CENTENNIAL, CO – MAY 29: Denver Broncos defensive back Su’a Cravens #21 warming up during Denver Broncos OTA practice at UCHealth Training Center Centennial, Colorado May 29, 2019.(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
Su’a Cravens walks off the Broncos’ practice field these days like a man with a winning lottery ticket.
“I’m learning to be grateful for whatever moment I have,” he said. “The fact that we’re out here practicing in the sun is good enough for me.”
But it’s difficult to imagine Cravens’ sunny disposition in the waning months of 2018. Cravens, a second-round safety acquired from Washington, endured three straight games as a healthy Broncos scratch to finish his first year in Denver. He tallied just 117 defensive snaps and 18 tackles over five games after rehabbing a preseason knee injury that he said lingered the entire year.
Then Cravens had these words for reporters in December: “I’m going to do whatever (coach Vance Joseph) says. But as far as him saying he got the best players on the field, I disagree.”
New leadership under coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell provided a needed lifeline. Look deeper into Cravens’ mental transformation, though, and another source of inspiration emerges. A name Broncos Country knows well.
“If it wasn’t for Steve Atwater,” Cravens said, “I would not be on this team.”
Atwater, a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist and co-host of weekday sports talk on Orange and Blue Radio (AM 760), is a regular in Denver’s locker room conducting interviews. His relationship with the safeties group is especially tight, and when Cravens’ season spiraled, Atwater often stopped by for what he called “small conversations” and “nothing earth-shattering.” Perhaps he’s unaware of just how profound those talks became.
“If the relationship is not a solid one between the coach and the player, it can get to be where it’s almost unbearable for both sides,” Atwater said. “I’m not saying it was like that last year, but I’ve seen it happen from time to time.”
Cravens’ stance on the circumstances of his healthy scratches were coaching decisions based on personal preference, not merit, and “there was no explanation.”
Atwater gave the following advice: “This is your career. You can’t really get that upset or down after something a coach is doing or something a coach has said. You have to keep grinding, keep working and continue to ask coach what you can do to get better. Don’t focus on anything else.”
“For me, it was like, look at myself in the mirror before I get upset like a younger me would have,” Cravens said. “Understand what’s going on, talk to Steve and learn some kind of patience.”
He now has an opportunity to put that mindset into action. The Broncos wrapped up mandatory mini-camp with Cravens featured almost exclusively at nickel safety and as the second-team starter. Versatility between Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Will Parks and Cravens gives Fangio any number of combinations on the back end. One variable is non-negotiable.
“Anything besides safety is just a couple crumbs here and there; (Cravens) has got to win a job on this team as a safety,” Fangio said.
Cravens enthusiastically accepted the assignment. He’s shifted between linebacker/safety hybrid roles since his sophomore season at USC but entered the college realm as the nation’s top high school safety prospect (Vista Murrieta, Calif.). He remains confident in those roots, as always, with a vocal bravado that rivals any Denver defender. And Fangio’s scheme inspires increased confidence. “The defense simplifies everything and allows guys like me to play fast and really use your instincts. And I feel that’s my best asset,” Cravens said.
But can Cravens can back up that talk during real-game settings? A clean slate with a new staff provides an even playing field.
“(Cravens) is just like all of the other DBs,” Donatell said. “The biggest thing right now is to learn the system, and then to improve your technique. We’ll take it into camp, put the pads on and see where that goes. … He’s been good and brings good energy.”
Atwater remains confident in Cravens’ maturity and described his game as “phyisical” and “smart.” Securing a spot on the 53-man roster will require creativity within the scheme. Cravens must find his niche, and when things get tough, he’ll find an ally who once wore the orange and blue with pride.
“I think the sky is the limit for (Cravens),” Atwater said. “It’s up to him what he makes of it.”