As the season opener approaches, the Denver Broncos still have a few question marks as to who will fill certain positions. One of these is the free safety position. T.J. Ward has nailed down the strong safety/linebacker position. He proved last season that he’s got the chops, the aggression and the skills to handle it with aplomb.
Free safety Darian Stewart has come in and excited the players, coaches and fans alike. At 5-foot-11 and a hefty (and muscular) 214 pounds, he and Ward have developed a mutual admiration relationship. Ward’s only real weakness is that he needs to be better in coverage. He’s worked on that in the offseason. Stewart already had that piece of the puzzle. His build and his mindset also cry out for contact.
Stewart loves his opportunities to supply it. Where as Rahim Moore seemed to be uncomfortable putting his whole body into a tackle, Stewart hits like a runaway train. He’s soft-spoken off the field but he speaks volumes with his play. He’s smart, he’s rarely out of position and he takes great angles. The lapses and mistakes from his 2014 season with the Ravens seem nowhere to be found. A short visit to Pro Football Focus showed that in the later season, he’d overcome most of them.
So, what’s the outlier?
Despite the connection between these two, there’s another candidate for the free safety slot. David Bruton has been on the Broncos since he was drafted in the fourth round out of Notre Dame. This is his seventh year. He quickly earned the honor of being named a captain on special teams. With his 4.3-plus speed and his 6-foot-2, 217-pound physique, Bruton has been essential to the ST packages.
He has also been working on his coverage skills. Like Stewart and Ward, he welcomes contact. He has the size and the intellect to handle the FS role, perhaps as well as Stewart. The coaches have been giving him a look at FS, realizing the degree to which they have another potentially effective weapon in the secondary.
Two years ago, people had been bemoaning the belief that Bruton was out of position, leading to him chasing ball carriers. I did a closer examination on the film, and it showed that he was chasing ball carriers that had gotten free, due to other players’ mistakes. He plays to every whistle. With his speed, skills and attitude, he’s got the chops to handle FS very well.
So, what’s the probable outcome?
My money is on Stewart, for now. Head coach Gary Kubiak worked with Stewart in Baltimore, and knows that he’s eliminated a lot of the errors that cost him (and the Ravens) in 2014. His communication with Ward is something that many players don’t have with their counterparts. I don’t know that Bruton has the time to build that with Ward. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be an effective defensive back.
Bruton was made for aggression. His build, his speed, his unhesitating burst into contact and his controlled violence in tackling are balanced by his improving coverage skills. Big nickel packages and dime packages could fit him perfectly. Stewart will have to take a blow from time to time, and Bruton can get game-time snaps then to build his skillset even more.
Injuries do happen and Bruton is another example of the elite depth that Denver is developing to deal with that. I think that Bruton will get more snaps this season. Next year’s training camp could see a heck of a camp battle between the two free safeties.
This year, the work that Ward and Stewart have put in has paid off in spades, according to both players. How easily Bruton will slide into that structure is yet to be determined. Regardless—whether he earns the starting job or functions as elite depth, Denver wins either way.
Struggling to find places for all the talent that you don’t want to lose is a tough job for a coach. It’s also one that they work, strain and hope for because either way, their decisions are likely to be good. Many teams will be eagerly watching whoever Denver lets go. Multiple Pro-Bowler Evan Mathis took a pay-cut just to be a part of this team. It speaks volumes about what the Broncos can do this season.
The more I watch this defense, the fewer holes I can find. Seeing Bruton’s skill growing in the secondary is just another example. Former safety Nick Ferguson was a Bronco from 2003 to 2007. He thinks that this group may even outplay the famed Orange Crush defense.
I wouldn’t be surprised.
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