The Denver Broncos opened free agency with a bang, signing safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, and defensive end DeMarcus Ware before 24 hours had passed in the new league year.
John Elway is not messing around.
With some new depth chart projections, the Broncos also have some adjusted needs and areas of concern going forward. With the defensive end position shored up, the cornerback position pretty well taken care of, and safety in good hands provided Rahim Moore returns, the Broncos’ needs have shifted to the middle of their defense, and the offensive side of the ball a bit. Here are my top remaining needs for the Broncos, in no specific order:
1. Middle Linebacker
2. Wide Receiver
3. Left Guard
4. Pass Rusher (because you can’t have too many)
5. Cornerback Depth
The three most pressing needs are at middle linebacker, receiver, and left guard. Will they opt to promote from within to take care of the left guard situation? Do they feel like a rookie can take care of protecting Peyton Manning?
1. First Round, 31st overall: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
At this point, it would surprise me a bit if Shazier fell to the Broncos, but I think he’s a great fit for this defense. Adding Shazier would give the Broncos even more enviable speed and third down ability at the linebacker position to go with Danny Trevathan and Von Miller. He would also give the Broncos a sure tackler in the middle who can rush the QB on third down, play sideline to sideline, and really do it all at ILB.
2. Second Round, 63rd overall: Joel Bitonio, OL, Nevada
Bitonio is a versatile lineman who lit up the Combine with his athletic ability, and could play left guard or right tackle for the Broncos. With Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez locked into long-term deals, the Broncos are looking to the future without Zane Beadles and Orlando Franklin, who is a free agent after this season.
With Chris Clark’s emergence in Clady’s absence, there is thought the Broncos could move him to right tackle and slide Franklin over to left guard while still grooming 2013 sixth rounder Vinston Painter, whom the team also really likes.
Bitonio could allow the Broncos flexibility at left guard or right tackle depending how this next offseason shakes out.
3. Third Round: Robert Heron, WR, Wyoming
I feel pretty confident about this fit actually at this point in time. The Broncos have been looking at a lot of receivers under 6’0″ tall, and my presumption is they are looking at a guy who can potentially provide them a replacement for Wes Welker in 2015, unless he re-signs on the cheap.
Herron is an explosive player with great speed and toughness, and I think would fit with the Broncos’ offense really well.
4. Fourth Round: Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
I don’t think Cockrell is being projected as a fourth round pick by many draft pundits, but I know he’s a guy the Broncos have talked to and like, and I know that my cornerback rankings have never matched up with John Elway’s since he’s been drafting for the Broncos.
Elway shocked everyone by taking Kayvon Webster in the 3rd round in 2013, and now it looks like he could be a full-time starter in his 2nd NFL season.
Cockrell is a corner with good size at 6’0″ 191 pounds who made a lot of plays at Duke, and also has value as a return specialist.
5. Fifth Round: Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming
Smith could go much higher than this based on upside, but I think this is a fair spot for him. The Broncos are giving Smith the royal treatment, per reports from insider Cecil Lammey. They sent a contingent to his pro day and have scheduled with him a private workout.
The other QBs the Broncos did this for? Brock Osweiler in 2012 and Zac Dysert in 2013. I think Smith is as good as a Bronco, at least until proven otherwise.
That’s not a terrible thing either, as Smith is one QB I’m very intrigued by. Compared to Osweiler and Dysert, the 6’2″ 206 pound Smith is a smaller QB and has good athletic ability and very interesting upside. I’m going to pencil him in for the Broncos at this point based on their reported heavy interest.
6. Sixth Round: Jeff Janis, WR, Saginaw Valley State
The Broncos have scouted and talked to Janis personally, and I think the late round intrigue is real for them here. He’s a bigger receiver at 6’3″ 216 pounds and has great speed and athletic ability. He would be an intriguing upside pick late in the draft, and a guy that I think could really develop well with Peyton Manning as the quarterback early in his career.
7. Seventh Round: Jonathan Dowling, S, Western Kentucky
Big 6’3″ safety prospect with some upside who could sneak into the rotation as a rookie and contribute on special teams. The Broncos have a nice group of young safeties but there is always room for a big, speedy athlete at the bottom of the draft.