Denver Broncos: 10 Best NFL Draft Picks in John Elway's Exec Era
Best known for leading his team to victory on the field, John Elway spent the past three years helping build the team he now leads off the field through the NFL draft. Serving as the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations since January 2011, Elway handpicked several key additions to a Broncos roster that has undergone a tremendous transformation since he came onboard.
When the former two-time Super Bowl champ assumed his current executive role, the Mile High City had hit rock bottom.
In 2010, Denver posted its worst regular-season record (4-12) since the year before Elway’s rookie season when the team went 2-7 (a strike-shortened 1982 season). Furthermore, the 2010 Broncos were in the midst of the club’s longest playoff drought since the 1970s, missing the postseason five consecutive years.
Once again, the fans of Denver would put their faith in the “Comeback Kid” to turn their team around.
Through three drafts and several high-impact free-agency acquisitions, Elway helped the 2013 Broncos ascend all the way to its first Super Bowl appearance since Elway’s final season as a player in 1998. It’s no wonder Broncos owner Pat Bowlen recently added the role of general manager to Elway’s title.
Now, with another NFL draft just weeks away, let’s reflect on Denver’s impressive transformation by counting down the best picks from the first three years of Elway’s executive era.
Honorable Mention: Kayvon Webster, CB (2013, Round 3, 90th Overall)
The rookie out of South Florida shouldered an unexpected amount of the backup cornerback workload following Champ Bailey’s preseason foot injury that kept him out most of last season. Webster started the year shaky in coverage but improved steadily throughout the season. He appears to have the tools and athleticism to eventually develop into a starter and should compete for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris.
Honorable Mention: Brock Osweiler, QB (2012, Round 2, 57th Overall)
The 6’8”, 240-pound backup quarterback is the heir apparent to the almighty Peyton Manning. It’s a good thing Osweiler is a giant because he could have some enormous shoes to fill sometime in the next few years. Elway brought in “Oz” about one month after signing Manning, signaling his belief that the 23-year-old out of Arizona State possesses the mental and physical tools necessary to lead the franchise down the road.
Honorable Mention: Sylvester Williams, DT (2013, Round 1, 28th Overall)
When defensive tackle Kevin “Big Vick” Vickerson went down in Week 12 last year with a season-ending injury, the first-round pick hailing from North Carolina quickly saw his role in the defense increase. Much like fellow rookie Webster, Williams faced a sharp learning curve and became more reliable as the season progressed.
Williams' size and power likely enticed Elway to use such a high-value pick on the tackle, and the team hopes that value will be realized going forward.
Honorable Mention: Orlando Franklin, OG (2011, Round 2, 46th Overall)
One of five 2011 drafts picks currently in a starting role for the Broncos, Franklin is the only offensive linemen to make this list. He’s proven to be a solid and flexible contributor capable of shifting from guard to tackle, something he’s had to do since his college days at Miami. Franklin started 47 of 48 games in his NFL career.
Honorable Mention: Rahim Moore, FS (2011, Round 2, 45th Overall)
Moore is a solid all-around free safety who should be back to full health in 2014 following a leg injury that ended his 2013 season. He is a worthy starting safety and should thrive in Denver’s new-look secondary. With former Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward joining the Broncos this offseason, Moore now has an elite-level counterpart in the secondary. The two should complement each other nicely, combining Ward’s phenomenal run defense with Moore’s solid coverage and tackling ability.
5. Derek Wolfe, DE (2012, Round 2, 36th Overall)
2012 Stats: 16 games played | 40 tackles | 6 sacks | 2 passes defensed
Denver traded down out of the first round of the 2012 draft, finally selecting Wolfe with pick 36 in the second round. His rookie year showed great promise for Wolfe to develop into a permanent fixture on the defensive line. However, he suffered a scary spinal cord injury in the 2013 preseason that later caused seizure-like symptoms and kept Wolfe out for the remainder of the year. Despite the seriousness of his condition, Wolfe vowed to return “bigger, faster [and] stronger” in 2014.
Finally. Derek Wolfe said "I'm going to come back bigger, faster, stronger. ready to start training next week." Wolfe has gained back 20 pds— Lionel Bienvenu (@lionelbienvenu) February 26, 2014
Wolfe is known for his top-notch work ethic, so if he is physically able to return to full strength, he should get there. Plus, he needs to get back into the starting line-up so that he and DeMarcus Ware can officially get the “WareWolfe” nickname to catch on.
4. Montee Ball, RB (2013, Round 2, 58th Overall)
2013 Stats: 16 Games Played | 559 Rushing Yards | 145 Receiving Yards | 4 Touchdowns
With Knowshon Moreno headed to the Miami Dolphins, the high-profile position that is Denver’s starting tailback is Ball’s for the taking. Moreno’s measly one-year, $3 million deal signifies two likely conclusions: First, the Broncos had the cap space to re-sign Moreno but chose not to do so.
Second, the idea of Ball as the starter does not bother Elway. With few decent running backs still available in free agency following the Moreno signing, the Broncos’ options beyond Ball are few.
For a team with Super Bowl or bust expectations (again), Ball should be quite honored with Elway & Co.’s vote of confidence. While issues with fumbling and pass protection limited Ball’s workload in 2013, the sense in Dove Valley must be that those struggles are a thing of the past. While Ball’s role as a rusher is surely important, his responsibility to keep Manning upright might be the most critical aspect of his job.
The NCAA’s all-time touchdown leader exhibited his potential to be a workhorse back in college, now Ball should get the chance to prove it in the NFL.
3. Danny Trevathan, OLB (2012, Round 6, 188th Overall)
2013 Stats: 16 games played | 129 tackles | 3 interceptions | 4 forced fumbles
Thus far it appears that 2012 was Elway’s weakest draft of the three, but Trevathan stands out as the one true bright spot. In just two years, he has developed into an every-down defensive player, holding down the weak-side linebacker position and leading the team in tackles in 2013. As a late sixth-round draft selection, Trevathan is one of the best value picks of the Elway era.
Matt Miller ranks Trevathan at No. 10 in his 4-3 outside linebacker NFL 1000 player rankings, touting his run defense and tackling. Miller notes that Trevathan boasts an “effective combination of speed and strength,” and compliments his ability to put “an end to run plays, many times single-handedly.”
His leadership on and off the field, competitive attitude and consistent high level of play makes Trevathan one of Elway’s best picks of his executive career.
2. Julius Thomas, TE (2011, Round 4, 129th Overall)
2013 Stats: 14 games played | 65 receptions | 788 receiving yards | 12 touchdowns
After totaling a whopping one reception for seven yards in his first two seasons with the Broncos, Thomas busted out of his shell in 2013, racking up 12 receiving touchdowns. The former college basketball player from Portland State adds another dangerous receiving weapon to Manning’s already-loaded arsenal.
Selecting late in the fourth round, Elway found one of the best steals of the 2012 draft in Thomas.
A matchup nightmare for just about any defensive back, Thomas’ great size and athleticism allows him to bully defenses and impose his will in jump-ball situations. His raw receiving skills and route running still need refining, but that means Thomas should just keep getting better.
1. Von Miller, OLB (2011, Round 1, 2nd Overall)
2012 Stats: 16 games played | 55 tackles | 18.5 sacks | 6 forced fumbles | 14 run stuffs
2013 Stats: 9 games played | 27 tackles | 5 sacks | 3 forced fumbles | 7 run stuffs
With the Broncos’ highest first-round pick since 1962 (when the team selected Hall of Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams), Denver drafted Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller second overall in 2011. Elway’s first pick as an executive may be the most impactful personnel decision he has made for Denver thus far, other than signing Manning.
Rated as the league’s top 4-3 outside linebacker in Matt Miller’s NFL 1000 player rankings, Von Miller is a defensive playmaker of the highest caliber. Grading him with a perfect score for pass rush and run defense, Matt Miller describes the Broncos linebacker as an “active and aggressive tackler” who “is strong enough now to…take on blockers to hold the corner” and “quick enough to shoot into the backfield and make a play on the ball before the runner can get into space.”
Miller’s transcendent 2012 season put him in the league’s Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and the team hopes the 25-yeasr-old can return to form following a rough 2013. After serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and then suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 16, Miller has tremendous incentive to have a big comeback year in 2014.
With just one year left on his rookie contract, the All-Pro linebacker could see a major contract extension if he can get back on track both on and off the field.