Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey re-injured his left foot on Sunday night and hasn't practiced this week. Head coach John Fox called Bailey week-to-week, which is a nice way of saying that he's going to be out for a significant amount of time.
Bailey missed the first five games and was out a total of seven weeks with a serious foot sprain that had no tear. Considering he was extra cautious with the initial injury, it doesn't bode well for him that he still re-injured it.
The Broncos drafted cornerback Kayvon Webster in the third round of last April's draft to be Bailey's heir apparent, but is he ready to replace Bailey? Based on very limited samples this season, Webster is probably ready to take over for the 35-year-old.
As much as Bailey may have wanted to have a career like his mentor Darrell Green, he has reached an age where the body starts to break down in the NFL. Very few players have remained productive and healthy at the cornerback position at age 35 or older.
According to The Denver Post, the Broncos were prepared to take Xavier Rhodes in the first round of the draft, but the Minnesota Vikings took him three picks before they selected. Had Rhodes been drafted, Bailey might have been pressured into moving to safety or taking a pay cut.
It's clear that the Broncos started preparing for the day Bailey was either ineffective or injured—it just came earlier than they probably expected. He had a great season in 2012, but his performance in the playoffs was inexplicable and may have been a red flag for Denver.
The Maturation of Webster
For the first four games without Bailey, the Broncos operated at cornerback much like they did last year after Tracy Porter went down with an injury. Chris Harris played basically every snap, and Tony Carter was the nickel cornerback.
Harris played outside in the base defense and slid inside to the slot, while Carter played exclusively outside in nickel situations. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie filled Bailey's shoes as the cornerback who doesn't move around but plays just about every snap on the outside.
Carter has struggled a lot more than he did in 2012, so the Broncos made the switch to Webster in Week 5, flipping Rodgers-Cromartie to the left cornerback spot normally reserved for Bailey in the process. Harris became exclusively a slot cornerback again, which was the plan heading into the season.
Webster played well in his first start against the Dallas Cowboys, allowing two receptions for 50 yards on four targets, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He also played 50 of the team's 59 defensive snaps.
He lost snaps when Bailey returned and gained snaps when he went down again. It's clear that Webster is the top option to replace his mentor Bailey in a roundabout way, even though players have been shuffled around.
Webster has the opportunity to replace one of the great cornerbacks of his era, but he'll have to play well over the next several weeks with Bailey out of commission. The Broncos could always go back to Carter if Webster hits the rookie wall or otherwise struggles.
Bailey had good and bad moments in his return to the lineup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On one occasion, he didn't get a good jam or funnel his receiver toward his help, and the result was a long gain.
On a couple of plays, he flipped his hips early and then had to try to recover when the receivers went the other way. This is typically not what you want to see from a star cornerback, but Bailey can probably blame it on rust.
He was targeted 12 times and allowed eight receptions for 95 yards, per Pro Football Focus, but he did make several good plays on balls in the air and was given a grade of minus-1.2. Overall, the Jaguars stayed in the game by exploiting Denver's secondary.
Like any young cornerback, Webster has made plenty of mistakes. Fortunately for the Broncos, he has also made some impact plays and has proved to be a reliable tackler as well. For a rookie third-round pick playing one of the most difficult positions in football, that's rather impressive.
His interception against the Jaguars and forced fumble against the Cowboys give him two takeaways on the season, which ties him with several others for the most among rookie defensive backs. As long as he can continue to make plays, the Broncos will live with the occasional mistake.
One of the mistakes he has made on multiple occasions is failing to make an exchange in man-coverage assignments when the receivers cross out of a "stack" alignment. The result has been one wide-open receiver and one who is double-covered. This should be one of the easier things for him to correct.
He also got away with pushing Cowboys tight end Jason Witten out of the back of the end zone, which was something he didn't need to do. Webster was in good position to make a play; all he needed to do was get his head around and find the ball. Fortunately for him, the refs didn't catch the obvious shove.
At this point, his best trait is that he's a good open-field tackler. On this play, he sifted through traffic to make the stop. Most cornerbacks are prone to missing tackles, but not Webster.
He is a physical player with good instincts, and that translates from run support to coverage. The Jaguars even tried to take advantage of Webster playing off coverage and threw a quick pass to running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is difficult to tackle.
Webster read the play, quickly planted to come forward and made the stop for no gain. He made something that is hard to do look way too easy.
Not only is he a good tackler, but he likes to hit. On one play against the Indianapolis Colts, Webster broke on a pass and put a big hit on Darrius Heyward-Bey. It wasn't Webster's coverage, but he went in for the big hit to try to break up the pass.
Webster isn't Bailey, and Bailey isn't Webster, but what's clear at this point is that Webster is a quicker, more physical player than Bailey. Considering the mistakes Bailey made in his return to the lineup, you also have to start questioning how much his experience and savvy are helping him at this point.
Maybe he would have regained last season's magic if he had stayed healthy, but we'll never know. The fact is that Bailey is going to be out awhile, and Webster is going to see extended playing time as a result. If the rookie can tighten up a few things, he should be able to replace the 35-year-old veteran a lot sooner than expected.
With pass-rusher Von Miller back in action, that's only going to help the secondary. Several of the receptions Webster has allowed have been the result of a poor pass rush, not bad coverage.
At one point, it was unrealistic to think that he could fill Bailey's shoes in 2013, but things change quickly in the NFL. Bailey is still one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, but his best seasons may now be behind him.