Denver Broncos: 5 Priorities for the NFL Draft
Following a free-agency period that saw the Denver Broncos haul in one of the biggest free agent acquisitions in NFL history in the form of Peyton Manning, there is still much work needed to complete the roster.
With the draft approaching, Denver still has several positions of need.
#5 Offensive Guard/Center
Ben Jones, Georgia
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With the addition of Peyton Manning, Denver should be looking to improve the offensive line if they want to keep Manning healthy.
Last season's starters in the interior varied from awful to solid. Center J.D. Walton was downright awful in pass protection and only decent at run-blocking. Left guard Zane Beadles graded out as slightly below average in both areas. Longtime right guard Chris Kuper was solid in both aspects, but suffered a gruesome leg injury in the final week of the regular season and may not be ready to go at the beginning of the season.
Denver could go multiple ways in filling this need. A guard could be brought in to compete with Beadles and provide insurance should Kuper miss extended time. Brandon Washington out of Miami could also be an option here.
Another option would be to draft a center to compete with Walton. Ben Jones out of Georgia and Mike Brewster from Ohio State would both likely be improvements on Walton in pass protection, and although Jones shows much room for improvement as a run-blocker, Brewster would likely provide an immediate improvement over Walton as a run-blocker as well. Brewster does have a history of injury problems that could limit his appeal.
Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
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Denver shored up the linebacker corps by selecting rookie sensation Von Miller with the second-overall pick, and likely will add to the group again in this year's draft.
There are several options for Denver in the draft. In the third or fourth rounds, Denver could draft James-Michael Johnson out of Nevada or Tank Carder of TCU to compete with Joe Mays and Nate Irving for playing time at middle linebacker.
Another option is to wait until the fifth round and select Audie Cole out of North Carolina State. Cole is viewed by scouts as being able to play both inside and outside in a 4-3 set, which could prove useful with veteran D.J. Williams likely to miss the first six weeks of the season due to suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test. Cole could also push Wesley Woodyard for time in nickel-and-dime packages.
One especially intriguing option is to take former first-round prospect Vontaze Burfict out of Arizona State, who has tumbled down draft boards due to character concerns. The talent is there to be an NFL caliber linebacker, but scouts question whether Burfict will stay out of trouble both on and off of the field.
With that said, Burfict could possibly fall to Denver's last pick in the sixth round, where he could prove to be a steal.
B.J. Coleman, Chattanooga
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The additions of Manning and Hanie doesn't mean Denver is done adding to the quarterback corps this offseason.
Denver needs an understudy for Manning to take over once Manning's tenure as a Bronco is over. Hanie, although brought in to be Manning's backup, is not the quarterback of the future. That much is clear.
The Denver brain trust could pull a shocking move and trade up to select the likes of Ryan Tannehill out of Texas A&M in the top ten picks or take another quarterback with their early-round picks. However, it is more likely Denver will use a mid-round pick on a project quarterback who will learn as a clipboard-holder for Manning.
The upcoming draft is rife with quarterbacks, and Denver could grab a quarterback anywhere from the third to the fifth round. Ultimately it could all come down to which passer catches John Elway's eye.
Likely targets include Brock Osweiler out of Arizona State, projected to be a late second or early third-round pick, and B.J. Coleman out of Chattanooga, projected to be a fourth or fifth-round pick. Both have upsides, but project to be developmental quarterbacks in the NFL that may need several seasons of work to become starters.
#2 Running Back
LaMichael James, Oregon
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Even though Denver had the top rushing attack in 2011, the rushing unit will need to be bolstered if Denver is to repeat as a crushing run first offense.
Willis McGahee's breakout season should not be taken lightly, and will return as Denver's feature back. With that said, McGahee will turn 31 years old during the 2012 season and showed significant wear late in the season.
Last season's rushing statistics also include a large contribution from departed quarterback Tim Tebow, who had over 600 yards and six touchdowns on over 100 carries. Peyton Manning will definitely not run the ball like Tebow, and if someone is to pick up the slack it is not likely one of the other running backs on the roster.
The other options on the roster include backups Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson. Former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno is also on the roster, although he is likely to begin the season on the PUP list due to an ACL injury suffered during the 2011 campaign.
Like the quarterback class in this season's draft, there are plenty of early-round running backs to choose from. Denver could use their second-round pick on any of Lamar Miller (Miami), Chris Polk (Washington) and Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati). Additionally, Denver could wait until the third round and hope that LaMichael James out of Oregon remains with the 25th pick.
#1 Defensive Tackle
Michael Brockers, LSU
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By far Denver's biggest need going into the draft is defensive tackle.
In 2011, Denver finished in the bottom half in yards allowed per game and yards allowed per carry on defense. The only reason Denver didn't rank among the bottom-five in both of these statistics was due to the solid play of linebacker Joe Mays and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley against the run.
Denver was able to re-sign Mays to a multi-year deal. Bunkley instead signed with the New Orleans Saints, leaving a large gap at tackle that Denver neglected to fill in free agency.
The roster is thin at tackle, highlighted by veterans Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson, who are both coming off of injury-ridden campaigns. Denver did nothing to add talent at the position, and at this point there is little the organization can do outside of the draft.
The top three tackles in the draft are Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), Dontari Poe (Memphis) and Michael Brockers (LSU). By Denver's pick at 25, at least two of these tackles figure to be out of the equation, if not all three.
Poe projects as more of a 3-4 nose tackle, so if available Denver may choose to pass in favor of a more prototypical 4-3 tackle. Meanwhile, both Cox and Brockers project as well-sized, athletic tackles who will be active both in run-stuffing and rushing the passer.