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Broncos Film Room: Why Bryce Callahan was Denver's best free-agent signing

Andre Simone Avatar
March 18, 2019

A primary target in the eyes of many in Broncos Country, the Denver Broncos pulled off another headline signing by locking down Bryce Callahan, Vic Fangio’s ace nickel back.

Outside of die-hard fans in Chicago or Denver, Callahan isn’t yet a household name. He is, however, already one of the more interesting signings of the free-agency period, as the diminutive cornerback will now have played his entire career under the Denver Broncos new head coach.

This signing receiving so much fanfare must be surreal for the Rice product, who didn’t receive a combine invite or get drafted, and is now suddenly being counted on to help bring Denver’s defense back to elite status.

Here’s what we found from watching the 27-year old on tape, including how his longtime coach intends to use him to replicate the success the two of them had in the Windy City.

Who is Bryce Callahan?

The first thing you need to know about Bryce Callahan is that he’s a slot cover guy, one of the best in the business. Tight ends, big receivers, or quick-twitch route technicians, it doesn’t matter, Callahan can handle them all.

This is especially true when he’s locking down in-cutting routes, as Callahan is where slants go to die.

He’s almost as effective jumping comebacks and curls, running the routes for the receiver and beating them to the ball. The same goes for these out routes to the sideline.

The 5-foot-9, 188-pound corner does it all thanks to his fluid hips and high-end speed, allowing him to drop deep and cover receivers all over the field. Callahan is physical, too, and is masterful winning the leverage battle insidea key in the modern NFL, where offenses like to take higher-percentage shots over the middle now that DBs can’t blow up targets like they once did.

Just watch the clip below, where Callahan is in zone coverage in the slot to the left. He wins inside, goes off that receiver to move onto another on an in-cutting route, and then when the ball is thrown to the opposite sideline, chases down the runner to force the WR out of bounds.

Best in off coverage, the Bears No. 37 has intriguing ball skills and breaks on the ball instinctually with his eye discipline really standing out. He’s ultra-quick reading QBs and reacting to routes as they break, has a high IQ, is really strong in underneath-zone coverage and has the perfect skillset for Fangio’s zone-heavy system.

Not coincidently, Callahan played as much as a starter in Chicago, despite his specialized skills, appearing in 82-percent of the defensive snaps prior to his injury, as the Bears played plenty of nickel. In those nickel packages, there were times when Callahan essentially acted as a weak-side LB, in cover-3 and 4 looks.

Other times, he was tasked with following the slot receiver across the formation, covering anyone from Randall Cobb to Larry Fitzgerald in man coverage, following them on crossers or running after them deep down the seam.

Depending on the situation, Callahan can play man in the slot or in both deep and shallow zones, and he can do it all at a high level. Because of this, Callahan was Fangio’s go-to counter when an offense would throw out three-receiver personnel, regardless of the down and distance.

Another area in which the four-year pro stands out is in his ability to turn and run with receivers, as he can lock-down deep routes and play sticky coverage, with ultra fluid hips and great speed.

He’s also physical enough, despite his size, to contest grabs against tight ends and bigger wideouts.

His ability to handle bigger targets is, in large part, thanks to his ability to redirect routes and his sense of timing to close on the football, but most importantly, it’s due to his underrated athleticism. At Rice’s pro day, he ran a 4.40, had an astonishing 43-inch vertical and an 11-foot broad jump, while benching 225-pounds 15 times. That type of talent shows up when he plays the ball or tracks receivers downfield and is a huge key to his success covering all types of receivers.

Beyond his cover skills, Callahan is a strong tackler, plays fundamentally sounds and wraps up perfectly. He is better at tackling low, even when having to make tough diving stops but can miss a few tackles high. His motor also stands out as he won’t give up on plays and will chase the ball down on the back side.

 

He’ll fill running lanes and can be trusted to play close to the line of scrimmage, and even produced six tackles for a loss last season while only appearing in 13 games.

Beyond all that, Callahan was a key weapon on third down and came up clutch in such situations last year, where he had some of his best plays. 

Now, the logical question is how a corner, who undoubtedly played at an elite level last season, didn’t go in the first few days of free agency and didn’t get more than the three-year $21 million deal the Broncos were able to lock him down at.

The answer is two-fold: injuries and utility.

Callahan’s 2018 season was abruptly ended when he broke a bone in his left foot, an injury that placed him on the IR after Week 14, how he recovers is easily his biggest concern going forward. Out of 64 potential games that Callahan could’ve played in his first four seasons, he only appeared in 45, as he has dealt with concussions during his career, as well.

The former undrafted cornerback isn’t a fit in every scheme, he was rarely used outside, and when he was, it was in cover-2 looks where the action was in front of him.

Given his play in man coverage in the slot, how well he plays in zone and those aforementioned pro day numbers, there’s no reason not to think Callahan couldn’t play outside. He’s just unproven and is a scheme-specific player who doesn’t fit in a press-heavy defense.

Callahan isn’t going to fly around like a mad man against the run but rather, try to contain runners from breaking off bigger gains. He won’t take on blockers recklessly and, though he remains a superb tackler in one-on-one situations, he’s very different from Kareem Jackson in this regard.

How he fits

With Callahan, the Broncos now have plenty of DBs who fit Fangio’s scheme almost to perfection, and while that scheme will feature a lot more zone concepts than we’re used to in the Mile High City, Fangio is also big on mixing coverages to always keep offenses guessing.

With Callahan, Jackson, Chirs Harris Jr., and Justin Simmons, Denver now has arguably the best group of slot cover men in the entire NFL. This gives the Broncos plenty of options, with Jackson as a deep-safety in base paired with Simmonswhile Harris and Callahan play outsideor using the Bears hold-over as a weak-side backer in nickel with Jackson playing outside and Will Parks in at safety.

Mixing and matching coverages and personnel will be huge for the Broncos’ defense, but even more impactful will be taking away the matchups opponents went to all too often in 2018, lining up some of their best targets in the slot and feasting on Broncos safeties and linebackers. With Denver’s four aces in the slot, offenses will have to use more complex strategies than that. In a division with receiving threats like Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, and Travis Kelce, the Broncos now have some options to cover them inside or outside.

The ability to play plenty of nickel or dime defense with this new cornerback depth also puts less pressure on finding linebackers who fit Fangio’s defense. At least one LB is still needed, but when Callahan is featured in over 80 percent of the snaps, you really just need one stud backer who can cover.

Given his age, versatility, and moderate price tag, Callahan is Denver’s best signing in the new league year and a crucial piece to the Broncos defensive puzzle, which now has them back on track to play at elite levels once again. 

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