We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you NFL Draft information, insight, and analysis. I know, I know — it’s way too early for the NFL Draft talk to begin. Last year was pretty great, because the Broncos were in the playoffs and preparing for the Super Bowl all the way until the second week of February, so we didn’t have to think about picking late in the draft until after the biggest game of the year.
This year, it would be nice if the Broncos didn’t have to think about the draft until after they WIN the Super Bowl, but that’s a story for another article. Right now, the Broncos are preparing for their first playoff game, getting healthy, and largely not thinking about the draft. There are still plenty of scouts and personnel in the front office who are putting the preliminary touches on draft boards and organizing their scouting notes from a phenomenal season of college football, as well as looking ahead to the NCAA National Championship game pitting Ohio State and Oregon.
As many of you know, I am also co-editor of FanSided’s NFLMocks.com, a site dedicated to the NFL Draft, so not only do I not care if it’s still the playoffs, I embrace this time of year to talk about the draft, because I love it so much. Regardless if the Broncos are still playing or not, it’s someone’s job to scout, to look ahead at building the team, and that’s what we’re going to do here today.
The state of the Broncos’ roster is really strong. The team took a huge piece off the open market when they re-signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr., shrinking their list of priority in-house players to re-sign significantly with just one move. The Broncos may have a choice to make about whether or not to keep star tight end Julius Thomas, who has had one really good, healthy season with the team. This year, Thomas was dominant in the early goings, but has struggled badly after an ankle injury.
It might be smarter for the Broncos to prioritize re-signing Demaryius Thomas long-term, a player that has only gotten better over his five years in Denver. Thomas emerged in 2012 and has been an All-Pro caliber player since then. He is the top priority this offseason in my eyes, and followed by defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Knighton has led a resurgent run defense in Denver, one that struggled badly until his arrival. He is a top 10 defensive tackle in the NFL, and has said that he’d re-sign in Denver if they even got in the ‘ballpark’ of a good, fair deal.
Those three players will steal the headlines this offseason, along with quarterback Peyton Manning who has indicated his interest in returning to the team ‘if they’ll have him’. I think that’s a pretty safe bet. Everything will hinge on Manning, which could have been the reason Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas turned down long-term offers from the Broncos before the season.
The Broncos have a couple of other free agents coming up, most notable of the second tier would be offensive guard Orlando Franklin, who started at right tackle to begin his Broncos career and has flourished at left guard. If and when the Broncos get the right tackle position shored up, they could have the best pair of guards in the NFL between Franklin and Louis Vasquez. The investment in Franklin would be worthwhile, as he’s been the highest graded Bronco by Pro Football Focus on the o-line this season.
Fellow 2011 draft picks Rahim Moore and Nate Irving are also free agents, and with their ability and familiarity, I think the Broncos will retain them for cheap.
After all the dust settles, I think the only name you’ll see departing from Denver on that list is Julius Thomas, though the team could look to the draft or free agency for an upgrade over Irving and Moore. Those are young players that have been developing with the Broncos and are capable starters. Unless some team overpays, expect them back in Denver in 2015.
Biggest Areas of Need
The Broncos are using a makeshift offensive line this season, starting at the center and right tackle positions. Will Montgomery is proving now that he should have been the starter all along, and Manny Ramirez, despite a couple of good games, has been horrible. The revolving door at right tackle has culminated in Louis Vasquez playing out of position and predictably struggling against speed rushers.
The Broncos have not yet attempted Michael Schofield in the lineup at right tackle, which is a concern to me because he was a third round pick and you’d expect someone drafted so high to at least be able to come in when the situation is desperate. The Broncos have used Vasquez, Chris Clark, and Cornick all at right tackle. Cornick has been the best option in a limited sample size, but has battled injuries.
With the expectation that Julius Thomas will leave in free agency, as well as the fact that every other tight end on the roster are free agents, the Broncos will have a hole there, apparently. I think they’ll re-sign Virgil Green, who is an unheralded part of the offense and a guy that could really emerge going forward. I think Jacob Tamme could come back at a reduced rate, but he already took a pay cut to stay with the team in 2014.
The Broncos seem to have fine depth at running back, but that position should be evaluated going forward, as well as linebacker for the same reasons.
Possible 1st Round Targets
At this point, I’m not going to get too fancy with any Broncos first round mock draft picks. I am relatively certain they need to use their top choice on an offensive lineman, of which there are many in this year’s draft. One player I’m really digging right now is Cameron Erving, an offensive lineman out of Florida State. Erving has been an All-American left tackle as well as center on the FSU offensive line, and has risen to the top spot on many draft boards at the center position, where the Broncos could use a stud.
If the Broncos want to draft a guard or tackle depending how things shake out with Orlando Franklin and where they feel the development of Michael Schofield is at, late-first round players like Ty Sambrailo (Colorado State) and Cedric Ogbueghi (Texas A&M) are intriguing options, along with T.J. Clemmings of Pittsburgh.
There are plenty of other options along the offensive line, but a wild card option to consider is tight end Maxx Williams, a redshirt sophomore out of Minnesota. Williams has reminded me a bit of Jeremy Shockey with a very physical style of play and great athleticism at the tight end position. The Broncos could benefit greatly from a player of his caliber coming in and possibly replacing Julius Thomas.