With Von Miller locked up, the focus has turned to other players next up for a contract extension. In last week's episode of the Huddle Up Podcast (embedded below), Luc Polglaze and I evaluated that handful of players who are deserving of a new contract from the Denver Broncos.
Safety Darian Stewart was among them. The Broncos signed him in March of 2015 on a two-year deal, worth up to $6 million—if he hit certain playing time incentives.
Head coach Gary Kubiak became familiar with Stewart during his time as the offensive coordinator of the 2014 Baltimore Ravens. Denver jettisoned Rahim Moore—a player who couldn't quite complete GM John Elway's vision for the back end of his defense—and replaced him with Stewart.
Working in tandem with T.J. Ward, the Stewart signing immediately paid dividends for the Broncos and helped lift the defense to the top of the league.
Stewart enters 2016 in a contract year and Ward is signed through 2017. The Broncos let David Bruton and Omar Bolden depart via free agency and drafted Boston College's Justin Simmons and Arizona's Will Parks.
These two rookies might represent Denver's future at safety but the Broncos have two of the best in the business right now. It's always wise to plan for the future but Stewart deserves to be re-signed.
If Elway tries to get it done in-season, he could likely ink Stewart to another short term deal—two or three years—and pay him somewhere around $4-5 million per season. By the time the upcoming season is over, Stewart will be 28 years old, so even though he's proved his value on the open market, he likely wouldn't command top dollar.
Stewart's struggles to stay healthy would also complicate his desire for a big contract. However, he really shone in the Broncos romp through the AFC playoff gauntlet and the Super Bowl—when it mattered most.
Stewart made some huge plays in the Super Bowl, but I decided to go back and study his performance in the AFC Championship game vs. the New England Patriots.
Play 1: 10:21
Defense: Cover 1, Single-high safety
Offense: 11 personnel, RB split out right, empty set
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is mired in a game-long chess match with QB Tom Brady. Here, the Broncos show a safety blitz, with SS Ward in the box, over the line of scrimmage. It’s a feint and they rush only three. At the snap, Ward and LBs Brandon Marshall and Shaquil Barrett drop back into underneath coverage. The CBs are playing man and Brady slings it on a right slant to his RB. The route is covered by S Josh Bush, but Brady’s throw is right on the money. However, Darian Stewart comes in at the end to clean up the play.
Analysis: Stewart reads the QB and drives downhill on the ball, exploding like a torpedo into the Patriots RB James White. The pass is completed and New England moves the chains, but it comes at a cost. The New England receivers are now thinking about going over the middle with Stewart on the prowl. Just two plays later, White drops a pass on a similar route. Hearing footsteps?
Play 2: 4:15
Defense: Nickel, Cover two, man.
Offense: 11 personnel, RB split out left, empty set
On third down, the Broncos are in a two-deep shell. The Patriots had some success in Week 12, splitting RBs out wide to single out coverage with a LB. They try the same tactic here, but the Broncos are ready. Denver manages to get pressure rushing only four, as DE Malik Jackson hits QB Brady as he’s throwing, forcing him to unload early and under duress. Stewart backpedals smoothly, keeps the play in front of him, reads the QB and drives on the ball to intercept it.
Analysis: I love the bait-and-switch game savvy safeties play with quarterbacks. The game is almost two full quarters in and this time, Stewart comes away with a big win. He knows there’s a potential for a mismatch with LB Danny Trevathan covering a RB on a go route one-on-one. So, he keeps that route in his peripheral, reads the play and jumps the route. This play shows Stewart’s awareness. I’d like to see more like this from the seventh-year pro.
Play 3: 11:58
Defense: Big Nickel, Cover two, man
Offense: 11 personnel, RB split out left, empty set
I’m not sure what CB Chris Harris, Jr. is doing on this play—was his responsibility to cover the seam? Patriots WR Danny Amendola works a slant out of the left slot—Harris’ assignment. Harris follows, until Amendola cuts inside and Harris keeps going down the seam with his eyes on Amendola. Thankfully, Stewart is reading the play from the safety spot at the top of the screen and drives down to deliver the big hit and stop this from being a big catch-and-run play. Perhaps that’s how Phillips drew it up, with Stewart’s responsibility to cover that underneath zone. New England moves the chains but again Stewart makes his presence felt.
Analysis: Raw power. This play was so violent I was surprised Stewart didn’t get flagged. He did lead with his shoulder, not his helmet, so it was a clean hit. But as is often the case, when officials see a pop of that magnitude, the laundry flies. What helped Stewart was the fact that Amendola hopped right up like he was un-phased. He probably couldn’t tell you where he was or what day it was though.
Play 4: 6:02
Defense: Big Nickel, safety blitz
Offense: 11 personnel, shotgun
Coming off a spectacular sack by LB Von Miller on the previous play, New England is trying to play it safe. They run a dive out of the shotgun, at what was likely designed to be the B gap, but LB Brandon Marshall forces the RB to go a little wider. SS Ward is blitzing off the (defensive) left edge and it looks like there’s going to be a hole there. But Stewart comes thundering downhill as the first point of contact, helping the LBs take him down. Stewart was credited with an assisted tackle here, but he saved this play from being a bigger pickup for New England.
Analysis: Stewart’s value in both the passing and running game cannot be understated. He’s so physical, moreso than T.J. Ward, to be frank. Stewart isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the action and mix it up. He gets downhill so fast. He was injured on this play (Ward was injured later), which is why Shiloh Keo and Josh Bush were on the field so much in the clutch, when New England was forcing the ball to TE Rob Gronkowski (successfully) on the final drive.
Darian Stewart has already out-played the two-year contract he signed with the Broncos. Brandon Marshall was recently named Denver’s most underrated player by CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco—and there’s some sense in that—but I think Stewart is more deserving.
In tandem with T.J. Ward, Stewart’s skill-set is accentuated. They play off one another well and make up arguably the most feared safety duo in the NFL. Yes, Seattle’s Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor rival Ware and Stewart. But in pure physicality, give me Denver’s tandem.
Stewart is in a contract year. And he strikes me as the type of player who will take his performance up a notch with a new contract on the line. It’ll be fun to watch he and Ward again in what could be the last year the two are together.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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