6 Undrafted Denver Broncos Players Who Could Prove to Be Gems
The Denver Broncos have an eye for talent. They have a quality scouting department led by general manager John Elway, director of player personnel Matt Russell and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert. Under Elway’s guidance, the team has made several quality picks in free agency and the draft.
The Broncos have also found real gems among the college free agents after the draft.
Players like cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (2011), strong safety Duke Ihenacho (2012), linebacker Steven Johnson (2012) and running back C.J. Anderson (2013) were all added as undrafted free agents. Harris and Ihenacho have both started for the Broncos, while Johnson and Anderson are fine depth players with starter’s upside.
This year after the draft, the Broncos may have added their best class of college free agents yet. They acquired multiple players with varying levels of talent and upside. Some of the players could become good role players, but a few could be much more.
Here’s a look at six of the undrafted Broncos players added this year who could prove to be gems in the future.
The Broncos added a slot receiver with the ability to be a star when they signed Isaiah Burse as a college free agent. This wide receiver class was incredibly talented, and that may have caused him to go undrafted even though he caught 100 passes last year at Fresno State.
He has elite quickness and can make ankle-breaking moves regularly. He has good burst in and out of his breaks and loves to toy with defenders in the open field.
In college he was a consistent and trusted receiver of quarterback Derek Carr. In 13 games during the 2013 season, Burse had 10 games with five or more catches. His consistency wasn’t the only thing of note from his college days.
He was clutch when the team needed to make a comeback. When his team trailed by seven or less points, he caught a majority of his passes (25) and touchdowns (three) in 2013.
At minicamp he has stood out because of his quickness and ability to gain yards after the catch. He can run jerk routes to get open underneath, but he can also fly downfield for a deep target. Burse does a good job of tracking passes over his shoulder, and he has good body control near the pylon.
Several slot receivers were undrafted yet became solid players (or more) in the NFL. The Broncos very own Wes Welker was undrafted when he came out of Texas Tech in 2004. He started with the San Diego Chargers as a college free agent, but they cut him, so he had to then a roster spot with the Miami Dolphins.
Welker loves being a role model for Burse.
“It’s great. It makes me feel old, that’s for sure. But no, it’s very cool. As a young guy whenever I was coming in, I was in San Diego, it was Tim Dwight and Eric Parker, and some of those guys that I looked up to. So I think you have to have that guy, that mentor, that guy, that older guy to kind of show you, not only through watching him in practice and everything else, but asking questions and trying to get on the same page, and understanding what he’s seeing and why he ran his route like that, or whatever,” Welker said.
“That’s how you get better. And so that’s good to see from those young guys wanting to get better and asking those questions.”
Like Welker, Burse is lightning-quick on the football field. The Broncos don’t want to make the same mistake the Chargers did years ago. He could make the active roster as the fifth- or sixth-string wide receiver on the depth chart. His ability as a return man means that he could have an opportunity to make plays for the Broncos this year.
Running backs aren’t as highly coveted around the league as they used to be. Ten years ago, a player coming off a season where he ran for more than 1,700 yards with 31 rushing touchdowns would have been drafted—likely with a premium (first three rounds) pick. Today, a player like that can go undrafted.
That’s what happened with Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs.
During his time with the Rams, he racked up yards in chunks. In 14 games last year, he rushed for less than 100 yards in eight of those contests. He had one 300-yard game (vs. Nevada) and two 200-yard games (at Wyoming, at New Mexico).
He finished the season strong with a 169-yard, three-touchdown performance against Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. He is known as a streaky player, but when Bibbs is hot—he’s white-hot.
He’s an efficient runner who wastes little motion with the ball in his hands. Bibbs has outstanding balance, and defenders find it difficult to bring him down if they just try to knock him around with a shoulder.
He is not the fastest runner, but by cutting at speed he loses little momentum at the second level of the defense. He’s not the biggest runner, but he is intent and decisive between the tackles. His leg drive helps him push through arm tackles, and he can quickly burst in the open field at the linebacker level.
This offseason he has surprised some with his receiving ability. He is cleanly making catches and then quickly turning upfield to pile up yards after the catch. Broncos head coach John Fox has taken notice of Bibbs’ pass-catching skill.
“Yeah. Like all jobs, you have to be able to do all of your job. Running back’s not just running. You have to protect, you have to understand the pass game, pass protections, as well as the run game. There are a lot of duties to playing running back in this league, and he has the right football character to do all of it.”
Bibbs is a local favorite because of his college career in Ft. Collins. There will be plenty of fans in Colorado pulling for him to make the final roster. He has shown that he belongs in the league and could win the third- or fourth-string job for the Broncos in 2014.
The running back position is full of specialists in today’s NFL. The Broncos found a big-play threat in change-of-pace back Brennan Clay.
In college with the Oklahoma Sooners, he was a threat to score any time he touched the football. An 11-game starter in 2013, he ran hard and showed great instincts as a runner.
He is a fast back, and he does a good job of cutting in the open field without losing much speed. He wastes little motion as a runner and has the ability to make the corner when he bounces runs outside.
His patience is outstanding, and he will often wait for the exact moment a hole opens up to quickly burst through to the second level. He’s not a big runner who will bang it between the tackles, but he can “get skinny” and pick up yards inside.
As the play is unfolding in front of him, Clay does a good job of finding cutback lanes. He has good vision, which helps him toy with defenders in the open field.
During minicamp he looked swift as a receiver out of the backfield. He has a great burst after the catch, and he can get by linebackers easily when running a wheel route.
Clay will have to prove himself in pass protection when the pads come on in training camp. If he’s able to stand out in the preseason, the team might keep him on the final roster as a third- or fourth-string back.
In addition to Isaiah Burse, the Broncos found another potential gem in Michigan State wide receiver Bennie Fowler. The wide receiver talent in Denver is thick, but Fowler has been standing out during minicamp this offseason.
During his time with the Spartans, he was known as a possession receiver and a strong blocker.
Measuring in at 6’1”, 215 pounds, he has the frame to box out smaller defenders. He understands how to use his size properly, and he will square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage to present the largest possible target for his quarterback. He uses his size and strong hands to win at the point of the catch.
He’s a tenacious player who likes to control an opponent when blocking. He is also fearless when running routes over the middle. On film he regularly brought down contested catches, and he has the size to bounce off defenders after the catch.
At minicamp Fowler has been showing good body control near the sidelines or the back of the end zone. He has been doing a good job of getting two feet down and strongly securing the catch in his hands or to his body.
He’s not the fastest player or the sharpest route-runner, but he is earning trust on the field because of his hands and concentration. This could go a long way in the team’s evaluation of his talent.
It will be difficult for the Broncos to find room for Fowler on the 53-man roster. However, a spot on the practice squad would be great if he continues to shine in training camp.
It’s wise for teams to add quarterback talent every year. In the seventh round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected quarterback Zac Dysert. This year after the draft, they added a quarterback who could push Dysert for the third-string job in Bryn Renner.
The North Carolina quarterback is known as an intelligent player with a gunslinger’s mentality.
He can properly diagnose defensive fronts before the snap. After the snap, he will quickly break down where defenders are going. This helps him make the right decision with the football.
He is not shy when reading coverage. He will attack a defense vertically, and he has the arm strength to make any throw required in the NFL. He will check down underneath when necessary, but Renner trusts his arm to split double-teams downfield.
I recently interviewed Renner on my ESPN radio show Ridin Shotgun. He’s excited about the start of his pro career.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience to learn from one of the best in the game—if not the best. Just to soak in everything that he [Peyton Manning] has to tell you. I’m trying to be a sponge out here and soak it all in.”
Renner has shown good touch during rookie minicamp, voluntary minicamp and mandatory minicamp as well. His passes regularly rise and fall properly while finding their target accurately. The pro game is not too big for him, and he’s doing a good job of fitting right in with the Broncos.
He’ll have the opportunity to make the final roster if he can beat out Dysert in training camp. Renner at least belongs on the practice squad this year due to his developmental upside.
The Broncos have a defense with amazing talent at every level. Features that can make an undrafted player stand out on defense include heart, hustle, desire, a tireless motor and strong work ethic. These are all reasons why undrafted linebacker Shaquil Barrett could be a diamond in the rough.
The Colorado State linebacker has the speed to bend around the corner as a pass-rusher. He can also play with the power to use a bull rush effectively. During his final year with the Rams, he set a Mountain West record with 20.5 tackles for a loss.
He had 12 sacks last year in college, but his numbers weren’t enough to get him drafted. No problem for Barrett as he can now make his name as a pro with the Broncos.
He is a tenacious player who plays with aggression on the field. He arrives at the ball with natural violence and can be an impact player as a run defender.
In coverage, he needs to improve his game. His aggression tends to work against him when he's covering in space. He will too often peek in the backfield and lose track of his man. He will also bite on play fakes and pump fakes as he tries to make a play.
When he agreed to join the Broncos after the draft, Barrett was not thinking about their history of finding talent in the college free agent ranks.
“I really wasn’t thinking about it. I just know that if I get the opportunity, it’s up to me to make it happen. If I want to make it happen, I have to come out here and do my best—learn on the field, off the field, give 100 percent effort.”
Barrett could be a nice reserve strong-side linebacker for the Broncos in the future. If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster, the team should find a spot for him on the practice squad.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.