5 Draft Prospects Denver Broncos Could Target to Replace Malik Jackson
The Denver Broncos have been stripped of talent at several different positions through the first week of free agency in the NFL’s new league year. It’s been a rough week in “Broncos Country” as players who could have played significant roles with the team in 2016 bolted for greener pastures elsewhere.
One of the most talented players the Broncos lost in free agency is defensive end Malik Jackson.
Originally a fifth-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Jackson worked his way up the depth chart to become an impact player for the league’s best defense in 2015. His play in Super Bowl 50—including recovering a Cam Newton fumble for a touchdown—helped the Broncos secure the team’s third championship. Jackson clearly rode that momentum into the open market where he was able to snare a six-year, $85.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With limited funds available for the remaining free agents on the open market, the Broncos should instead turn to the 2016 NFL draft to find Jackson’s replacement. This is an incredibly talented defensive line class, and there’s a chance they could find a player as deep as the third round to fill the spot Jackson vacated. Looking at defensive linemen who can play both end and tackle in the Wade Phillips’ defense (just like Jackson did) is likely to be a priority for general manager John Elway and the scouting department.
Here are five draft prospects who could possibly replace Jackson in 2016.
Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
To replace Jackson, the Broncos need to find a player who can be effectively used as a run-stuffer and as an ascending pass-rusher. That describes Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler—a player who should be on the Broncos' radar at the end of the first round.
Consistent effort is the name of the game with Butler. He’ll quickly get off the line of scrimmage, and he fights until the echo of the whistle just like Jackson used to do for the Broncos defense. Butler has a powerful grasp he uses to move blockers where he wants them to go. This makes him tough to control on the line. Butler is also good at re-directing traffic inside.
Butler measuring in at 6’4”, 323 pounds and has long arms to break up passes if he doesn’t get to the quarterback. He needs technique work as a pass-rusher, but Butler clearly has the natural athleticism to develop multiple moves to get after the passer.
NFLDraftScout.com currently has Butler rated as their 31st overall prospect and sixth-highest defensive tackle in this class.
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
At the end of the first round, the Broncos may seriously consider a defensive lineman with the 31st overall pick. A player with great length and strength is Chris Jones from Mississippi State. Measuring in at 6’6”, 310 pounds, Jones can disrupt passing lanes with his frame and his wingspan. Lining up at defensive tackle or defensive end is not a problem for the young prospect.
Jones expressed pride in his versatility during interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“I’m versatile. I can play defensive end, defensive tackle in the NFL. I can move around. I can also play nose guard. I can be useful in many situations.” Jones emphasized, “I can play a 40 or 30 front. I can play 3-4 end or 4-3 tackle.”
Jones is a standout player when watching the Bulldogs on film. A former high school basketball player, Jones has the footwork and lateral agility to get to a play that goes away from him in a hurry. Playing with outstanding power, Jones can quickly shed his man on the way to the ball-carrier. Once at the ball, Jones is known as a sure tackler and will bring down his man quickly and forcefully.
NFLDraftScout.com currently has Jones rated as their 74th overall prospect (a second- or third-round pick) and the 10th-highest defensive tackle in this class.
Jarran Reed, Alabama
The Broncos have found quality players at the Senior Bowl before, and they may go back to that crop to find a starter on the defensive line this year. Years ago, Von Miller was a dominant player who turned the head of everyone in attendance at the Senior Bowl. This year, a player who kept drawing praise every day in practice was Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed.
He’s a big-bodied run-stuffer with the ability to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Reed controls his man at the point of attack, and he’ll often command a double-team from the offensive line because of his ability to eat up blocks. He has violent-striking hands and can quickly disengage from a blocker on his way to the ball.
Reed admitted at the NFL Scouting Combine that he’s more athletic than your normal 300-pound prospect.
“Oh, yes, absolutely. The ability to get sideline-to-sideline, bring down quarterbacks, make plays outside the tackle box. It definitely shows versatility and athleticism, from my standpoint, and I try to really showcase that a lot.”
While not known as a pass-rusher, Reed has the size/strength combination to develop that skill set further. With defensive line coach Bill Kollar, the Broncos could be able to bring the best out of Reed at the pro level.
NFLDraftScout.com currently has Reed rated as their 20th overall prospect and fourth-highest defensive tackle in this class.
Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State
If the Broncos want to wait until the final day of the draft, there’s still a chance that starting talent could be available. Certain teams can identify quality talent on the final day of the draft, and the Broncos have a clear history (including finding Jackson) of finding potential starters in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. They are also unafraid of taking small-school talent with big-time upside.
That’s where South Carolina State’s Javon Hargrave could come into the picture.
Hargrave measures in at 6’1”, 309 pounds, but he makes up for his lack of height with a nose for the ball. He has the ability to quickly diagnose where a play is going and has the athleticism to quickly arrive at the ball-carrier with natural violence. Earlier this year during the week of practice for the East-West Shrine Game, I was impressed with Hargraves' smooth athleticism and ability to chase plays laterally. He’s raw, but Hargrave seems to be everywhere on film, and that’s a skill set teams like the Broncos should be intrigued by.
NFLDraftScout.com currently has Hargrave rated as their 90th overall prospect (a third-round pick) and 11th-highest defensive tackle in this class.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Players sometimes get themselves in trouble during their college careers, and it causes their draft stock to take a tumble. Robert Nkemdiche has the natural talent to be a first-round pick, but where he goes on the first day is unknown due to off-field issues. He was suspended for the Sugar Bowl after being arrested and charged with marijuana possession. Just like Shane Ray last year, Nkemdiche’s draft stock could slide into the Broncos range at the end of the first day.
Earlier this year at the NFL Scouting Combine, Nkemdiche was straightforward when answering questions about the incident.
“It was embarrassing for me and my whole family, the Ole Miss family. I tell them [NFL teams] that’s not the kind of player they’re getting. They’re getting a straightforward player. I’m never going to return to that.”
On tape, Nkemdiche stands out because of his 6’3”, 294-pound frame. He carries little (to no) bad weight on his frame and has the athleticism of a much-smaller man. He can penetrate at the point of attack and get heat on the quarterback. Nkemdiche can also strongly and surely snare running backs trying to get by him at the line. His production (only 6.5 sacks in three years) doesn’t match his potential, so teams will be looking to somehow unlock his raw ability.
NFLDraftScout.com currently has Nkemdiche rated as their 25th overall prospect and fifth-highest defensive tackle in this class.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database. Draft grades courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com.