The 2016 NFL draft is one month away, and the Denver Broncos have multiple options with the final pick (31st overall) of the first round. They’re used to selecting near the end of the first round as a perennial playoff team, and the team has done a good job in the past of finding impact players at that position.
With the month of April ahead of us, many mock drafts around the Web have the Broncos taking a quarterback to fill their biggest need on the team. General manager John Elway may indeed take a passer with the first pick, but he could also choose to pick from a talent-rich defensive line class.
The defense is clearly the strength of the Broncos, and they need to maintain that strength after losing starters on that side of the ball in free agency. With defensive end Malik Jackson moving on to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team has to find his replacement.
The player who may be best suited to replace Jackson could be Mississippi defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. He has the ability to make an instant impact for the Broncos, and Nkemdiche’s best football is likely still in front of him.
In this article, we’ll make the case for Nkemdiche to be the Broncos' top choice in the 2016 NFL draft.
You’re unlikely to be wowed by the numbers when looking back at Nkemdiche’s career at Ole Miss. In 34 college starts, Nkemdiche was only able to compile 19 tackles for a loss and just seven sacks. He never registered a forced fumble or even a fumble recovery during his time with the Rebels.
Playing all across the defensive line, Nkemdiche was able to break up five passes during his college career. He has plenty of length to reach out and knock down passes at the line of scrimmage.
Besides having the versatility to line up outside at defensive end or inside at defensive tackle, Nkemdiche has also played on the other side of the ball. He scored three touchdowns for the Rebels in 2015, both as a rusher and a receiver. While not a permanent fixture on that side of the ball, we could see Nkemdiche make it onto the field in a goal-line “jumbo” package as a fullback in the pros.
This past season, arguably his best game was against Mississippi State. In that contest, Nkemdiche had a season-high 1.5 sacks on scrambling passer Dak Prescott.
That was Nkemdiche’s final game of his Rebels career. He was suspended for marijuana possession and missed the team’s bowl game against Oklahoma State.
At the scouting combine, Nkemdiche revealed what he is telling teams about the incident.
“I tell them the truth," he said. "It was a rash decision by me. Uncharacteristic. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I stand for. That’s not what my family stands for.”
Nkemdiche continued, “It was embarrassing for me and my whole family, the Ole Miss family. I tell them that’s not the kind of player they’re getting. They’re getting a straightforward player. I’m never going to return to that. I’m just moving forward and embracing this moment.”
He’s likely drawn a red flag from many teams due to the suspension and off-field concerns. There’s a lot to like about Nkemdiche, but motivation questions and lack of production need to be looked into.
Simply put, Nkemdiche has everything teams are looking for from a skill-set standpoint. A good pro comparison for Nkemdiche is Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd—a first-round pick (23rd overall) in the 2013 NFL draft.
Measuring in at 6’3”, 294 pounds, there’s little bad weight—if any—on Nkemdiche’s frame. He has a chiseled frame, and that strength shows up on film. In one-on-one situations, Nkemdiche can easily control his man at the point of attack. He understands leverage and uses his textbook bull rush to be a disruptive force in the middle of the line of scrimmage.
He gets off the snap quickly and does a good job of anticipating the snap count. Nkemdiche’s size will regularly command double-teams from opponents, and he’s shown the ability to split blockers on his way to the passer.
Playing with natural aggression, Nkemdiche arrives at the ball-carrier with plenty of violence. He’s a forceful tackler who seems to enjoy wreaking havoc inside.
When plays go away from Nkemdiche, he could show better hustle on the field. Outside of the bull rush, Nkemdiche lacks a bag of tricks as a pass-rusher.
Nkemdiche admits there are things he needs to work on in order to play up to his potential as a pro.
“There are times I didn’t finish," he noted. "I was lazy on some plays at times, but I told them I’m going to keep growing as a player. I’m going to keep learning how to finish and keep becoming more of a student of the game and just focus on being the best NFL player I can be.”
With a coaching staff that includes defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar, it’s easy to see how the Broncos could get the best out of the young prospect.
The Broncos have a few options already on the roster that could compete for Jackson’s old starting spot. In addition to plug-and-play guys, the Broncos could also end up shuffling some players to different positions in order to find the best fit in 2016.
Kenny Anunike is a player the Broncos have been patiently waiting on. Undrafted out of Duke in 2014, Anunike has seen his pro career derailed by an elbow injury (2014) and a knee injury (2015). He’s only played in three games and recorded one tackle as a pro, but Anunike has flashed talent as a pass-rusher in practice. If healthy, Anunike will be in the mix in what has to be a make-or-break season for him in 2016.
Darius Kilgo was selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft, and he was able to gain valuable experience as a rookie, playing 115 snaps as a rotational player. There’s a chance for his role to grow this season. He’s a mountain of a man and naturally fits as a run-stuffer in the middle of the line. Using Kilgo at nose tackle could move Sylvester Williams outside to defensive end.
In past drafts, the Broncos have taken a chance on players with questionable backgrounds only to see them flourish in the pros.
The young defensive tackle knows what sets him apart from others in his draft class.
“My skill set, my explosiveness, my football IQ," Nkemdiche said. "My growth as a player, my commitment to the team and wanting to keep getting better as a player.”
Nkemdiche is your classic boom-or-bust prospect with incredible upside. Putting him in the starting lineup of the league’s greatest defense with amazing playmakers around him seems unfair. Yes, quarterback is a huge question mark right now, but defense wins championships—as the Broncos know too well.
It might be the best move for them to continue to strengthen their most dominant side of the ball.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted.