ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It happens to so many of the great cornerbacks and Champ Bailey knows it will happen to him, too.
Entering his 15th year in the NFL and still in search of the Super Bowl title that is the only piece missing from a Hall of Fame-bound career, Bailey knows the move from cornerback to safety is inevitable for defensive backs trying to prolong their careers.
“You’ve got to look at history,” Bailey told The Associated Press after practice on Thursday. “Ronnie Lott. Rod Woodson. Aeneas Williams. They all did it and they all did it before I did. History says this is about that time. I understand that and I’m not naive about it.”
Lott was 26 when he made the move — a small detour on his way to the Hall of Fame. Williams was 33. Woodson was 34. Bailey turned 35 in the offseason. He knows the whispers and questions get louder with each passing year.
Every time he gets beaten badly — and that happened twice in the playoff loss to Baltimore last year — it’s not simply a bad play, but rather a possible sign that his career is dwindling.
Every time the Broncos sign or draft another cornerback — and that happened a handful of times this offseason — it’s not simply a transaction but rather a possible sign the Broncos are looking for his eventual replacement.
All of which may be true, Bailey concedes.
“But nobody’s going to determine when I move if I don’t feel like it’s the right time,” he said. “It’ll definitely be a decision and, whether I’m here or somewhere else, it has to be the right fit.”
Through the first week of this, his 10th preseason with the Broncos, Bailey and Denver still look to be the right fit for each other, the way they have been since Bailey arrived in Denver in a trade with Washington for Clinton Portis in the 2004 offseason.
Bailey is lining up in his usual spot on the corner, sparring with members of Denver’s loaded receiving corps — namely, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. In deference to the mileage on those thirty-something legs, the Broncos are limiting his time on the practice field, the same way they have the last few seasons.
“I think that’s going to help in the long run,” Bailey said.
But his time on the sideline isn’t down time. It’s time spent observing, studying, mentoring. Bailey didn’t get to his spot as one of the most revered cornerbacks in the game without becoming a student of the game itself.
“I would say the defense, really,” cornerback Chris Harris said when asked what he’s learned from Bailey. “Being able to ID what the offenses are trying to do to try to attack me. Champ gives me an idea how guys want to run routes toward him.”
Harris is among those benefiting from playing in the same backfield as Bailey, but also among those who could be in line to take his spot one day.