play. The hope is that Stewart can limit some of those breakdowns in coverage.
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“He [Ward] knows the game well also,” Stewart said. “He plays both positions well. He’s able to play the ball in the air and I’m able to play down in the box, so we just switch it up—we’re interchangeable. That’s always good to have.”
The former Gamecock has had to learn a new defense since signing in Denver—Wade Phillips’ aggressive 3-4. It certainly helps that Stewart played in a 3-4 base in Baltimore last year, but so far, the learning process has been smooth. He sees Phillips’ system as a great vehicle to make plays.
“I love it,” he said. “Great scheme, not too complex and its player friendly. It allows you to make plays.”
Darian Stewart might not have been one of the sexiest names on the free agent market, but his impact on the team could be great. The Broncos have lacked a true sideline-to-sideline free safety for a long time and if Stewart can provide that safety net and playmaking ability, he’ll end up as one of Elway’s savviest signings.