By now, it is obvious that the Denver Broncos have come up gangbusters in the past few NFL drafts.
In the past four drafts, the Broncos have built an explosive offense based on a core of young talent and stocked up barrels of players who have filled in admirably during the team’s recent flurry of injuries. Names like Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and Ryan Clady have quickly become household names in Denver and around the league.
What is not so widely acknowledged, however, is Denver’s utter futility in the draft before these prosperous years. From 2001-2004, the Broncos set a new standard for mediocre player evaluation, turning in four of the worst drafts by any team in recent memory.
In a league in which teams must build through the draft to survive, Denver used free agency and trades to put the bulk of its team together during this period. As the talent dwindled and free-agency moves turned sour, so did the team’s success.
There was no talent to develop during the first half of the decade and, as a result, there were no young players to plug in over the past two years—the team’s record has suffered accordingly. Denver has turned in disappointing 7-9 and 9-7 seasons after a 13-3 campaign in 2005 that ended in an AFC Championship appearance.
The most shocking part of the whole story is head coach and executive VP of football operations Mike Shanahan’s ability to turn the team’s drafting around so quickly, as he did in 2005. Much of the credit can be attributed to Shanahan's willingness to invest in quality scouting and finally sharing some decision-making responsibilities with quality NFL guys like Jim and Jeff Goodman.
Essentially, Denver’s 2005-2008 drafts have been the mirror opposite of the team’s 2001-2004 drafts. The horrendously-low payoff from these drafts caused many around the league to question the once-vaunted player evaluation skills of Shanahan. Many fans even called for Shanahan to be stripped of his personnel decision-making duties (including myself).
To put things in perspective, take a look at where the members of the 2001-'04 Broncos draft classes are now.
Of 34 players selected, 24 are currently unsigned free agents or out of the NFL entirely. That is an appallingly low 29 percent success rate. Failed Denver picks include cornerback Willie Middlebrooks (first round), defensive end Paul Toviessi (second), linebacker Terry Pierce (second), and wide receiver Darius Watts (second), among many others.
Only five players from those drafts are NFL starters, with five serving as reserves, and one on practice squad. Pro-Bowl running back Clinton Portis (Washington), defensive end Reggie Hayward (Jacksonville), and punter Nick Harris (Detroit) are each starting for their respective teams, while injured weak-side linebacker D.J. Williams and left guard Ben Hamilton sit atop the Broncos' depth chart.
First-round picks Ashley Lelie (Oakland) and George Foster (Detroit) have been wavering between first and second string all year.
Just three players from these draft classes remain on the Denver roster, and it would have been two (Williams and Hamilton) had Tatum Bell not been re-signed in an emergency roster move last week.
Conversely, the past four Broncos drafts could seemingly not have gone better.
14 of the 26 players drafted in the past four years are currently NFL starters, a number that would have been 15 had it not been for the tragic death of cornerback and 2005 first-round pick Darrent Williams. All but two selections are still in the league, with seven serving as reserves, and three working practice-squad duty.
It should be noted that these players have obviously not been given enough time to officially fail or succeed yet, and the true effectiveness of these drafts will not be seen for at least two or three years. However, there is no question that the players ripped from the past four drafts are a marked improvement over the four preceding drafts.
Just examine this crop of young talent, and you will see the possibilities that lie ahead.
Current Denver starters Cutler, Marshall, Royal, Clady, fullback Peyton Hillis, offensive tackle Ryan Harris, defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, defensive end Elvis Dumervil, and guard Chris Kuper are all products of the 2005-'08 drafts.
Add in primary receiving tight end Tony Scheffler and two-way extraordinaire Spencer Larsen, and you are looking at a pretty solid core of youngsters.
Don’t forget about undrafted free agents like Selvin Young, as well.
In an odd twist of fate, the year that began the Broncos’ run of success in the draft, 2005, would also mark perhaps Shanahan’s worst single draft pick in Maurice Clarett. Shanahan selected the troubled running back in the third round, despite the fact that most believed he would still be available in the sixth or even seventh round.
The Ohio State alum turned out to be a much-publicized bomb.
Regardless of that hellacious move, 2005 and the drafts that followed built four-fifths of the offensive line, brought in the team’s top three receivers, and finally gave Denver the franchise quarterback that fans had been clamoring for.
The point of all this is that something has changed in Denver. Over the past decade, the franchise has been willing to sacrifice the future to win immediately. In the past, there has been a focus on...just that—the past. The talk has shifted from Elway’s exploits to Cutler and where he will take this team.
Denver is finally pointed in the right direction—forward.
Here is a look at the past eight Denver Broncos drafts and where each player is now:
|1||-Ryan Clady||T||Boise St.||Starter||Denver|
|2||-Eddie Royal||WR||Va. Tech||Starter||Denver|
|4||-Jack Williams||CB||Kent St.||Reserve||Denver|
|5||-Ryan Torain||RB||Arizona St.||IR/Reserve||Denver|
|5||-Carlton Powell||DT||Va. Tech||PUP||Denver|
|7||-Josh Barrett||SAF||Arizona St.||Practice Squad||Denver|
|2||-Tony Scheffler||TE||W. Michigan||Starter/Reserve||Denver|
|4||-B. Marshall||WR||Central Fla.||Starter||Denver|
|4||-Domenik Hixon||WR||Akron||Starter||NY Giants|
|5||-Chris Kuper||G||N. Dakota||Starter||Denver|
|6||-Greg Eslinger||C||Minnesota||Practice Squad||Denver|
|2||-D. Williams||CB||Okla. St.||OUT/Deceased|
|3||-Karl Paymah||DB||Wash. St.||Reserve||Denver|
|3||-Maurice Clarett||RB||Ohio St.||OUT|
|6||-Chris Myers||G||Miami (Fla.)||Starter||Houston|
|7||-Paul Ernster||K||N. Arizona||Starter||Pittsburgh|
|1||-D.J. Williams||OLB||Miami (Fla.)||Starter||Denver|
|2||-Tatum Bell||RB||Okla. St.||Reserve||Denver|
|5||-Jeff Shoate||CB||SDSU||FA||Released 8/29|
|7||-Brad Van Pelt||QB||CSU||OUT|
|2||-Terry Pierce||LB||Kansas St.||OUT|
|5||-Ben Claxton||C||Mississippi||Practice Squad||Detroit|
|5||-Adrian Madise||WR||Tex. Christ||OUT/AAFL|
|6||-Aaron Hunt||DL||Texas Tech||OUT/CFL|
|2||-Clinton Portis||RB||Miami (Fla.)||Starter||Washington|
|3||-Dorsett Davis||DT||Miss. St.||OUT|
|5||-Herb Haygood||WR||Michigan St.||OUT|
|6||-Jeb Putzier||TE||Boise St.||FA||Release 11/15|
|7||-Chris Young||DB||Ga. Tech||OUT|
|3||-Reggie Hayward||DE||Iowa St.||Starter||Jacksonville|