What direction will the Denver Broncos and general manager George Paton take in the 2021 NFL Draft in his first season at the helm?
Before the draft last season, I explored how the Broncos would attack the 2020 draft in (unknown at the time) John Elway’s final class as the boss in Denver.
Reading the “tea leaves” led me to believe the Broncos would build a foundation on offense, and that they did.
Elway selected wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler back-to-back picks in the first two rounds. The Broncos brought in center Lloyd Cushenberry III in round three and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in round four. Not quite done selecting offensive players, Netane Muti, a talented but oft-injured offensive lineman was added in round six.
Like in 2020, there are tea leaves once again for what’s to come for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Addressing needs in free agency
Before addressing the draft, we must review the free agent period.
Free agency is to fill needs, as you never want to enter draft season telegraphing where you will select.
The roster had areas of need to address before the start of free agency. New General Manager George Paton has been tremendous on the job in addressing the Denver Broncos’ areas of weakness. In doing so, he earned high praises across the league.
First, Paton re-signed franchise favorites Justin Simmons and Shelby Harris to long-term deals. He also brought back icon pass-rusher Von Miller and waited out Kareem Jackson until the safety took a market-appropriate deal.
Paton then went out and brought in former Washington Football Team corner Ronald Darby early in free agency. Then, he played his cards phenomenally by waiting and picking up standout corner Kyle Fuller right after he was cut Chicago Bears.
To add to the team’s offense depth, Paton went back to his roots in the Minnesota Vikings offense and signed running back Mike Boone along with defensive lineman Shamar Stephen.
A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey were released after an unproductive first and only season in Denver. Players to leave were roll players such as back-up Jeremiah Attatchu (edge), Nick Vannett (tight end), and Will Parks (safety). Additionally, former Pro-Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay moved on after a tumultuous season after being miscast within offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense.
Denver Broncos direction in 2021
It was fairly easy to see where the Denver Broncos would prioritize their draft selections if you simply followed the money.
Last year, the team had very little money tied up in wide receiver, center, and inside linebacker. The team hit those positions within the first five rounds of the draft.
This year, seeing the positional needs seems less clear than in years past. The team may want to “upgrade” at certain position groups, but they do not have to.
The team has zero “holes” when it comes to areas where the team may be pigeon-holed into drafting early.
This allows Paton to draft from a position of strength instead of desperation. He can attack areas he wants to improve but can do so depending on how the board falls, leaving him the chance to really just take the “best player available” in rounds 1 through 7.
Want to know what moves are coming, just follow the team’s money
According to Overthecap.com, the Denver Broncos spending for the next two season is as follows;
So, what might this mean?
The Denver Broncos are primed to draft defensive players throughout this draft. How a team spends is how the team prioritizes players.
With a lot of defensive talent scheduled to leave after the 2021 season, Paton must plan on addressing most of those areas now instead of the 2022 offseason.
Among contracts coming off the books after this season are Miller, both inside linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, along with three-quarters of the starting secondary in Fuller, Jackson, and corner Bryce Callahan.
How the team can address the potential turnover in the 2021 draft will influence who, if any of the expiring contracts, are prioritized to return.
Where do the Denver Broncos target in the 2021 NFL draft?
Though many may bet on this draft being the year the Broncos swing for a first-round quarterback, I’m not sure it lines up that way.
Fangio and Paton have both been a part of teams that have invested money and draft prime capital throughout the defense on edge, linebackers, safety, and cornerback.
Since he arrived in Denver, Vic Fangio has yet to have a toolsy linebacker with speed and coverage ability to really make his defense elite. The Broncos have not been a team to prioritize linebackers in the draft, but that could change.
This year is the year the Broncos go linebacker early, and maybe more than once (ala Jeudy and Hamler in 2020). Look for the Broncos to address this position with players such as Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Ohio State’s Baron Browning, or LSU’s Jabril Cox. Players with phenomenal speed, but also stout frames to hold up against the run.
Also, replacing Miller will need to come from a pick this year as pass rushers take two or three-season to be dynamic. Meaning the Denver Broncos should take one early in the draft this season.
Players such as Jaelan Phillips from the University of Miami or Kwity Paye out of the University of Michigan could be players the team targets at the backend of round 1 or top of the second round. But they can also look later in the draft to select a high-upside player who could use some time to develop like Carlos Basham Jr. (Wake Forest) or Daelin Hayes (Notre Dame).
The Vic Fangio defense calls for safeties to play a key role, and Jackson will almost certainly not be on the roster next year. Thus, drafting a player like Central Florida safety Richie Grant or TCU safety Trevon Moehrig could fill a variety of roles this season. Ala Justin Simmons in 2016, Grant or Moehrig can play in a 3-Safety look in 2021 before taking over alongside Justin Simmons in 2022.
Additionally, the team must plan on losing either Fuller or Callahan after this season, so finding a cornerback to develop should be a priority. Cornerbacks like Asante Samuel Jr. (FSU) or Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) would be a good selection in the backend of the first round or early round 2.
Paton and Fangio may prefer a moldable late day 2 selection to maximize value since the player might be a reserve for most of 2021. Players to keep in mind are Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, Oklahoma State’s Rodearius Williams, and either of Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson, and Tay Gowan, who all possess upside but need some time to develop.
The team remains in a crucial window to compete in 2021 and beyond, and most likely believes they are not that far away (despite a poor record in 2020).
As it stands now, the theme I see in how this team has been constructed or will be when this offseason is done fits the Minnesota Vikings mold over the past decade.
Picks, picks, and more picks.
This draft has a lot of really good players that fit in from the middle of round 1 through the third round.
Therefore, I see George Paton moving back often to stack up draft capital and attack the “meat” of this year’s draft by stacking selections on day 2 of the 2021 draft.
Look for Paton to trade back (maybe more than once) into the late teens or early twenties of the first round in the draft, gaining picks in rounds two and three, and selecting some talented defenders as this team aims to make things a bit more difficult for their AFC West foes in 2021 and beyond.
The defense needs a reload, and this may be the perfect time to do it.
The Broncos will leave the draft with defensive playmakers, and prioritize the defensive backfield and linebackers within the first three rounds. I also believe the Broncos will bring in two linebackers as this group most likely will have talented players fall to the middle rounds as offense players get pushed up quite a bit.
Jewell and Johnson do not seem like long-term fixtures, so the team may want to address both positions with talented players with starting potential now.
For an added cherry on top, the team will finally select an offensive tackle but won’t do so until the middle rounds as they groom more depth and a potential replacement for Ja’Wuan James as his contract may be one the team moves on from before or after the end of the season.
The Denver Broncos will move back in the first round, twice, picking up additional second and third-round selections. They will address linebacker, safety, cornerback, and edge rusher in the same fashion as the team attacked offensive weaknesses in 2020.
The Denver Broncos and new GM George Paton have assembled a strong foundation. How will they add to the team in the 2021 NFL Draft?
If the board doesn’t fall their way, and the players they target are not available when they select on day two, look for Paton to move those selections into 2022 and prepare in case he needs to trade up to get a quarterback if Drew Lock struggles again this season.