By ZACK KELBERMAN
(247SPORTS) – Among the more eyebrow-raising moves of a jam-packed 72 hours in Dove Valley was the revelation that Denver Broncos safety Su’a Cravens needs to go under the knife.
Cravens, acquired via trade in March, made his long-awaited Denver debut in last week’s preseason finale against the Arizona Cardinals. He looked no worse for wear despite missing the entirety of training camp with a phantom knee injury. But that changed over the weekend. The knee acted up, his meniscus reportedly requiring surgery, prompting the team to shelve him on injured reserve.
Per NFL rules, Cravens will be sidelined at least eight regular season weeks. The hope, head coach Vance Joseph says, is that he returns on time.
“Su’a played really well Thursday,” Joseph said Monday. “He looked explosive, he tackled well, he looked good in space. As a high safety, he looked really good. I was really impressed with Su’a, and I was hoping his knee would respond the right way so he could play for us on Sunday, but it did not. He needs a scope to get it cleaned out. He’ll be back in hopefully two months.”
The Broncos will face the Houston Texans in Week 9 before hitting their bye. It might make more sense, depending on his rehab, to hold Cravens out until Week 11, when they play the Chargers in Los Angeles. Tight ends matchups matter — that’s why they traded for him in the first place — and L.A.’s Antonio Gates (even at 38) is infinitely more dangerous than Houston’s Ryan Griffin.
That’s a future discussion, however. In the present, the Broncos are relying on second-year man Dymonte Thomas to fill the void. Such is the reason they retained five safeties on the 53-man roster (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart, Will Parks, Cravens, Thomas).
The former undrafted free agent, taking Cravens’ place as the “dimebacker,” showed a glimpse of his potential in last month’s dress rehearsal against the Washington Redskins, blanketing tight end Vernon Davis and making numerous drive-ending stops.
“I thought he played really well for us last year, and obviously having a year under his belt, he’s definitely improved—especially at dime [backer],” said Joseph. “He wasn’t a dime all last year. He wasn’t really a dime until the Washington week. That’s been impressive. He can play that close to the ball, in coverage and in the run game, and not flinch. That’s a hard job for a young safety who’s never done it before. He’s been impressive as far as doing that job for us.”
Until Cravens gets back, it’s Thomas’ job to lose. He’ll come onto the field in sub-packages, along with Parks, who’s also capable of playing the safety/linebacker role. Combined, the two will aim to combat an issue that’s plagued Denver for several years: guarding TEs and pass-catching running backs — Cravens’ forte.
There will be an acclimation period , and consequently a few inevitable mishaps, but the light flipped on for Thomas in that Redskins game.
“Football’s football, nothing has changed,” he said. “The yards are still the same, the hashes are a little smaller now, but at the end of the day it’s still 11 men out there on the field and you’ve got to go out there and make the plays that come to you. That was my biggest thing: make the plays that come to you. Don’t go out there and do anything extra or anything special, because when you do that, that’s when you make mistakes. I just went out there and said, ‘You can do this, you got this. You studied the playbook, now just go out there and have fun.’ The first drive I had a lot of butterflies in me, but after that I settled in. Once I made that fourth-down stop, I was just like, ‘I can play this. I can do this.’ It helped me stay confident.”
Hopefully, for Denver’s sake, it burns bright until Cravens hits the grass again. And beyond.