The Denver Broncos are trying to win a Super Bowl next season, but they will have to avoid the hangover of being the loser of the previous year’s big game. Free-agent acquisitions like strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware will ensure the Broncos don’t take a step back in 2014.
General manager John Elway is hoping the additions will help his team take a step forward—especially on defense.
The offseason spending spree means that the Broncos don’t need immediate starters in the NFL draft. Without any glaring holes, the Broncos are in rare position to pick for luxury.
Elway can draft a raw player with more risk and a higher upside than he would if he absolutely needed his first-round pick to have an impact his rookie season. In a way, the Broncos did that last season when they selected defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
Assessing the Needs
Although the Broncos have very few needs, that doesn’t mean they have 22 great starters. The Broncos can draft for need and luxury by drafting a player with high upside who won’t sit behind a starter if he develops quickly.
Wasting a draft pick like the Broncos did when they selected quarterback Brock Osweiler with the 57th overall selection of the 2012 NFL draft is not a move they should repeat but is the definition of a luxury pick. For example, drafting a wide receiver early makes very little sense unless the team wants to take snaps away from Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Sanders.
If the Broncos really want to address a need, the most glaring hole on the roster is at middle linebacker. Wesley Woodyard wasn’t re-signed, and his 36-year-old replacement last year, Paris Lenon, is a free agent.
The Broncos have penciled Nate Irving in as the starter inside, but he has played on the strong side since defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio arrived two years ago. It’s a sign that the Broncos’ preference is for Irving to stay outside.
|Middle Linebacker Comparison|
|Players||2013 Position||2013 Snaps||PFF Grade||On Roster|
|Credit: Pro Football Focus|
There are other young options on the roster, but none who is guaranteed to contribute at a high level in 2014. Middle linebacker is one position where drafting an immediate starter is probable if they use their first-round pick.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, it’s not a draft heavy on talented inside linebackers. With defenses using nickel packages so much, drafting an inside linebacker who will play only half the snaps in the first round also seems like a waste. A middle linebacker is more like a sub-package player.
Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only inside linebacker currently projected to go in the first round by most experts. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah has him ranked ninth overall, CBSSports.com 23rd and Bleacher Report’s NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller has him ranked 17th.
If Mosley were to fall, he’d be the perfect fit for the Broncos. If the Broncos really want to address a need with Mosely, they may have to trade up. If not, the Broncos will be looking at drafting a player who will likely sit behind a starter unless there is an injury.
The Broncos could certainly use depth in the secondary, but they are pretty set with the starters. Talib and Kayvon Webster will play outside and Chris Harris Jr. in the slot. As long as Harris can recover from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season, the Broncos have their starters at cornerback.
With Harris a bit iffy and Webster still somewhat unproven, the Broncos could go with a cornerback in the first round. The team only has four cornerbacks on the roster, so bringing in depth makes sense.
The problem with drafting a cornerback early is what to do if everyone is healthy and playing well. It’s a good problem to have but still a problem. Unless the Broncos' plan consists of not re-signing Harris next year, there isn't much reason to force the issue for a cornerback if the right player isn’t there.
|Broncos' Thin Corps of Cornerbacks|
|Player||2013 Snaps||2013 PFF Grade||Notes|
|Aqib Talib||856||-0.3||Battled injury most of the season|
|Chris Harris Jr||1059||+10.9||Coming off ACL|
|Kayvon Webster||487||-3.9||Going into Year 2|
|Tony Carter||270||-5.5||Undersized. Benched in Week 6 until Harris' injury in Week 16.|
|Credit: Pro Football Focus|
The good news is there is a handful of cornerbacks who would provide value to the Broncos at the end of the first round or even into the early part of the second round if they wanted to trade back. One or more of Darqueze Dennard, Kyle Fuller, Bradley Roby and Jason Verrett could be available.
Verrett would be a clear hedge bet against Harris’ recovery because he lacks ideal size (5'9", 189 lbs) and projects best as a nickel cornerback. Talib played with Darqueze’s cousin, Alfonzo Dennard, with the Patriots, so there is some connection there.
“A lot of people see me as just a man-to-man corner but I can do everything else,” Dennard said via NFL.com. “I know how to play zone. I know how to play man-off. I know how to do other things as well. There's really not a scheme that doesn't fit me. I'm a versatile player.”
Like Mosely, Dennard may not fall to the Broncos. Miller’s overall ranking of 24 is toward the lower end of his projection. If the Broncos don’t plan to move up in the draft, they may have to set their sights a little lower.
|Cornerback Prospect Comparison|
|Player||Height||Weight||Matt Miller Rank||Daniel Jeremiah Rank||CB Rank||Average Rank|
|Credit: NFL.com., CBSSports.com, Bleacher Report|
The best option for the Broncos is probably Fuller or Roby. Fuller has a ranking and projection anywhere from 27 to 55 with Roby between 27 and 35. Jeremiah believes either player can play inside in the slot or outside, but added that Fuller “should be a Day 1 starter” in the NFL.
The knock on Fuller is that his press-man technique needs work. Jeremiah mentioned the need for him to improve his jam, but Bleacher Report featured columnist Ian Wharton wasn’t nearly as generous. Wharton said that that Fuller “struggled in press coverage due to poor hand usage” and “will need major refinement in this area.”
The knock on Roby was his ability to locate the ball in the air. Both Jeremiah and Wharton mentioned it in their scouting reports. Both players are roughly the same size, but Roby seems to fit the profile of what the Broncos would want in a cornerback.
Per Wharton, Roby has a low floor and high ceiling. If there was ever a time for the Broncos to take a chance on a talented player, this would be the year.
Elway will have to decide if bringing in depth at a position with two question marks is the right move. When he drafted Osweiler, Elway was almost certainly hedging his bet on Peyton Manning, who was still working his way back from multiple neck surgeries. He could be thinking of doing a similar hedge this year at cornerback.
Depth can be a good thing anywhere on the roster, but the Broncos' offseason moves have done nothing yet to solidify the weakness at cornerback. The talent in the draft synchronizes closely with the Broncos’ draft slot, making it one of the more intriguing options for Elway.
A true luxury pick would be one that isn’t necessary at all. In the case of the Broncos, a receiver, quarterback, running back, defensive tackle or defensive end would all fit that description.
The Broncos don’t need anyone at these positions because they already have a ton of depth. In most cases, the depth is the result of using draft picks on them over the last few years.
Maybe Elway will take advantage of the great depth at wide receiver in this draft to add yet another offensive weapon for Manning. Maybe he’ll bring in yet another pass-rusher to terrorize opposing signal-callers.
Elway has set the Broncos up for success both this season and beyond with good management. He’s in position to add a player at a position of strength and take risks that other organizations can't. As long as he isn’t taking a kicker or punter in the first round, the fans should be happy with the result.