Rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis emerging as bright spot on Broncos defense

After Damarri Mathis was pegged for four pass interference calls in his first NFL start in Week 6 against the Chargers, his rookie season could’ve gone two ways.

He could faded into a reserve role, as has been the fate of every other cornerback picked in the middle rounds in Denver’s recent draft history. Or he could take that tough game in stride, and continue growing into his potential.

Mathis took the latter route, and has since emerged as a bright spot in Denver’s disappointing season.

“He’s gotten better each and every week, and you can see it in his play,” cornerback Pat Surtain II said. “He’s getting more confident in his reads and he’s playing at a high level right now. Rookie or not, as a defense we’ve developed that confidence in him that he can go out and hold up each and every Sunday.”

The fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh saw his first serious action in Week 2, filling in for Surtain after leaving the game with a shoulder injury. That was the prelude to Mathis taking over for Ronald Darby in Week 5 when Darby suffered a season-ending torn ACL.

Mathis started the five games since, and head coach Nathaniel Hackett sees a player who “settled down” from the four-penalty performance in Los Angeles, a game where Mathis was flagged on the Chargers’ very first play.

“He’s done a really good job,” Hackett said. “As any corner, you’ve got to battle, especially when you’re getting matched up (and targeted) in one-on-one battles. The more he goes through that the more confidence he gets, and he’s going to keeping growing over time.”

Filling in on a Broncos secondary that’s third in the NFL with 186.8 passing yards allowed per game, Mathis has five passes defensed with 36 tackles (31 solo, one for loss). He’s given up 18 catches for 168 yards, per Denver Post game charting, and has been pegged with six penalties for 97 yards.

Mathis gave up four catches for 56 yards against the Raiders in Week 11, in addition to a five-yard penalty for illegal contact. Two of those receptions were to Davante Adams, including a 21-yarder. But Mathis also batted away a deep pass from Carr on third down in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, and had only allowed four catches for 20 yards in the three prior games combined.

“I’ve stayed confident in my own ability, knowing that things happen in the game, and I can’t let that affect my play in the future,” Mathis said. “After the (Chargers) game, I knew there were still many plays to be made in the season. I just need to continue to play hard and be mentally tough.”

A short memory helped Mathis flush his performance against the Chargers, while having an every-down role over the past month helped him better understand opposing offenses in real time. Mathis’ emergence could make Darby expendable for 2023, as Darby is under contract next season for a $13 million cap hit. Denver could save $10 million of that salary by cutting Darby by June 1.

“The repetitions have helped,” Mathis said. “Every week I’m seeing new looks, and new wrinkles, along with the same type of looks I’ve already seen. So I’m understanding where routes are breaking off, and what types of routes we are getting in different situations.”

Mathis wants to cut down on the quick routes he’s giving up, as happened on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter last Sunday when Mack Hollins caught a pair of five-yard passes against him. And Mathis is hungry for his first interception, which he believes will happen at some point in the second half of the season.

Meanwhile, the Broncos aren’t worried about Surtain’s confidence being hurt after Denver’s top cover cornerback suffered his first setback of the season against Las Vegas. Adams caught multiple passes on Surtain, including beating PS2 in man coverage for a 35-yard touchdown to win the game in overtime.

“The good thing about a really elite corner in this league is those things are going to happen — it’s all about how you react afterwards,” Hackett said. “I know he’s going to learn from it and get better from it and that’s what makes him an elite player.”

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