The Denver Broncos took free agency by storm, throwing money around and vastly improving the team.
They added grit and toughness and raw talent. They brought in players with a mean streak. They gave their defense a little bit of attitude and anger to go along with that record-setting offense.
Watching it happen, you sort of got the feeling John Elway was embarrassed by the Super Bowl. He's been on the losing end of some Super Bowl blowouts before, and he knows how it feels.
He hated that performance.
Of course, the huge upside to Elway is that he's also been on the winning side. He knows what it takes to hold that trophy over your head as time runs out. He watched that Super Bowl and he hated it, and, at the same time, he spent the whole contest analyzing the team and figuring out what changes had to be made so it wouldn't happen again.
Impact on the Draft
As the draft draws near, though, it's clear free agency has altered what the Broncos need to do. They are built to win right now, and they've filled a lot of the holes on the team without bringing in rookies.
The nice thing about this, for Denver, is that rookies rarely have huge impacts in their first years. Sure, some quarterbacks are able to step in and instantly improve teams, and running backs like Alfred Morris can burst onto the scene. But the odds of getting a guy like that, especially with pick No. 31, are slim.
You can't count on it.
For a team built to win next year, the free agents take a lot of pressure off of the draft. You still need to make good picks, but you're not counting on that player to lead you to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos needed a pass-rusher who could draw double-teams and open things up for Von Miller on the other side. They could have taken a shot on one in the first round, but instead they brought in DeMarcus Ware.
Who do you double-team now? If it's Ware, then Miller is going to get open looks on the other side. If it's Miller, Ware is going to thrive in one-on-one situations that he rarely saw in Dallas.
The Ware signing is huge because Denver no longer has to bring in a DE in the first round. They may want to take one late because Ware is not getting any younger and the team has to plan for the future, but they do not need someone who can start right out of the blocks.
This is perhaps the signing that has the most impact on the draft. Denver definitely needed an upgrade at safety, someone who could lay people out and really hammer receivers coming across the field. There was talk that they were looking at guys like Calvin Pryor, out of Louisville.
By bringing in Ward, Elway is basically saying they won't draft a safety early. It's not a priority. Not only is Ward an elite safety in the league, a guy who gives the team everything it needs and more, but he's young. This is just his second contract. They can pair him with Rahim Moore and have a duo for the foreseeable future.
They may draft for depth or based on talent if someone falls, but they do not have to trade up, surrendering picks to get a guy like Pryor.
The Talib signing is interesting because Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie turned the Broncos down and bolted for New York. Denver already needed to replace Champ Bailey, and Talib does that, but now they have to replace DRC as well.
Not bringing in another corner in free agency obviously means they feel great about Chris Harris, and they should. He was a terrific corner before he tore his ACL. It's just a bit of a risk because it's unlikely he'll be ready to go by the beginning of the season, and it's even hard to know how well he'll come back in the long run, though he has said he's doing very well with his rehab.
If Harris is fine, he and Talib are an excellent pairing. The Broncos also have Kayvon Webster, who really looked like a rookie in 2013 but who could theoretically step up and contribute at a higher level. Corner is a notoriously hard position for a rookie to play.
That being said, Denver still needs to target a top-tier corner in the draft. Talib has an injury history, Harris is out and Webster may not be the answer.
They need someone who can play opposite Talib until Harris is back. At that point, the rookie could move over to nickle, or he could split those snaps with Webster. They could both develop in preparation for Talib's departure, whenever that comes, as he's not the youngest corner in the game.
This pick will be crucial. They may want to target someone like Jason Verrett, out of TCU. They do not need a corner who can take out top receivers, as Talib should do that, but they need someone good enough to potentially see snaps as early as the first week of the season.
The Sanders pickup was full of drama and intrigue, and, while it's hard to say for certain how everything played out, the end result is that the Broncos now have a lightning-fast second receiver who is the perfect complement to this offense.
He can stretch the field and take the top off of the coverage, opening everything up for Julius Thomas and Wes Welker underneath.
The double-teams and safety shifts are going to roll the coverage toward Demaryius Thomas, of course, so Sanders should get a lot of one-on-one situations, and he's great at getting separation and creating space. He should catch a lot of passes and make some big plays.
The one knock on him that people will bring up is his tendency to drop passes, but the stats do not support it. He had a better drop percentage last season than a few receivers who had decent years, statistically.
Their names are Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
In any case, the draft is very deep with wide receiver talent. The Broncos no longer have to scramble to replace Decker, but they should still take someone to make the most of that talent pool. Grabbing a good receiver in the third round or the fourth round would help to build for the future.
Again, the beauty of it is they only need someone who can be a No. 5 wideout, behind Thomas, Sanders, Welker and Andre Caldwell. They can concentrate on other positions at the start of the draft and get depth and future talent later.
The glaring hole in the Denver defense is at middle linebacker. Wesley Woodyard wasn't really up to the challenge, and he's gone now anyway. Paris Lenon wasn't the answer. Von Miller plays strictly on the outside, as a pass-rusher.
The Broncos are trying to bring attitude and toughness to their defense, and having a hard-nosed linebacker who can stuff the run and lead the team with passion and drive will go a long way toward creating that defensive identity.
The Broncos missed their chance to sign anyone big in free agency, so it looks like they will be targeting a linebacker in the draft. Two Big Ten prospects could be perfect for the job.
First, there is Chris Borland. The Wisconsin product is a leader on the field, he has great instincts, and he racks up a lot of tackles. He's a smart player who understands the game and his role in it. He could potentially step in and start from the first week.
The downside to Borland is that his measurable statistics leave a bit to be desired. He's not as big as you'd like, and there's some talk he won't be able to be the bruising linebacker in the NFL he was in college because he'll get pushed around.
Another option for the position would be Max Bullough, out of Michigan State. He's projected to be drafted later, with some people even looking at him as someone who will go in the last two rounds of the draft. If that happens, the Broncos could theoretically take him late even if they took Borland (or Standford's Shayne Skov, who would be a phenomenal choice if he's still on the board) early.
In many ways, Bullough is similar to Borland in that he's a natural leader. He was also part of a Spartan defense that was near the very top of the NCAA for much of his time there. He could rally the troops and get them to play with heart and determination. The question would be whether or not he is fast enough to make it in the NFL, or if he will just get swallowed up at the line.
Building a Contender
John Elway has done a lot to build a serious contender. He's already made it so that Broncos fans are starting to forget about the last Super Bowl and look forward to the future. With the right moves in the draft, he could set the team up as the favorites to win the AFC and get another shot to take home that Lombardi Trophy.
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