Broncos Sign Aqib Talib
For the second consecutive year, Denver went all shock-and-awe on New England, hitting them early and big with an offer to one of the Pats key free agents. Last year it was Wes Welker leaving Foxborough, as Pats fans had to endure Welker’s career high 10 TDs while their own receiving corps remained an enigma at best and catastrophe at worst. This season, they may be shifting their vitriol onto Aqib Talib, who signed with Denver on opening day and will surely be a factor each time these two sides meet in 2014.
With six defensive backs with either restricted or unrestricted status – plus the release of Champ Bailey – we knew that shoring up their secondary would be job one for Denver. Still reeling from a Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks and their dominant and downright bullying secondary, they signed Talib for six years at $57 million ($26 million guaranteed) and safety T.J. Ward for four years at $23 million ($14 million guaranteed).
The 28-year-old Talib brings the true shut down ability that was lacking in Denver last season. In 2013 he pulled in four INTs with an additional seven passes defended in 13 games. He finished 12th overall in Cover Snaps/Rec, which measures the amount of times a cornerback is the primary man in coverage relative to how many receptions he allows. Such a stat is a good measure not only of a player’s coverage ability but whether he is doing so while facing a team’s top receiver. He also finished 21st with a 53.5% opposition catch rate and 72.3 NFL Rating for opposing QBs – and all for a 10th best 15.7 yards per reception conceded.
The Talib signing marks the end of the Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie fling in Denver. DRC actually had a bounce-back year in Denver compared to two less-than-spectacular seasons in Philly. But there was always a head-case factor with him and Denver didn’t want to deal with the inevitable downswing. Better to let someone else overpay for DRC and instead target someone who they believe has more upside; Talib’s first Pro Bowl appearance this year suggests he may just be that player.
To be fair, Talib isn’t exactly the model of consistency either. Last year he started strong with a +8.2 grade but then missed three games and earned a -8.5 grade in his remaining seven games. A similar trajectory occurred in 2012, though under different circumstances: He started the season with a healthy 4.6 grade for the Bucs, got suspended for Adderall use and was subsequently traded to the Pats, and graded a -6.8 over the final six regular season games with his new club (though he did produce a modest +2.1 grade across two playoff games).
There is also the issue of health. He has yet to play a full 16 game season, with a bum hip that has plagued him since 2010 and a history of hamstring strains. The team’s other starting cornerback, Chris Harris Jr., is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs, so it’s entirely possible that the Broncos may have to play parts of next season without one or both of their starting CBs. Last season, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio used a deep pool of defensive backs in a variety of different sets, so expect more of the same this year, if only to keep his starters rested for the second half.
Taking a key player from an arch rival for the second year running is a win in itself, but could this be a case of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t? It remains to be seen if Talib will be enough of an upgrade over Rodgers-Cromartie to warrant such a large contract (for comparison, Alterraun Verner signed in Tampa for four years, $26.5 million, $14 million guaranteed). Remember those Cover Snaps/Rec and opposition catch rate stats I mentioned earlier? Well, DRC actually finished third and second overall, respectively, this season.
Ultimately, expect an improved overall secondary from Denver, not solely because of the Talib signing but because the acquisition of Ward and the continued development of Harris will allow Talib to focus on shutting down the top receivers in the AFC.