When Broncos defensive back Essang Bassey went down in the end zone during the Chiefs opening drive of Sunday Night Football in December, he knew something was wrong.
The undrafted rookie had torn his ACL, forcing him to miss the final four games of a season in which he had just started proving his worth.
"When it happened, it was like nothing I've ever felt on the football field before, so I knew something was up," Bassey told The Gazette. "Obviously you hope for the best. But after the trainers let me know I wasn't going back in the game, I kind of blacked out in that moment, so I don't really remember much from that night.
"Once I got the diagnosis the next day, after the MRI, I gave myself a little bit of time to sulk or be down or whatever, but after that, it was just about attacking the prehab process, and then going into surgery, and then the rehab process after that."
At the time, Bassey was just starting to find his groove in the Broncos' secondary, becoming a starter at nickel and having his first career interception a week prior against the Saints. He started three games last season, totaling 23 tackles, two passes defensed, one fumble recovery and one interception.
"I was definitely trending upwards, in terms of just being more comfortable with the defense, getting better each and every day," Bassey said. "So when it happened, it was kind of a bummer. But up and until that point in the season, I felt like I had taken great strides in my rookie year."
Since then, Bassey has spent most of his time rehabbing at the facility. He's attended all of the Broncos' organized team activities, but is limited to only participating in individual drills at practice.
The goal is to be back for training camp, which starts July 27. But Bassey is unsure if he'll be ready by then.
"I'm still working on my rehab process, but it's going well," he said. "I'm not sure (about returning for training camp). I'm feeling good. We'll see how I'm feeling at that point in my rehab process once we get there ... I can't really give a percentage. I'm only five, six months out of my surgery, but I'm feeling good."
Broncos coach Vic Fangio said Monday Bassey has been "really patient" in his rehab and "doing everything the trainers are asking him to do." But Fangio also isn't sure when he'll be back, saying it "may not be until the end of camp or later that he's totally cut loose."
Bassey needs to be back sooner rather than later if he wants to make the Broncos' 53-man roster. This offseason the Broncos signed two free agent cornerbacks in Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, and drafted two cornerbacks in Patrick Surtain II and Kary Vincent Jr. They also return Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemudia.
Last year, the Broncos kept six corners for its original 53-man roster. Assuming they take the same number this season and that Fuller, Darby, Callahan and Surtain — the Broncos' first-round pick — make the roster, that leaves two spots for Vincent, Ojemudia or Bassey. Unless, of course, the Broncos decide to take a seventh corner after losing several to injury last season.
What makes Bassey an interesting case to make the team is his versatility in the secondary, being able to play anywhere other than safety.
"He can play the nickel position and he can play the dime position. He got to play there last year and did fine," Fangio said. "We expect him to have good growth in his second year. He's a guy that once we get him back — we're hoping to see him pick up where he left off.”
Bassey is welcoming the competition. He's especially eager to soak up knowledge from Fuller and Darby, who each have six years of experience in the NFL.
"Those guys are vets, proven guys in the league, and that's where I want to be at in my career," Bassey said. "So when I found out those guys were coming, I was excited to get a chance to learn from them. I played my rookie year. I was a starter, too. So my mindset hasn't really changed. I'm still trying to learn as much as I can and learn from those guys. I still want to focus on my rehab and get back on the field so that I can play at a high level, too, with those guys."
Bassey doesn't seem too concerned about making the roster or where he'll be playing in training camp. Right now, he's focused on his recovery.
And after that, he says he'll do anything to contribute to the Broncos — whether that's being the starting nickel, serving as a backup off the bench, playing special teams or anything inbetween.
"Whatever I can do to help the team, honestly. I know that sounds like a cliché answer, but when you have so many high-level guys, you try to find what works best," Bassey said. "And me, personally, I'm going to prepare like I was the starter at nickel from Day 1. I'm going to go in there and attack everything mentally and physically to the best of my ability, but wherever I end up playing at primarily, I'm just going to go out there and get my knee back right and play at a high level with the rest of those guys in the DB room."