It's only March, but AFC West quarterbacks have been put on notice.
The Broncos have seemingly put together one of the most talented and experienced secondaries in the entire NFL this offseason, with their top cornerback Bryce Callahan coming back, their extension of free safety Justin Simmons, their one-year deal with strong safety Kareem Jackson and of course the additions of two of the most respected corners in the league in Chicago's Kyle Fuller and Washington's Ronald Darby.
The revitalization of a secondary that finished 16th in passing yards allowed in 2020 thanks to several injuries, has Broncos Country wondering if 2021's squad can be the "No Fly Zone" 2.0.
“This is a real good team," Darby said at his introductory press conference March 18. "A young team that has all the tools that you need to play at the next level as far as playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl. This is a very talented team. I feel as though we can get there.”
The Broncos' No Fly Zone, led by Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and Darrian Stewart, was the Broncos' last great secondary, helping Denver win Super Bowl 50 in 2015-16. They were considered one of the best secondaries in the NFL for a period, alongside Seattle's "Legion of Boom" — made up of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell — that helped the Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013.
“I definitely don’t think no one better came after us," Talib said in a Zoom interview in January. "The argument would be for ‘Legion of Boom’ and others that came before us. But we got picks, we scored touchdowns, we got big hits — we were No. 1 for a while and we still stand on that."
But what is it that makes a secondary great? And can the 2021 Broncos reach those same levels that the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seahawks made?
There's a lot that goes into being the best secondary in the NFL, and it's nearly impossible to define — interceptions, passes defensed, tackles, touchdowns and receptions allowed is probably a good place to start.
The 2015 Broncos No Fly Zone members combined for nine interceptions, 60 passes defensed, 329 tackles, three touchdowns scored and had a average of 63.8% receptions allowed. The 2013 Seahawks Legion of Boom — considered maybe the greatest secondary in NFL history — combined for 23 interceptions, 63 passes defensed, 399 tackles, two touchdowns scored and had an average of 58.76% receptions allowed.
If you were to take Simmons', Jackson's, Callahan's, Fuller's and Darby's stats from the 2020 season and combine them, they'd have nine interceptions, 43 passes defensed, 352 tackles, zero touchdowns scored and an average of 62.94% receptions allowed. For comparison, the Los Angeles Rams secondary, which Pro Football Focus declared as the best in 2020, combined for 13 interceptions, 52 passes defensed, 372 tackles, two touchdowns scored and an average of 63.66% receptions allowed.
The Broncos' new secondary was as good if not better than the 2015 No Fly Zone and the 2020 Rams. And with an average age of 29 years old, it's also one of the most experienced units.
"It's going to be great," Simmons said Monday. "Last year was tough. I think we played — both Kareem and I have played with maybe 10 different corners. It's just a weird year with COVID and injuries and everything that was going on, but I'm really excited. I've been an admirer of both Darby's and Fuller's game just from afar."
Of course, those five statistics don't tell the whole story. A great secondary must have intangibles that don't show up on the stat sheet and in a division that boasts Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, sometimes that stats don't tell the whole story.
It also must mesh as one unit — all five players must be on the same page and that takes a great communicator and leader. For the No Fly Zone, that was Talib and Harris Jr. And for the Legion of Boom it was often Sherman or Thomas.
The Broncos think they have that in Simmons, who may just be the glue who can make the 2021 secondary the best Broncos have had in several years.
"We're set up to make something happen," Simmons said. "And once again, that's going to fall on my shoulders as the leader in the secondary and I'm going to make sure that whatever happens week in, week out, the secondary is going to be good to go and we're going to compete at the highest level."
Below is a look at what Denver's 2021 secondary might look like compared to Seahawks in 2013, Broncos in 2015 and Rams in 2020, using interceptions, passes defensed, tackles, touchdowns and average reception percentage allowed.
Richard Sherman: 8 INT, 18 PD, 58 tackles, 1 TD, 48.4% rec.
Walter Thurmond: 1 INT, 7 PD, 38 tackles, 1 TD, 66.2% rec.
Byron Maxwell: 4 INT, 14 PD, 40 tackles, 0 TDs, 50% rec.
Kam Chancellor: 5 INT, 12 PD, 134 tackles, 0 TDs, 66.7% rec.
Earl Thomas: 5 INT, 12 PD, 129 tackles, 0 TDs, 62.5% rec.
Total: 23 INT, 63 PD, 399 tackles, 2 TDs, 58.76% rec.
Aqib Talib: 3 INT, 19 PD, 59 tackles, 2 TDs, 60.2% rec.
Chris Harris Jr.: 2 INT, 8 PD, 73 tackles, 0 TDs, 66% rec.
Bradley Roby: 1 INT, 13 PD, 45 tackles, 1 TD, 61.1% rec.
Darian Stewart: 2 INT, 13 PD, 74 tackles, 0 TDs. 70% rec.
T. J. Ward: 1 INT, 7 PD, 78 tackles, 0 TDs, 61.7% rec.
Total: 9 INT, 60 PD, 329 tackles, 3 TDs, 63.8% rec.
2020 L.A. Rams
Jalen Ramsey: 1 INT, 10 PD, 51 tackles, 0 TDs, 53.3% rec.
Troy Hill: 3 INT, 11 PD, 81 tackles, 2 TDs, 67.3% rec.
Darious Williams: 5 INT, 16 PD, 51 tackles, 0 TDs, 48.7% rec.
John Johnson III: 1 INT, 10 PD, 117 tackles, 0 TDs, 75.3% rec.
Jordan Fuller: 3 INT, 5 PD, 72 tackles, 0 TDs, 73.7% rec.
Total: 13 INT, 52 PD, 372 tackles, 2 TDs, 63.66% rec.
Statistics from 2020 season on respective teams
Justin Simmons: 5 INT, 9 PD, 96 tackles, 0 TDs, 76.9% rec.
Kareem Jackson: 1 INT, 4 PD, 89 tackles, 0 TDs, 73.3% rec.
Kyle Fuller: 1 INT, 8 PD, 65 tackles, 0 TDs, 56.3% rec.
Ronald Darby: 0 INT, 17 PD, 60 tackles, 0 TDs, 54.4% rec.
Bryce Callahan: 2 INT, 5 PD, 42 tackles, 0 TDs, 53.8% rec.
Total: 9 INT, 43 PD, 352 tackles, 0 TDs, 62.94% rec.