|Bailey says football smarts and veteran savvy make up for what little speed he's lost. (US Presswire)|
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Most of the focus relating to the Denver Broncos might be on the future Hall of Famer on the offensive side -- you know, that quarterback named Manning -- but don't forget about the Canton Corner on the other side of the ball.
Champ Bailey will turn 34 next week, but he's a true freak of nature, a cover corner who still lines up week in and week out and plays man coverage on the other team's best receiver.
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That's tough to do for a young corner. Imagine one in his 14th season?
Yet Bailey remains one of the NFL's best corners, his ability to run stride-for-stride with top receivers making him one of the all-time best at his position.
When Deion Sanders passed the corner greatness baton to Bailey, he ran with it. But he's not ready to give it up just yet to the next group. There's still too much football left to play, too many passes left to knock down.
"I am still as good as I was when I was 22 or 23," Bailey said during a break between practices here during the team's minicamp. "I can't run as fast as I did then or jump as high. But I am smarter. I know how to take care of my body better. I know how to anticipate things a little better. I understand football a lot better, which keeps me on top of my game."
Bailey knows that age is becoming a factor. His body says so every week, more and more every year.
"I can tell I played for a while," Bailey said. "I don't bounce around like I used to when I was younger. I knew it would happen someday where I would start feeling older, but I can still play."
With veteran safety Brian Dawkins retiring and corner Andre Goodman released, Bailey is now the elder statesman in the Broncos secondary. The next oldest players are safety Mike Adams and backup corner Drayton Florence, both 31. After that, it's a group of players 25 and younger.
That's why Bailey decided to shave off his 2011 beard, something that made him look more like a bum on the corner than a Pro Bowl one.
"I had to do it to fit in," Bailey said of the shaving. "These guys are young. I had to do it to fit in."
Bailey admitted to me that the beard, which gained a lot of attention late last season, made him look older. He has a cleaner looking beard now, but says he has no plans to grow out that longer one again this season.
"We have young guys in the secondary," nickel corner Chris Harris said. "He told us he did it to be more like us."
At 22, Harris grew up pretending he was Bailey when he played corner in Pop Warner.
"We acted like we were Champ," Harris said. "We all wanted to be him."
Corner Tracy Porter was signed as a free agent to team with Bailey on the corner. I asked him if he's amazed at the way Bailey plays the position at his age.
"Not at all," Porter said. "He's been doing it for the last 13 years. He's still able to cover. I'm in awe of playing with him. He's Champ Bailey. He definitely a guy I'm over here learning from."
Bailey has been to seven Pro Bowls in his eight seasons with the Broncos and to 11 in his career, the most for any corner and one away from tying the record for Pro Bowl appearances held by Will Shields and Randall McDaniel. Unlike Deion Sanders, who is arguably the game's best cover player ever, Bailey is also a good tackler.
Watching him on tape is a corner clinic in coverage, a player who owns his island, even if his doesn't have a trendy name.
"Line me up with anybody in the league and I can run foot-to-foot with them," Bailey said.
He said he ran 4.3 for most of his career. Can he do it now?
"Not right now," he said after practice. "I'm tired. But if somebody told me I had to run a 40 in two weeks, I'd run a 4.3."
The move toward more passing and rules that make it tougher to cover has given legs to the idea that the shutdown cover corner no longer exists. I challenge anybody to pop in a Broncos tape and defend that idea.
Bailey's ability to take away the other team's top receiver allows Denver to do a lot of other things opposite him in terms of mixing up the coverage and rolling it to that side. That's huge in the way the wide-open game is played now.
"The shutdown corners are still there," Bailey said. "Don't get me wrong, it's rougher than it was when I first came into the league because of the rules. But you can get it done. That's only the elite. There are only two or three in the league who might be able to do it."
Denver has one of them. Bailey doesn't know how long he will continue, but said he still enjoys the game. He will take it year by year. But he knows that there were few corners who could line up and play man coverage at the age of 34, with Darrell Green being one of the few.
"It's very rare," Bailey said. "I started out doing it and I'm going to keep doing it until they tell me I can't."
Which, judging by the way he played in 2011, won't be anytime soon.