TRAINING CAMP 2024

Is Riley Moss ready to make the leap to No. 2 cornerback for the Broncos?

Jul 4, 2024, 2:56 PM | Updated: 2:57 pm

Riley Moss has size and speed to spare.

But during his rookie season, the chances for the 2023 third-round pick to use both of those attributes to their maximum effectiveness were scant. Injuries in OTAs and training camp wiped out his potential practice repetitions, and he found himself largely lost in the shuffle.

Thus, what the University of Iowa product could extract from that rookie season revolved around taking little steps to find his footing at the highest level. Milestones like first career start and first career interception weren’t going to be the markers of his rookie season.

That made it difficult to find a comfort zone.

“In college, you see these guys in the NFL, and it’s a little intimidating,” Moss said. “But once you get out here, really, there are very talented guys in the NFL — don’t get me wrong — but you just have to have confidence and go out there and do your thing, because you’re here for a reason.”

And eventually, Riley Moss figured that out.

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“It stopped being intimidating, 100 percent,” Moss said during minicamp. “And it helped being able to go out there last year and get some dime reps and actually be able to get out there and play some defense.”

Still, the moment that Moss realized he belonged in the NFL didn’t come on defense. Instead, it happened on special teams, where he played 65 percent of the team’s snaps in that phase.

“We were playing Detroit, and I made a tackle on a punt,” Moss said, referring to a tackle that he made on former Bronco Kalif Raymond late in the first quarter of what would be a 42-17 loss.

“And that was kind of my first really good play that I had made. Then I was like, ‘Why not me? This is football.’ That was probably the moment.”

That, as it turned out, was a first step. Whether he takes the next ones will determine whether he can join a front-line cornerback corps that appears settled at two of three starting spots.

THE KNOWN COMMODITIES: PAT SURTAIN II AND JA’QUAN McMILLIAN

For Surtain, this year is about growing as a leader. To that end, he’s working with defensive pass-game coordinator Jim Leonhard, a veteran of 10 NFL seasons — including 2012 with the Broncos — before going into the coaching ranks.

“I’m always open to learning new things, and Coach Leonhard, he’s done that a high level on the NFL stage, and he knows what a winning culture looks like, what a winning leadership room looks like. He just provides the examples as necessary for the DB room.”

And then there is Ja’Quan McMillian, who at slot cornerback spent the 2023 season ascending from injury replacement to core contributor. Such a transition can happen in a hurry, and for McMillian — who made his debut with a feisty, resilient performance during the 2022 season finale — ensured that the Broncos were settled in the slot, choosing not to re-sign the talented-but-injury-plagued K’Waun Williams.

But Surtain and McMillian are far from enough.

“You need four, maybe five guys,” Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said.

THE BATTLE FOR NO. 2: DAMARRI MATHIS, RILEY MOSS AND LEVI WALLACE

Free-agent pickup Levi Wallace is the known commodity — much like Fabian Moreau was when he hopped into training camp last year and eventually became the starter. As recently as 2021, he started every game; he has 70 starts in total during his career, including 9 in each of the last two seasons.

Damarri Mathis started to open last season following a promising rookie season, but after opponents picked at him during the regular season’s first six games, he lost his grip on the No. 2 job to Moreau. But during OTAs, Mathis appeared to show signs of recapturing the resilience that defined his rookie season, when he overcame a starting debut in which he committed four pass-interference penalties.

“I’ve been impressed with his technique and eye placement,” Joseph said. “He has physical traits that most corners don’t have; He has power, he has quickness, he has size. So, his thing was just upping his football I.Q., and he’s done that.

“So, it should be a good competition in training camp.”

And then there is Riley Moss, the player for which the Broncos sacrificed a third-round pick in order to move up and select him during the 2023 NFL Draft.


Riley Moss
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverSports.com)


Moss capped his offseason with a leaping breakup of a pass down the left sideline intended for Josh Reynolds, using his size and wingspan to his advantage.

“Just ran the go ball on me and I got great size and speed,” Moss said. “Those are my favorite balls to defend, to be honest with you. When I saw the ball come up, just make a play on it.

“I wish I would have been able to pick it, but at the same time, you have to have a quick memory.”

That’s part of the mental side Moss brings.

“He’s smart. I’d say you feel his length at corner,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “When I say that, just even on that play, it’s a tougher play to make if you’re a shorter corner. So you feel his length. He has really good transitional skills, and I think he’s smart. He’s picking up the technique, and he has versatility outside (and inside).”

The youth in the room, including Riley Moss, excites Surtain.

“I think just hungry, eager to learn, eager to get better,” he said. “Guys know the potential they have and they’re ready to prove it. I think that just goes for everybody in the room.”

FIGHTING FOR ROLES — AND TO MAKE AN IMPRESSION

Special-teams roster construction could change in the wake of the new kickoff rules. However, those changes seem unlikely to consume Tremon Smith, who may well become even more important this year than he was when he played a 391 special-teams snaps last season, the second-highest figure on the team behind inside linebacker Justin Strnad. Smith saw just one defensive snap last year.

Smith also adds value as a contingency plan on returns, although he had just one kickoff or punt runback last year following two seasons in which he was Houston’s primary kickoff returner.

For rookie Kris Abrams-Draine, it’s a question of how far he can advance and whether he can nudge his way into the rotation. The fifth-round pick had some flashes during OTAs, but he will likely need to nudge past whichever cornerback loses out in the scrum for playing time in the top three in order to carve out a week-in, week-out role.

Art Green spent the entire 2023 season on the practice squad, and arguably possesses the best straight-line speed of anyone in the cornerback room. He never got on the field last season, but did show enough for the Broncos to bring him back this offseason to compete for a roster spot. Reese Taylor is another first-year player off of the practice squad; he joined the Broncos last November. At 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, he doesn’t have the length of some of the other cornerbacks in the room. Like Green and undrafted rookie Quinton Newsome, Taylor will need to show some explosiveness on special teams in order to stick.

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