ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos’ first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft notched the first pick of 2022.
All offseason, Pat Surtain II’s teammates have sung his praises. Safety Justin Simmons said he believed Surtain would be a top five cornerback for as long as he played, and safety Kareem Jackson spoke to the rarity of Surtain’s skill set at his young age.
Surtain’s potential was on display Tuesday, as he intercepted Russell Wilson on the first 11-on-11 play of the Broncos’ OTA practice. After securing the ball, the 2021 ninth-overall pick took off in the other direction and may have scored in game conditions.
In practice, Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos’ offense aren’t game-planning or shying away from Surtain, but the cornerback’s ability has been evident on several occasions during OTAs.
“It’s a great defense out there, and wherever people match up, that’s what happens,” Hackett said. “We’ve gotten after him a couple times, and he made an incredible play last week that was just awesome to see. A great route by Courtland [Sutton] and he was able to recover. It’s just fun to see the guys get out there and challenge each other every day.”
Hackett said Tuesday’s interception — the first of the offseason by a Broncos defender — was the result of an offensive miscue, but he acknowledged Surtain’s heads-up response.
“We’ve got to fix some things up on offense on that one,” Hackett said. “We messed that up. We’ve got to keep running on that, but I thought it was a great reactionary play for him.
“… We’re going to be hearing about that. That was a hell of a job across the board. Defense is coming along really well. Obviously they played together, they’ve done a nice job. It makes us better, makes me better, makes the whole offense better.”
Offensively, the Broncos responded well to the early miscue. After the pick, Wilson was able to complete several tight-window passes during the practice, and Hackett said the quarterback was able to display a short memory.
“Focused,” Hackett said of Wilson’s response. “The first play didn’t go very well today and then he just bounced right back, went right back into it. Wasn’t fazed at all. I think as a quarterback — kind of like a corner — you have to live every play and once that play is over, move onto the next. It’s just that simple. I think that’s something I’ve been able to see him do. That’s why we practice. We practice to find our limitations.”
If Wilson’s career is any indication, interceptions will be a rare occurrence. Wilson has thrown more than 10 interceptions just once in the last four seasons, and he’s never tossed more than 13 in a season his career. In the last four seasons, Wilson has averaged fewer than eight interceptions per year. He has thrown more than one interception in a game just five times in that span. By comparison, Broncos quarterbacks have had 12 such games over the last four years.
Surtain, though, has made plays against even the best quarterbacks in the NFL. As a rookie, he snagged one off first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence, twice intercepted Justin Herbert and picked off Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. And as he improves ahead of his second season, he may get Wilson a time or two, as well.
“I say this all the time about Pat, a guy with that size [and] speed and to still have the technique that he has is rare,” Jackson said. “To be that young, anyway. For him, I know he wants to get better in every aspect. He comes out every day and he puts the work in.”
As the Broncos transition to a zone-blocking scheme, Denver’s offensive linemen have been tested to learn the new system.
Center Lloyd Cushenberry III has aced those tests.
“We do a lot of different kinds of testing with the guys during the meetings,” Hackett said. “We have these fun Kahoot! tests that we like to do. He wins every one of them when the whole group is in there. That’s a challenge to all the offensive guys cause we’re all trying to figure out how we can find someone to beat him, but he’s doing a great job. His knowledge of the system, understanding of it, gets better every day.”
Cushenberry’s athleticism also lends itself to the Broncos’ new scheme.
“He’s great,” Hackett said. “He’s a guy that you can do downhill stuff with like they’ve done in the past with the inside zone, but he can run off the ball. That’s something you want to take advantage of. He can reach a shade, which he’s shown consistently up to this point and can’t wait till we get pads on and can see even more.”
Cushenberry said he believes he can play in any system, but he acknowledged the benefits of Hackett’s offense.
“I love it so far,” Cushenberry said. “Get to show our athleticism, get out and run. Get the defense stressed a little bit. I’m loving it and hopefully we can play all together once the season comes.”
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