Even though he'll be back this season, the Denver Broncos would be wise to find Champ Bailey's successor now. That player could be in the 2013 NFL draft, in the form of Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks.
The Broncos should tab Banks as Bailey's eventual replacement. He has the right attributes and offers skills similar to what Bailey brings to Denver's defensive schemes.
What Bailey gives the Broncos is a true shutdown corner. In essence, he allows defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to tweak his zone-based concepts with some man coverage.
Here are two examples of how Bailey does it. The first is from Denver's Week 8 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
In the screenshot below, Bailey is shown aligned in an off-coverage technique. However, he will creep up to the line and challenge his receiver in a press alignment before the snap.
Once the ball is snapped, Bailey is able to lock up his receiver in single, press coverage. This is shown in the screenshot below.
Bailey's ability to eliminate a receiver one on one is significant. It allows Del Rio to do more with the rest of his secondary. The Broncos are able to lock down one side of the field with Bailey, while the rest of their secondary is deployed in zone and combination coverage.
This box-and-one concept is shown in the screenshot below.
The Saints have attacked with five receivers on this play. Thanks to Bailey's proficiency in single coverage, the Broncos can box the other four targets into a zone-based shell.
They have safety support and can supplement Bailey playing man outside with zone drops underneath. The screenshot below shows how effectively this coverage works thanks to Bailey.
He has given Saints' quarterback Drew Brees little room to throw into and clamped down on his only available receiver, forcing an incompletion.
With zone everywhere else, quarterbacks are often forced into challenging Bailey in single coverage. This often leads to disastrous results.
If quarterbacks shy away from Bailey because of his reputation and skills, they are often throwing into multiple, zone coverage.
Of course, these kinds of schemes are only made possible thanks to Bailey's physical and mental attributes. He boasts a skill set based on size and instincts. That's what makes Banks an ideal successor. He is defined by similar skills.
He has excellent length at 6'2" and 185 pounds. His size is ideal for press and man coverage techniques. Winning this year's Thorpe award, given to the best cornerback in the country, shows Banks has the credentials to immediately contribute to a pro defense.
His NFL.com draft profile explains Banks' skills in single coverage: "Excellent mirror and change of direction skills, displays loose hips despite being a tall corner."
These are essential attributes for any kind of bump-and-run techniques. The mirror skills can also be useful in an off-coverage technique, which is basically man coverage with some zone principles.
This is an area where Banks excels, as the NFL.com draft profile also notes: "Rarely backpedals, asked to play mostly off-coverages and opens his hips early to prevent getting beat deep."
So, Banks has already displayed some of the attributes needed to emulate what Bailey adds to Denver's coverage schemes. CBSSports.com notes how good Banks is at shadowing receivers in single coverage on the move: "Always seems to know where the ball is, quickly locating and aggressively goes after it. Good discipline to read routes and stay glued to receivers."
Taking a brief look at Banks in action shows the man-coverage expertise he can bring to the Broncos.
On the second play shown in this video, Banks is aligned on the weak side of the formation. Notice how he quickly jams the receiver and trails him close down the field.
You can see Tennessee Volunteers' quarterback, Tyler Bray, looking Banks' way and then being forced elsewhere thanks to the tight coverage. This is precisely the effect Bailey has on pro quarterbacks.
Another play from Bailey's season shows the high standard Banks would be expected to reach in Denver. The screenshot below is from Week 14's road win over the Oakland Raiders.
Bailey is aligned in man coverage on the tight end side of the formation. Once the ball is snapped, Bailey uses different techniques to compensate for the mismatch in size against tight end Brandon Myers.
Bailey immediately goes into an off-coverage backpedal. He is keeping the bigger Myers in front of him rather than attempting to press.
Bailey's technique has altered on this play, but the principle of the Broncos' coverage schemes has not. This is shown in the screenshot below.
Notice again how Bailey is able to take away an opponent's best receiver by himself, while the rest of the secondary outnumbers other targets in zone.
Again, this tempts a quarterback into testing Bailey one on one, shown in the screenshot below.
Facing a three-on-two mismatch on the weak side, Raiders' passer Carson Palmer attempts to force the ball to Myers. The play results in an easy interception for Bailey, who pounces on the errant throw.
If it's bump-and-run press or off-coverage, the Broncos rely on Bailey to lock down one side of the field, while they box off the other. That means Bailey is tasked with taking away an opponents' best receiver, whether that's a wideout, tight end, or pass-catching back split wide.
That's a demanding role that requires the versatility to align anywhere and offer truly multiple techniques. Banks possesses exactly those credentials, as the NFL.com draft profile indicates: "He has experience playing a number of spots in the secondary, beginning his career as a safety, before eventually settling on the boundary corner and nickel spots."
Another look at Banks in action shows his versatility and how he maintains solid man coverage in different roles.
The fourth play of this video shows Banks come across the formation and align behind the slot defender of the strong side. Once the ball is snapped, a quarterback again looks towards Banks but is forced away by his tight coverage.
The replay reveals Banks pressing a tall receiver, Emory Blake (80), across the field on an underneath slant. Like Bailey, Banks is able to stay locked on in man coverage, both on the outside as well as over the middle and underneath.
Banks has the right attributes to give the Broncos the same scheme flexibility Bailey does. While the 13-year-veteran remains stellar, questions were raised about his longevity after the playoffs.
Banks is a natural choice and the best candidate for Denver's defensive system.
All screenshots courtesy of NBC Sports, NFL Network and NFL.com Gamepass.