The Denver Broncos had a tight grip on the AFC West last year, but the other three teams in the division are going to do everything they can to close that gap. If the Broncos want to win a Super Bowl, they need to address a few weaknesses that opponents are sure to find in the offseason.
While the best place to address a weakness is usually through the NFL draft, there's a good chance that the Broncos were playing extra close attention to the NFL combine. This is where teams get valuable medical information, baseline athletic testing and a chance to meet with 60 players.
Observations are made at the combine that impact the final draft board. The Broncos might drop players entirely off the draft board due to a medical concern, bump a player up because of a great interview or confirm their original scouting report. So what did we learn at the combine as it pertains to the Denver Broncos?
It’s a week draft at inside linebacker
Kevin Minter, Manti Te’o and Alex Ogletree are the three top-rated inside linebackers. Unless the Broncos think the undersized Arthur Brown is an inside linebacker, there isn’t a top option at the position. The top-rated inside linebackers are expected to be drafted no higher than the middle of the first round.
The good news for the Broncos is they may have the opportunity to draft the best inside linebacker in the entire draft at the end of the first round. The question will be if they like any of those inside linebackers more than the young players they already have on their roster.
Ogletree was advertised as an athletic linebacker with a spotty off-the-field record, but he didn’t test very well at the combine. One of his weaknesses is coverage, which means there might not be a lot that will separate him from Keith Brooking and Joe Mays.
Te’o has become one of the most interesting stories of the draft. The coverage regarding Notre Dame's star linebacker reached Tebow-like levels at the combine. Keeping in mind how quickly the Broncos wanted to move away from that kind of media attention last year, Te’o doesn’t seem like a good fit. He still might be someone worth considering given his MVP-like season with the Irish.
Minter might end up being the best inside linebacker to come out of this draft, but his coverage skills are also in question. Considering how much passing there is in the league and that Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller never come off the field, and it’s worth wondering if a two-down linebacker is the way to go early in the draft.
Brown is the only guy who excels at coverage, but he’s a more natural fit at the weak-side linebacker position that Woodyard secured last season. If the Broncos drafted Brown (provided he falls that far), they would have the most interesting trio of linebackers in the entire league. It would make perfect sense to have two cover-linebackers and one pass-rusher with the way offenses are developing, so you couldn’t blame them for trying.
The inside linebackers are so uninspiring that it wouldn’t be a shock if one wasn’t drafted in the first round. It seems like it may be in the Broncos' best interest to continue to put a bandage on the MIKE position while their young linebackers develop.
There are a lot of good defensive backs and defensive linemen
What the draft lacks in star power it makes up for in depth. This is particularly true at cornerback, safety and defensive tackle. There are at least four cornerbacks who could garner first-round consideration as well as almost a dozen defensive linemen.
The Broncos signed Tracy Porter, Justin Bannan and Mike Adams last year as stop-gaps at positions of need. In 2013, they will have the opportunity to fill those positions through the draft. The need at cornerback is not quite as strong as it was in 2012 thanks to the development of Chris Harris, but you need three or four cornerbacks to be successful and Champ Bailey isn’t getting any younger.
The only cornerback that didn’t drastically increase his stock at the combine was Johnthan Banks, who ran the 40-yard dash in just 4.61 seconds. Better options for the Broncos may include Desmond Trufant and Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes plays outside only, making him an interesting fit because he could bump Harris into the slot on passing downs.
It’s pretty unlikely that one of the top defensive tackles falls to the Broncos, but they might be open to moving up for a guy who falls. The Broncos could use a player who can pass rush from the inside to complement Derek Wolfe, but they could opt for a big run stopper in the same mold as Bannan.
Jesse Williams could play nose tackle, which basically allows the Broncos to play a lot of the 3-4 hybrid fronts they used last year. Johnathan Hankins would also fit that role and has the versatility to play in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
There is strong talent at the top of the draft, which could make players like Williams and Hankins great values at the end of the first round.
If the Broncos are looking for a strong safety, there are also several quality options which will be available at the bottom of the first round, Kenny Vaccaro and D.J. Swearinger just to name a few.
The Broncos could go in any number of directions with their first pick, but they have to like what they are seeing from the class of defensive tackles, cornerbacks and safeties. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Broncos addressed all of those positions on Day 1 and Day 2 of the draft, while looking for a free agent or two to fill their other needs. Most of the depth in the draft also coincides with the Broncos' needs. They have to love that.