In 2015, the Denver Broncos boasted the most formidable secondary in football. Dubbed the ‘No Fly Zone,’ this unit of defensive backs helped lead the team to a Super Bowl win. In the five seasons since, however, the Denver Broncos secondary has yet to offer a comparable year. This off-season, new general manager George Paton signed two free-agent cornerbacks to effectively rebuild the unit in one fell swoop. By adding Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, the Denver Broncos secondary looks to make its most concerted effort to return to the days of a ‘No Fly Zone’ yet.
How Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby Fit in the Denver Broncos Secondary
In 2020, Vic Fangio deployed a cornerback unit of Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia, with the limited and underwhelming contributions of A.J. Bouye. A carousel of corners like undrafted rookie Essang Bassey and De’Vante Bausby also played a significant number of snaps. Unfortunately, the defense suffered from Ojemudia’s inexperience, Bouye and Callahan’s injuries, and a stark lack of overall depth at the position. It cost the defense most significantly against high-octane passing offenses, of which they face a high number in 2020.
After the team released Bouye ahead of his P.E.D. suspension, they signed two cornerbacks with a combined 12 years in the league. First, Ronald Darby, who most recently played for the Washington Football Team, and Kyle Fuller, who played for Fangio for two years with the Chicago Bears. Their arrival in Denver provides Fangio with the first arguably complete iteration of the Denver Broncos secondary.
Kyle Fuller: Star of the Denver Broncos Secondary?
The Bears drafted Fuller with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he started 14 games, putting up surprisingly effective numbers for a first-year defender. He earned four interceptions, 10 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, 64 tackles, and three tackles for loss. Notably, he only ever missed another game when he missed the entirety of the 2016 season due to injury. Fuller proved a reliable defensive back for the Bears for five more seasons. By the time he concluded his career with Chicago, Fuller had accrued 19 interceptions, 82 pass deflections, four forced fumbles, 390 tackles, and 6 tackles for loss.
His best season came in 2018, under the tutelage of Vic Fangio. Fuller earned his first of two Pro Bowl selections and made first-team All-Pro for the only time in his career. Posting seven interceptions, 21 pass deflections, and 55 tackles, Fuller allowed a mere 56.2 completion percentage on 121 targets. He allowed a 63.7 passer rating and boasted a mere 8.3 missed tackle percentage as well. Leading the league in interceptions and deflections, Fuller illustrated how a corner can thrive in Fangio’s scheme.
Reuniting with Vic Fangio
In 2020, Fuller allowed catches on only 55.4 percent of 83 passes thrown his way. Surprisingly, he then hit the open market for the first time in his career. With Vic Fangio likely on the hot seat in 2021, drastic defensive moves proved necessary. Signing Fuller reportedly less than an hour after he hit free agency, the team reunited the head coach with his most recent star pupil.
Playing the majority of his career as the left cornerback, Fuller’s work in zone coverage has been impressive. The first defensive back a right-handed quarterback naturally lays eyes on, Fuller offers the Denver Broncos secondary an element unseen since Aqib Talib. He wields a natural ability to patrol his zone effectively. Combining this with the capability of stopping on a dime and jumping in front of passes could yield serious rewards for the Denver defense in 2021.
The Broncos defense needs all the help it can get after nearly setting a season record for fewest takeaways. They need Fuller to return to his level of play from his last season with Fangio in 2018. If he can, this Denver Broncos secondary could make a radical improvement on their number of takeaways.
Ronald Darby: A Perfect Complement for the Denver Broncos Secondary
Unlike Fuller, who played his entire career for the team who drafted him, Ronald Darby has played for three teams in his six seasons in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills drafted him with the 50th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He played for them for two years, starting 29 games in the process. After two years, he had accrued two interceptions, 33 pass deflections, 137 tackles, and four tackles for loss.
He was subsequently traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in August of 2017. Playing three years for the Eagles as the right cornerback, Darby started a mere 27 games. That said, he nonetheless compiled six interceptions, 32 deflections, 114 tackles, and two tackles for loss for Philadelphia.
Last March, Darby signed a one-year deal with the Washington Football Team. For the first time in his career, he started 16 games for them. As a right cornerback, he averaged a pass deflection for every game he played. He posted 55 tackles and a tackle for loss as well. Though he did not notch any takeaways in 2020, Darby allowed a mere 54.1 completion percentage and a lone touchdown on 98 targets.
A Fresh Start
New general manager George Paton signed Ronald Darby to the longest contract he has ever had in his career. Excluding the four-year rookie deal he failed to complete with Buffalo, three years is a serious commitment based on history. With Kyle Fuller set to occupy the number one cornerback slot and man the left side in nickel packages, Bryce Callahan is free to move around more. He can play right cornerback in base packages while shifting inside to the slot in nickel and dime groupings.
When Callahan bumps into the slot and Fuller is aligned on the left, the right cornerback position is open to second-year defender Michael Ojemudia or Ronald Darby. With Darby’s experience playing as the right corner for no less than two-thirds of his career, the edge is his. If Fangio can coach another productive season out of his two former Bears, quarterbacks will be forced to throw Darby’s way. As he has proven throughout his borderline journeyman career, he has what it takes to take advantage of the additional attention.
Like Fuller, Darby should bring takeaway opportunities to the Denver Broncos secondary. The defense is in desperate need of productivity from the unit in 2021, and if the team intends on competing it will require Darby to produce. George Paton’s financial commitment to the defender suggests he believes in Darby’s ability to do so. Eight career interceptions and 81 career deflections lend credibility to the notion Darby’s contributions may prove the most underrated facet of the defense.
Especially under the tutelage of Vic Fangio.
The Last Word
Broncos Country has not had much reason for excitement over the last half-decade. Since the retirement of first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the team has admittedly faltered more than its fair share. With the signings of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, a glimmer of hope exists within Broncos Country for the first time in some time.
Paton’s off-season priority of bringing back core defenders from 2020 suggests the defense will take its biggest forward step yet under Fangio. Darby and Fuller complete the slotting for the top three levels of the cornerback depth chart, allowing second-year defender Michael Ojemudia to learn from their veteran savvy. Their arrival in orange and blue also implies the likelihood of a drastic improvement on takeaways. Ostensibly, this would provide Drew Lock (or another quarterback) more opportunities to develop on the field.
All in all, though fans may wish Fuller’s contract were lengthier, this pair of acquisitions should prove two of the most influential moves the team makes in 2021.
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