The Backfield: Where we are. Where we're going.

Well, I'm back kiddies.  It's been nearly a month since my last post and while most of you probably didn't notice my absence - I'm back just the same.

Where did I go?  Well for one, I went on a bit of a road trip, visited some friends, nothing too interesting.  I have also been working on, and nearly completed a WwaWwg for the linebackers - but was disappointed in Rolando McClain's injury and Brandon Spike's mysterious picking and choosing of drills at The Combine.  That post will have to wait.

Also, to be honest MHR has been a little overwhelming - something I think we can all agree with.  Things are heated - hypotheticals are quickly becoming actuals, we're swimming in mock drafts, and with so many people having so many different opinions of what should be done (or what should have been done last year), tempers will get heated.  Good.  It shows that all parties are interested.  SB Nation offers us a double-edged sword.  In one hand, Bronco fans from across the country (and in some cases the world) are given the opportunity to congregate and share opinions/information in an organized environment.  On the other hand, and rightfully so, a filter is put on these conversations.  I'll be the first to admit it, I'm a bit of a jack@$$.  As far as I know, I'm the only Broncos fan in my area and if I'm at a bar with a bunch of Giants, Jets, or Eagles fans you can be sure that - while all in good fun - my conversations become "colorful" at times with these people, many of whom are my friends.  That's just the nature of it.  Here, we have a mix of people from all ages and backgrounds (some younger kids included) and so I can see why we need to censor ourselves.  As much we dislike/disagree with fellow posters (and believe me - I have such people in my head too) this needs to be a sensitive, polite environment.  When it gets too much about this guy versus that guy - I promise you, it gets boring for the rest of us.  Nobody likes a fanboy with an ego.  Again, if any of us were that smart - we'd be in Dove Valley and not on our couch typing up posts on our laptop.

On to the quarterbacks:

So I began this article referencing the the uncertainty regarding linebackers and the volatility at MHR - so naturally I'm going to proceed by talking about quarterbacks - a subject everybody and his mother has their own strong opinion on here.  For those of you who read and disagreed with my post regarding Kyle Orton from last month, I doubt you'll leave this post any happier, so by all means - stop reading.  

If you were able to hear over the streams of sweat running down Brian Xanders face during his BroncosTv interview (those of you with old speakers no doubt missed it) he reaffirmed what I and many others already assumed - that the Broncos have a set criteria - a mold - that they have in mind for every position on their football team.  If you're looking for who fits those respective molds - you need only look at the past.  Those of you looking for 330lbs+ interior offensive linemen - don't hold your breath because McDaniels succeeded with Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Stephen Neal at those positions in New England and brought Seth Olsen and Russ Hochstein into Denver last season.  What do they have in common?  They're all 300-310lbs (except for Koppen who is 296) with very sound technique and good lateral quickness but are not overly strong or athletic.  Those of you looking for a big, physical corner in this year's draft - again - I'm not feeling it.  Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs ruled in New England when McDaniels was there and he brought in Andre Goodman, Alphonso Smith, and Tony Carter last off season.  All of these players have great agility and closing speed and play the ball well in the air, but none of them are over 5-10 and will thus struggle at times with bigger receivers - a trade off McDaniels has watched, accepted, and seen work from his time as a coordinator in New England until now.  Again, more often than not the writing is on the wall - all we have to do is read it.

What does this have to do with quarterback?  Well, the same trend is there.  The trend wasn't started by Tom Brady, it was created by him.  Again, there is no reason for us to ever put the Tom Brady expectation on any quarterback McDaniels brings in.  Brady has been a consistent producer and winner in this league since he stepped in and is no doubt (at least in my mind) a Top 5 QB of all-time.  But look at him - big guy, very intelligent in both his pre and post snap reads, great zip and accuracy on his short and intermediate throws.  The negatives - not very athletic - he's a pure drop-back passer and while his arm is strong, he doesn't have that huge arm that can drive all the throws.  In steps Matt Cassel.  Again, big guy, smart, good decision maker who (while slightly more athletic than Brady) isn't really a scrambler and doesn't have a cannon for an arm.  That's New England.  McDaniels comes in and brings in the big, technically sound, and hard-working but unathletic Chris Simms as a back-up.  He has Cutler who is one of the more athletic QB's in the NFL with one of the strongest arms in the game - gets rid of him.  Brings in Kyle Orton another intelligent game-manager with good short-range accuracy but limited physical gifts as the starter.  At this time last year, I was howling for Stephen McGee out of Texas A&M.  Howling for the same reasons a lot of you guys love Tim Tebow.  I looked past success in a gimmicky offense and questionable mechanics for a guy with good athleticism and a lot of toughness.  We got Tom Brandstater - in case you are unfamiliar with Brandstater and his general make up - just reread this paragraph.  I'm not saying it's easy to give up on players you really like because they don't fit McDaniels' specific molds - but that's what McDaniels seems to do - how he operates.  He believes in molds a little more than a lot of other NFL coaches and I promise you, as a fan, the sooner you accept these molds - the sooner your blood pressure can go back down to a healthy level.

What do we know about McDaniels' QB mold?  6'4+, must show the ability to read coverages and blitzes presnap, must show the ability to routinely check down through his receiving progressions post snap, must show above-average accuracy and, more importantly, timing on short and intermediate routes - the routes his offense is based around.  Arm strength is a must but more so regarding velocity on the short and intermediate throws - not so much with the deep ball.  Athleticism in terms of speed and quickness are unnecessary.  That's 5 for 5.  That's a trend.  What I gather from McDaniels' history is that you can teach a guy through improved mechanics and in the weight room (where I expect Kyle Orton is right now) how to drive the deep ball better.  Through drills and practice you can get a guy who runs the 40 in 5+ seconds to feel pressure well and maneuver in the pocket.  What you can't do (or at least what's harder to do) is change how a guy thinks and processes information.  If a guy went through high school and college unable to sense where the blitz is coming from - how's that going to change in the NFL?  If a guy has locked onto his #1 option almost every snap of his football career - how do you get him to throw to the #3 guy?  That's why we've seen McDaniels succeed with late round picks in the past and why Kyle Orton took a huge step this season.  The NFL draft doesn't always put priority on the best college football players, but rather the guys with the most potential.  Guys who can run around and make plays, throw the ball 70 yards like it's nothing - they get drafted early because coaches think they can teach them the mental aspects of the game.  McDaniels grabs the smarter, less athletic guys in the later rounds and builds an offense around the ability to be accurate and make good reads.  I'm not saying it's the absolute best way (though, how can't you love a nerd(ier) quarterback) but it's the way McDaniels seems to operate.

It is for those reasons, that I'm beginning to think more and more that Kyle Orton is the long-term answer for us at quarterback.  I know a lot of people don't like/agree with that opinion, but the fact of the matter is, I think we were spoiled.  We saw Orton, the most polarizing player (through no fault of his own) on our roster last season lead us to a 6-0 record through gutsy, clutch efforts against Dallas, New England, and at San Diego and got overly excited.  He struggled against Baltimore and Pittsburgh only to rebound against Washington before being hurt.  He came back heroically in a lost cause again San Diego - dominated Kansas City and New York only to post solid but unsuccessful efforts against Indianapolis, Oakland, and Philadelphia, before another clunker against Kansas City.  We lost sight of the fact that last spring nobody thought we were going to be 6-0-type good.  This isn't only about Orton, this is about an entire team learning a new system and building talent that fits around it.  I think if we're being honest with ourselves - if I were to have told you in August that Orton would throw for 3800 yds and 21TDs most of us would have been thrilled.  We, as a team, overachieved, fell down from grace, and are now trying to construct a team capable of starting at a high level and staying there.  Let's not forget that Kyle Orton is only 27 years old with limited starting experience coming into this season.  Furthermore, in a league that thrives on parity - he couldn't have come from a more different offense than Chicago's.  He had to cram a lot of learning into last offseason (remember - he still was a Bear at this point last year).  McDaniels indicated this in his interview - this off season Orton will have the opportunity  to focus less on the mental and more on the physical.  That means bulking up, becoming stronger and more durable and improving his footwork and agility.  I don't think we'll see a Kyle Orton that resembles Big Ben too much in 2010, but I think its safe to say now that he's been 1st round tendered that Orton will get every opportunity this year to improve mentally and physically and try to convince the Broncos that he's their answer at quarterback.

I still think, aside from Orton, Tom Brandstater is the most likely starting quarterback for us in 2011, 2012, 2013, etc.  I know I and so many others put too many expectations on him because of 6 exhibition quarters, but the only thing worst than doing that is dismissing him because he was a late round pick last year.  Again, I can't cite Jeff Legwold's "muddying the waters" article enough.  It is a grave mistake to put high draft picks and free agents ahead of young, developing talent because it clouds your vision regarding what you have and you never really know where your weaknesses lie.  Is Brandstater the answer?  Damned if I know, but I also think he deserves a year or two as the primary back up - receiving a few more meaningful snaps - before we assume he's not.  Woody Paige wrote recently that Brandstater failed to impress the coaching staff this year while running the scout team.  I love Woody on ESPN.  I even interviewed him back in college where he was pretty generous with his time.  But when it comes to the Broncos, I never listened to him before and I won't start now.  He's still stuck in the Shanahan era.  A more telling assessment comes from McDaniels' own mouth during his combine interview (for those of you who are curious, it's the very first question) in which he said he had "high hopes" for Tom Brandstater this season and beyond.  A ringing endorsement?  Hardly, but whether or not Brandstater wowed them this past season is irrelevant.  McDaniels doesn't believe in drafting players to be back ups.  Every player - 1st rounder to UFA is expected to try to start, nobody is selected exclusively as back-up at any position - that's how you breed competition and depth on your football team.  I believe Brandstater, like Orton, will be given the opportunity to show whether or not he has what it takes to be the quarterback of the future before McDaniels' makes a sizable investment in another passer.

That leaves us with Chris Simms.  Is it wrong that I think he could still be around this year?  I thought so.  But I do.  Well, at least I think he'll be around through training camp.  While we can argue all day whether or not Orton and/or Brandstater are the answer long term - we all know Simms is not.  Still, McDaniels has publicly praised Simms from the get-go for his professionalism , hard work, and intelligence.  Simms' days as a viable starter for a NFL team went by the way of his spleen, but with two very young quarterbacks (Brandstater and a probable rookie) likely coming into camp this summer, it wouldn't be a bad idea to keep Simms around as a role model for those two guys while Orton takes the majority of the reps (something he did not have the opportunity to do last camp).  Now on to the free agents.

Top 3 Free Agent Options

1. - New York Jets - 6'5 250lbs - 24 years old

Admittedly, I'm cheating here because O'Connell is in fact under contract this season with the New York Jets, but with Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens, and Erik Ainge also on the roster - O'Connell could hit the open market at any point between now and September- and a 7th round pick would certainly shake him loose.  O'Connell is the one player Belichick broke his late-round quarterback trend for - selecting him in the 3rd round in 2008.  He was cut with just over a year on the team in favor of Andrew Walter (who also ended up getting cut).  What exactly happened to O'Connell, nobody knows.  After being claimed and cut by Detroit he was picked up by New York and there hasn't been much news regarding him since.  Coming out of San Diego State in 2008, he was regarded as a high-character guy with an arm that, according to Draft Scout, rivaled Joe Flacco's that had great zip and timing on his short and intermediate throws.  His patience and decision making were a little raw but vastly improving during his senior campaign. He had questionable footwork and throwing mechanics and, unlike the other quarterbacks Belicheck and McDaniels worked with - tremendous athleticism - particularly for his size.  Those of you looking for a more athletic quarterback, look no further.  We know that after he was cut by New England, Denver made a play for him and so there's no reason to doubt that they won't again.  Remember, this is a difficult system to learn - and a player who has already been in it is all the more valuable.  Still, considering his departure from New England - one cannot assume that he'd be any less of a project than Brandstater - maybe even more so.  A very intriguing prospect to say the least.



2. Chad Pennington - Miami Dolphins - 6'3 230lbs - 33 years old

By no means do I think Pennington has anything left in the tank in terms of what he can do on the field - unfortunately injuries have robbed him too soon - but I'd like him for the very same reasons I like Chris Simms -as a guy who can be a mentor for Brandstater and whatever quarterback we bring in through the draft.  Pennington was a Rhodes Scholar finalist in college, a consummate professional throughout his career, and the NFL's all time more accurate passer.  His abilities as a teacher benefited Chad Henne immensely in Miami - allowing him to step in admirably when Pennington was lost to another season-ending injury.  If he was willing to play the role of coach again - I'd grab him.  Still, there are plenty of negatives.  If Pennington wants to come back (which is no sure thing) he may prefer to do so in Miami or back for the Jets - where he's more familiar.  Also, we can't really count on him to actually be able to strap it up - meaning that we'd still need to draft a quarterback and go through the season with 4 QB's on our roster.  That isn't the most efficient plan of action, but an interesting thought to mull over none the less.



3. Donovan McNabb - Philadelphia Eagles - 6'2 240lbs - 33 years old

Yea, this is a tease.  I, under no circumstances, support a McNabb to Denver move (though those rumors are dying out by themselves anyway) and instead choose to use this spot to explain why.  I've lived in Philadelphia for years.  I love Donovan McNabb.  I will never, for the life of me, understand the hatred he's met with by Eagles fans - but he simply does not fit our mold.  He's shorter, tends to scramble, and while he's statistically the least interception-prone quarterback in history - that doesn't necessarily mean he's accurate.  McNabb reads defenses well and is very careful with the ball, but his short and intermediate accuracy just isn't there.  He's never been a high-percentage passer and despite owning one of the biggest arms in the game - routinely short-hops throws.  As I've said before - the McNabb obsession is based solely in our love to play Madden in the NFL.  McNabb is a big name, he's exciting, and the minute he says something like "I didn't know a game could end in a tie in the NFL." we'll hate him and wonder who's next.  Quarterback is the ultimate glamour position and every year there will be a free agent quarterback who will be rumored to be out the door on his current team.  Every year there will be a can't miss - quarterback prospect who remind scouts of Joe Montana.  It's my opinion that, while I find quarterback to be the most fascinating position in all of sports, it's also a position where only one guy can play at a time so we'll all have to fight the urge to notice the green grass on the other side and constantly wonder "Who's next?"  This is a statement not only regarding McNabb, but for every QB we're likely to read about in free agency and the draft for years to come.



The Draft:

Overrated: The Field

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - with strong 2008 an 2009 quarterback classes we were bound to get a dud and next season doesn't look much better (though a lot could easily change between now and then).  This year's draft isn't particularly strong from top to bottom, but if you're going to take a risk - I think it's prudent to take that risk in the later rounds.  The fact of the matter remains, that even if this year's quarterback class was of a higher standards - many still wouldn't fit the McDaniels' mold.  Even if we were to drop the height requirement down an inch to 6'3 - that still eliminates Claussen, McCoy, Tebow, Brown, Robinson, Hall, and Nichols off the bat.  That leaves us, among QB's expected to go in the early-middle rounds, with Bradford, LeFevour, Pike, Crompton, Snead, and Skelton.

Skelton has garnered a lot of interest around MHR and it makes sense - he's a jumbo QB with the biggest arm in the draft, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Skelton is hardly, at this point, the second coming of Joe Flacco.  Flacco came in and dominated his competition at the Senior Bowl and wowed scouts with his workouts.  Skelton did no such thing.  The potential, the intelligence, athleticism, it's all there and he's my favorite of the "mid-round" QB's.  But a FBS QB is a major undertaking and McDaniels has never really worked with a "bomber" at QB.  Most reports I've read love him, but concede that much of the technical/mental part of his game will need to be overhauled.

I'm still perplexed why exactly Snead entered this year's draft, he seemed exactly like the kind of player who could have used an extra year in college.  He has the arm and athleticism to succeed in the NFL, but his technique, accuracy, and reads regressed considerably as a junior.  His tendency to trust his arm too much and force balls into tight windows (resulting in 33 picks in 2 seasons) will remind McDaniels too much of Cutler no matter how solid his combine performance was.  

Jonathan Crompton is of a similar mold.  While he improved by leaps and bounds as a senior - he has never managed to match the potential his frame and arm strength have given him.  His accuracy and decision making are inconsistent and forces a lot of passes.  He,like Snead, never completed 60% of his passes in a season.

Pike, from the outset, looks like a fit, considering his experience in the spread but he had issues with passes sailing on him and college and his decision making was suspect - often throwing the ball late and over the middle while trusting his arm too much.  Those assessments were supported by a poor combine performance where he displayed an erratic delivery and poor accuracy.  Additionally, he missed 6 games in the past two seasons to injuries to his non-throwing forearm/wrist and was knocked out of 4 others with other injuries.  His wiry frame is a concern.  

That leaves us with LeFevour and Bradford.  LeFevour was growing on me.  I'm not going to say I thought he was a fit, because I didn't and still don't think he is.  He's a smart, tough quarterback with good accuracy but struggles reading defenses and checking down past his first option.  I also question how valuable a mobile quarterback would be to McDaniels - but again - I kept thinking to myself - smart, tough, accurate.  Then he didn't throw at The Combine - or at least didn't throw to moving targets and that's where he lost me and a lot of scouts.  When you're a small school QB and scouts are concerned whether or not you have the arm strength to throw NFL routes, I didn't see how you turn them down without a proper reason.  I hesitantly liked LeFevour at first - now I'm questing him.

Finally, there's Sam Bradford.  I'll admit that he probably fits our mold at quarterback better than any QB in this draft, but he's by no means a slam dunk.  His accuracy is to die for and the broader frame he showed up to the combine likely excited most teams looking into his services, but I'm not ready to anoint a guy who injured his throwing shoulder twice this season and hasn't completed a game in over a year.  Even before his injury, Bradford struggled recognizing and feeling blitzers and often locked onto his primary receiver on quick passes.  A lot will be determined at his pro-day, but even if he shows that his shoulder is completely healed - as the top-rated passer in the draft it's unlikley he'll slide past St. Louis, Washington, Seattle, and Buffalo before pick #11 rolls around.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, ask Oakland and Cleveland how smart it is to grab the best QBs availabe in weak draft classes just because popular opinion says it's a good idea.



Underrated: Sean Canfield - Oregon State - 6'3.5 221lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 7

It's ironic that I'm taking Canfield's side now, because a few months ago when he was a MHR darling destined to be our 3rd round pick I was so vehemently against him.  But now, I think he's a victim of the changing tide of public opinion.  Is he that much different from the quarterback he was a few months ago?  Does a poor bowl game and mediocre offseason do that much to destroy a player's reputation?  I don't see a quarterback who's any different from the one who led the Beavers within a Civil War victory of a Rose Bowl birth (a game in which he played very well.)  He doesn't have a strong arm.  Is this a shock?  Was that not apparent all season?  Though, if anybody has the tools to overcome a lack of arm strength, it's Canfield.  All season, Canfield displayed tremendous accuracy (67.9%), a quick release, and the ability to routinely read through his progressions in Mike Riley's pro-style offense.  He is very technically sound.  His 18/0 TD/Int ratio in the red zone this season is astounding.  Aside from his arm strength and a lack of mobility, Canfield has only played one really good season having struggled as a sophomore and missing most of his junior year with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder (though he was 56/84 6TDs 2 Ints prior to the injury.)  The labrum injury likely sapped some of his arm strength and will lead NFL scouts to question is durability.  Again, I'm not driving Canfield's party bus - but I do think it's peculiar how a quarterback who was such a hot commodity 3 months ago is suddenly nose-diving down draft boards.  Worth-while possibility depending on what's available in the later rounds.



 Top 3 Draft Options:

1. Tim Hiller - Western Michigan - 6'4 229lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 7/UFA

If you choose to read the beforementioned "writing on the wall" and assuming that I interpreted it properly (but, again, Rosetta Stone hasn't come out with a McXanders edition yet) Hiller will be our newest QB come late April.  Hiller was a quarterback that I highlighted in my earlier mock drafts, abandoned (shamefully) after his disappoing senior season (coming into 2009 he was seen as a mid-round pick), and now am back thinking that he - more than any other QB in this draft - fits McDaniels' mold.  Part of this reconsideration centers around Jeff Legwold (the only Post writer who has any insight into Dove Valley as far as I'm concerned) who thought that Hiller fit McDaniels' system enough to profile him recently in his article.  Mentally speaking, there's a lot to to be excited about regarding Hiller - who many see as one of, if not the smartest QB in the draft.  He received his bachelor's degree in 3 years (remind you of anybody?) with a 4.0 GPA and is close to completing his MBA.  The Academic All-American is excellent at making pre-snap reads and, when given appropriate time, checks through his post-snap reads smoothly.  The physical portion of his game will be the biggest concern this spring, but he answered several of those questions already at The Combine.  His mobilily on surgically repaired (in 2006) knees was an issue, but he out broad jumped Tim Tebow (9 feet 10 inches) at the combine (don't ask me why a QB needs to broad jump, but my guess is that weak knees couldn't launch a 230 pound man 10 feet) and threw well rolling out of the pocket.  His arm strength was considered average, but he stepped up and put power behind all his throws in Indy this weekend.  Hiller still needs to show that can react better to blitzers (his usual solid-decision making has lapses as he tends to rush his throws when he reads the blitz.)  Additionally, while his mechanics are above-average for a college passer - his release needs some consistency which would, in turn, help his good, but not pinpoint accuracy.  Hiller is the definition of a project - a project some will question whether or not there's too much upside in, but he impressed scouts at The Combine with his ability to adjust to unfamiliar receivers and his intelligence, competitive fire, and excellent character and leadership seem to be right-up McDaniels' alley.  Not a guy who can produce right away, but somebody who can push Orton and Brandstater in the years to come.  Interesting fact: Hiller is from the same high school as Josh McDaniels' father and is familiar with Josh and Ben.  Nothing to put a lot of stock in - but the added familiarity is worth mentioning.



2. Levi Brown - Troy - 6'3.5 229lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - UFA

During my Tim Hiller hiatus, I began looking for another QB project and Brown fit the bill.  What Brown lacks in comparison to the more polished, cerebral Hiller - he makes up for with his physical tools.  According to Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout, Brown (along with Jarrett Brown of West Virginia) did the most to help his cause by throwing at the combine.  Brown displayed an above average arm in a draft full of arm-strength questions and put a lot of zip behind his short and intermediate throws.  He also threw a good deep ball - a bonus for most McDaniels' QBs.  In his 1.5 seasons as the starting QB for the Troy Trojans, Brown showed the ability to feel and avoid the rush despite mediocre timed speed (4.95 40), the ability to throw on the run, good accuracy (61.7% in 2008, 63.7% in 2009) and decision making (38/12 TD/Int ratio in his his time as a starter).  As I said earlier though, Brown does not have Hiller's polish.  Brown transfered to Troy from Richmond and had to start from scratch.  While the confidence it took to go from FBS to D-I is admirable, it cost him in terms of experience.  Brown will have to learn how to do the little things better.  Reading defenses out of a more convential offense (Troy ran a wide-open spread) is a must even though we throw a lot from the shotgun and his mechanics need to work.  When asked about his 3/4 delivery, Brown defended it saying that it only looks funny because his release is faster than everybody elses and that it doesn't impede on his arm strength at all.  While a quick release is better than a long one, McDaniels likes for his QB's to be techincally sound and if Brown is so hesitant to change - that could be a turn off.  If McDaniels feels as though Brown's intelligence and mechanics match up as well as his physical tools - he may very well be worth pulling the trigger on - especially in post-draft free agency.



3. Mike Kafka - Northwestern - 6'3 225lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 5

I'll admit that, at this point, I'm really tunneling my vision toward Hiller and Brown going into the draft with Canfield as a somewhat distant 3rd option.  While I prefer all three over Kafka, he displayed flashes of some of the qualities McDaniels will look for in a late-round project QB.  First, the negatives.  Prior to his lone season as the Wildcats' bonafied starter, Kafka was known as a running quarterback so immediately we have to question his experience level and how he'd fit in our offense (if I don't like LeFevour, I'm not going to be big on his "poor man's" equivelant).  When facing the blitz he tends to flush the pocket or throw the ball away before exhausting his throwing options.  His arm-strength is suspect, the short throws have decent velocity, but his deep balls float and his deep outs take too long to get there.  Despite his accuracy and intelligence (which we'll get into in a moment) he slings balls into coverage too often, his decision-making is very iffy having thrown 12 interceptions this season against just 16 touchdowns.  Nit-picking, his size is good for most NFL teams, but an inch or so shy of McDaniel's mold.  Now, to the positives.  He reaffirmed himself as one of the more accurate passers in the draft during the combine this past weekend.  He completed 64.8% of his passes as a senior and throws a very catchable ball while leading his receivers.  He puts great touch on all his throws.  When he's able to step up in the pocket, he can lay the deep ball out well despite the limitations of his arm strength.  He's good at selling fakes and running play action and has a quick, albeit slightly low, release.  While, in Northwestern's offense, he typically threw to his first option - he at least recognized the coverage and looked off the safety routinely before pulling the trigger.  His intelligence leads scouts to believe that he's capable of learning and retaining a pro-style offense.  After playing the role of running QB early in his QB and playing behind a some-times overwhelmed Wildcat front in 2009, his toughness is unquestioned.  Still, Kafka is probably my 4th favorite QB in the draft - and somebody who doesn't have Hiller's polish or Brown's athletic ability to really push Orton and Brandstater as anything more than a solid back up.  If I'm wrong and McDaniels sees more in him than I do, he will certainly find himself in the Bronco's conversation during the later rounds.




Running backs:

I know I sound like a broken record, but last spring when we spent 10M on Correll Buckhalter and spent our first pick overall on Knowshon Moreno while tabbing the inexperienced Kyle Orton and selecting Tom Brandstater in the 6th round, I assumed that our offense was going to lean on the running game far more than New England's offense.  For the time being, I was wrong - but I think now, in year 2 of McDaniels' tenure, it's still a possibility.  McDaniels was never versed in a zone-blocking scheme, didn't bring in running backs who were versed in it, and so a lot of what we did with last season was forcing a square peg in a round hole.  Did we run the ball less than McDaniels originally anticipated because McDaniels didn't trust that we could do it?  We'll never know, but with a reconstructed interior offensive line (that is likely to feature new starters at center and left guard) the opportunity to take another crack at a successful running game will present itself.

For a long while, I thought McDaniels' had the best Kool-Aid in the business.  Ever since he came to Denver his enthusiasm, his Kid Genius mystique - I've believed in just about everything he's done.  But Knowshon mixes his own brand and when McDaniels isn't slugging it down by the gallon, I've tried it and it tastes pretty good.  It isn't easy to be a running back in this system.  First, you, obviously, need to be able to run the football.  Speed is a plus, but quickness off the snap and getting to the hole serve better.  McDaniels would like to pound the football, he likes his packs bigger (205-220lbs range), which is something we didn't do well at all last year (though McDaniels hinted blame at the O-Line).  After the running aspect, McDaniels requires his backs to be good and active blockers and versed in running routes and catching passes because, after all, we are a pass-first offense.  Moreno, in theory, came out of Georgia fitting this mold well and still does.  Nobody is going to mistake his rookie season for Eric Dickerson's, but I think he did show flashes of the potential to be a star in this league.  He is an excellent receiver and, even though he isn't our biggest back, is definitely the thunder in our running game.

Which leads us to the lightning, Correll Buckhalter.  Buckhalter came to Denver carrying a ton of potential on aging, reconstructed knee.  Save the New England game, he stayed on the field more than we could have expected.  While I think Buckhalter has, and can continue being effective on about 10 carries and a few receptions a game - I think it's important to look out for his eventual replacement in the late rounds of this year's draft.  For the time being, Buckhalter with his down hill style and straight-line speed is the perfect compliment to the laterally quick, more physical Moreno.  I still think they're still our 1-2 punch going into 2010.

What do we have behind them?  Well, that's still unclear.  LaMont Jordan is out, which should surprise no one.  Peyton Hillis remains, and will likely remain unless somebody offers something for him.  What my gut tells me is that if Denver can offer Tony Scheffler 2nd round tender (as opposed to the lower, same-pick tender) then maybe Hillis and McDaniels can get back on the same page.  I remember watching the preseason game against Chicago, a game that started with a lot of throws in the flat to Hillis and thinking that Hillis could really translate well for McDaniels.  He's a natural pass catcher, big, physical runner, and, being a former fullback, also has blocking skills.  Something happened, whether it was the attitude, the fumbles, or whatever else have you that changed all that.  I won't bet one way or another if he's in a Denver uniform come September, but I do think that McDaniels is too smart to absently get rid of a playmaker without getting what he considers appropriate value in return.  Until then, I think Hillis' role can expand in this offense.

Finally, there's the two new guys - Bruce Hall and Lance Ball.  I won't pretend to know much about Hall aside from the fact that he had limited experience at Ole Miss and followed running back's coach Eric Studesville from Buffalo to Denver.  I will say that, being on the East Coast, I've probably watched more ACC football than the average MHR'er and can vouch that Ball is a wrecking (ummm) ball in the middle.  Ball was an excellent red zone option for the Terps during his time there (accounting for 26 TDS while not receiving the full load of carries).  Could he be the answer to our short-yardage woes?  I'd be willing to bet that that's the main reason why he's on our roster right now.  Do either of these guys have the potential to make the 53 man roster?  Possible, but I wouldn't bet on it.  This is the time of year where you try to get 80-90 guys on your team to create competition.  To that extent - both are worth-whiling and interesting - particularly Ball as the short-yardage/red zone weapon that Jordan never panned out as.  To the free agents:

Top 3 Free Agent Options:

1. Adrian Peterson - Chicago Bears - 5'10 212lbs - 30 years old

Oh, THAT Adrian Peterson - the other Adrian Peterson.  The Adrian Peterson who only touched the ball 9 times (7 rushes 2 receptions) last year.  Many of you probably didn't even know this Adrian Peterson was still in the league, but bare with me for a moment.  At this point, we have our back of the future, his aging tandem-mate, and a lot of uncertainty.  We could very well end up going into camp with 6 or 7 backs and at least one will be over the dreaded 30+ threshold.  A lot of you guys are clamoring for other older free agent backs, a few of which will be mentioned shortly, but with so much uncertainty at that position at that age - and so many younger backs also in the mix - I think it's safer to make a smaller investment toward Peterson who, with 311 career carries (almost half of which came in 2007), has considerably fewer miles on him than the average 30 year old back.  Aside from the financial side of things, Peterson actually fits our mold pretty well.  He's a tough, down-hill back who won't wow you with his physical gifts, but has a pretty good all-around game.  He's an above-average receiver and can pick up blitzers well as a third-down type back.  He's also a good and willing special-teamer.  The best part about Peterson is that he won't require a great commitment.  We could sign him, work him through camp - see how he fits in our scheme in comparison to what else we have- and if it doesn't work out we can cut him without losing much in the mean-time.  I'd be interested to see what happens in a few hours.



2. Chester Taylor - Minnesota Vikings - 5'11 213lbs- 30 years old

Taylor is probably the most popular free agent running back here at MHR and with good reason.  He has a third-down back's skill set, but the running ability to carry a rushing attack for spurts at a time.  He has good agility mixed with surprising speed and can catch and block well out of the backfield.  Additionally, like Peterson, Taylor has far less miles on him than your typical 30 year old running back (1,028 career carries) but unlike Peterson he can handle a starter's load if need be.  My concern with Taylor, being the thrifty off-season projector that I am, is that he's going to command a pretty large salary for a reserve running back in his 30's.  The Vikings alone are expected to go through considerable lengths to keep him and that doesn't even begin to consider outside parties.  That alone makes me hesitant to fall too hard for Taylor, but if things change and his price goes down - I'd be interested.



3. LaDainian Tomlinson - San Diego Chargers - 5'10 221lbs - 30 years old

Poster's Note: Originally, J.J Arrington was slated in this spot, but as of this evening he has already been signed as a Bronco thus making his inclusion here a bit of a cop-out.

So after Peterson, Taylor, and Arrington it came down to Tomlinson and Faulk.  I'm not one quick to forgive and would be hesitant to ever forgive Tomlinson for running all over us for all those years, but he's, at the very least, on the market and I just can't see the Patriots letting Kevin Faulk walk away with all that he means to that offense.  Tomlinson is running close to empty, but his desire to win a title and, in my opinion, add to his stats, should keep him around for another year or two so long as his new team limits his carries.  He'd actually address some needs for us.  He has the vision and power to be effective in short-yardage situations and his abilities as a receiver have never dissipated.  Aside from his days as a Charger, my only other questions are A.) What would his cost be - especially with teams like Green Bay and Washington supposedly interested?  And B.) Does he view Denver as a team that can win him a ring within the next year or two?


via   I had to.

The Draft:

Overrated: LeGarrette Blount - Oregon - 6'1 241lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 4

As an Oregon fan, it's strange for me to come out and say that a player I've rooted hard for for years is overrated, but that's exactly what I'm doing.  At first glance, my gut tells me that the 4th round is too early for us to be looking for a running back, but the Broncos supposedly had formal meetings with Jonathan Dwyer - a projected 2nd rounder - and Montario Hardesty - a projected 3rd rounder - at The Combine so maybe they see a bigger need than I do.  Beyond where he's slated to go in the draft, Blount isn't a great fit for our offense.  I feel as though most Blount-lovers (I'm talking to you with the red eyes) suffer from John Jerry-syndrome.  You hear "power-running" and go for the biggest guys you can find even though McDaniels ran that exact system in New England with no interior lineman bigger than Logan Mankins at 310lbs and no back bigger than Laurence Maroney at 220lbs.  Following Blount as much as I did, I can appreciate the sort of authority he runs with, the surprising agility he runs with outside the tackles, and the big strides he takes as he pulls away to the second and third level.  However, McDaniels' requires his backs to catch the ball and block and those are Blounts too biggest weaknesses.  The scouting reports I've read have him as somebody who doesn't give too much effort in picking up the blitz and somebody who - when he does - often misses his assignment and fails to lock into his man.  He's only caught 4 passes in 2 years at Oregon.  The character/maturity concerns are obviously there - but they've been beaten to death and so I will go no further than saying that I'll be rooting for Blount wherever he goes just as I rooted for him at Oregon - but he doesn't seem like a fit to me.



Underrated: Stafon Johnson - Southern California - 5'11 214lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - UFA

There was a lot of talk about "heroic" "gutsy" performances from last week's combine, but not enough talk, in my opinion, regarding the cojones it took for Johnson to lie back in the middle of a crowded, pressure-filled  room and press 250lbs a dozen times after nearly dying just months ago while doing that very same activity.  USC and its players have been polarizing for years now, but I can't see how anyone could not be rooting for Johnson right now.  Johnson made a name for himself  in USC's stacked backfield as a shifty, power back with a nose for the end zone (19 career TD's on just 171 carries).  Along with being a good, physical runner - he displays great talents as a pass blocker - though he's inexperienced as a receiver (it's worth mentioning, however, that with such a deep backfield Johnson wasn't asked to catch the ball a lot because they had receiving backs like Joe McKnight).  Beyond his receiving inexperience, Johnson also lacks breakaway speed and sometimes maneuvers too much side-to-side rather than just hitting his hole.  Still, I think he's an interesting free agent pick up who, unlike a lot of backs, is used to being in a rotation and doesn't need a lot of touches to get in rhythm.



Top 3 Draft Options:

1. James Starks - Buffalo - 6'2 218lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 5/6

I've had Starks in every one of my mocks this off-season and I'm not going to stop now.  Earlier, I voiced my interest in finding Buckhalter's eventual replacement and Starks seems like a logical fit to me as somebody who would compliment Knowshon well in the future.  A former quarterback, Starks - while not a power-back - has the vision and motor to break tackles and fight for the extra yard.  He has patience to let plays develop - particularly on stretches and traps and once he gets past the line of scrimmage, he's a long-strider who, with the 4.5 speed he displayed at the combine, is a constant threat to make a huge play.  His best attributes likely come as a pass-receiver where he runs good routes, shows good fundamentals catching the ball, and, again, is difficult to catch once he's in the open field and hits top gear.  Unlike McDaniels' prototypical back, Starks struggles holding his blocks (though not through a lack of trying) largely due to his relatively thin frame.  His blocking technique will need to be revamped and he can probably stand to gain a little bulk.  Aside from his blocking, Starks' main issues are that, despite his size, he sees himself as more of a speed back - performing better on the edge than in-between the tackles, and an injury history that cost him his senior season due to a torn labrum.  Not a perfect, complete back, but a speedy, north-south runner that would compliment Moreno's east-west, physical style well.  Before missing his senior season, Starks was credited by his teammates and coaches (including former great Turner Gill) as a workhorse, a major contributor in turning the University of Buffalo's football program around.



2. Ben Tate - Auburn - 5'11 214lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - 3/4

While originally conceiving this post, I left Tate off my list - even though I liked him - because I thought we wouldn't be looking for a back in the earlier rounds.  Now that we've shown, at the very least, curiosity in Dwyer and Hardesty, I feel more comfortable looking at Tate - especially if he slips into the 4th round.  Tate doesn't have too many holes in his game, he's a very good power back who breaks tackles and keeps his legs churning while having enough short-area quickness to advance to the next level in traffic.  An excellent receiver who lines up in the backfield, next to the quarterback and the shotgun, and was even split out wide.  He also, unlike Starks, has a thick frame that he squares up against on-coming blitzers with and holds his own well, though he's still improving.  Tate's biggest flaw going into the draft is a believed lack of speed and agility.  After running a 4.43 at The Combine his straight line speed is far less of an issue, but he'll still have to show teams that he has the agility to bounce plays and make tacklers miss in the open field.  The intelligence and adaptability he displayed succeeding in multiple offenses should be commended and his experience running out of, catching, and blocking from the shotgun makes him all the more valuable.  I still think the 3rd/4th round is too early to look for a running back, but if McXanders is interested, Tate is the kind of north-south runner that, like Starks, would compliment Moreno well.



3. Javarris James - Miami - 6'0 213lbs - Draft Scout Round Projection - UFA

It was difficult deciding on who to put here.  Montario Hardesty was tempting as another mid-round back who Denver has already showed interest in.  There's also a bevy of late-rounders, any one of them could be that diamond in the rough that so often comes out of the later rounds.  These players include Alabama's Roy Upchurch, UConn's Andre Dixon, and Oklahoma's Chris Brown - a player who is an excellent hybrid between Tate and Starks.  I choose James here because he has the third down back skill set that McDaniels' values in all of his backs.  He's a great route runner who can line-up all over the formation and is one of the better pass-protecting backs in the draft.  While not possessing ideal strength or speed, James is a patient runner with quick feet and great vision - able weave through defenses.  A lack of pure athleticism is still James' biggest concern (despite a solid 4.53 at the combine).  James may not be quick enough to start at the next level and though he has good size and doesn't shy away from contact - he isn't likely to run over tacklers.  Scouts will also question how such a heralded prospect coming into Miami didn't separate himself from his backfield-mates as a workhorse back (he never topped the 175 carries he had as a freshman and only had 171 over the past 2 seasons.)  I still prefer to see James as a back who, like Johnson, can thrive in a rotation and be the receiver/blocker McDaniels' likes - especially with the lack of commitment undrafted free agency comes with.



What we do:


Orton gets his first opportunity to go into spring practices and camp as the unquestioned starter of a team.  Interestingly, Tom Brandstater is elevated to the back-up distinction allowing him to receive a larger load of snaps in camp, but Simms is kept on as the third quarterback.  In the draft, the Broncos stay patient until drafting Tim Hiller with their 7th round pick, making him their fourth quarterback.  Simms mentors Brandstater and Hiller while Orton takes the vast majority of the first team reps.  Simms receives extensive playing time in the preseason as a kind gesture by the Broncos to allow him to showcase his talents to other teams before cutting him loose at the end of August.

Running back:

The Broncos, with Moreno, Buckhalter, Hillis, Arrington, Ball, and Hall already on the roster- stay pat throughout the rest of free agency.  While looking for Buckhalter's eventual replacement and Moreno's future battery-mate, McXanders looks at Hardesty and Tate in the 3rd round but find linemen like Mike Johnson, Mitch Petrus, or Tyson Alualu to be too valuable to pass up at that point.  If Tate slips to our 4th round pick, he's ours.  He doesn't so we select James Starks in the 6th round - making our final two rounds a MAC-party.

In camp and preseason games, the Broncos show off Hillis' abilities enough to garner a trade for 2011 5th or 6th round pick.  Bruce Hall, with limited experience is an early cut.  Arrington shows promise, but doesn't make the final cut.

We go into the season with Buckhalter and Starks rotating carries behind Moreno.  Lance Ball replaces Hillis as our goal line and short yardage back.

Final Depth Chart:

QB 1. Orton 2. Brandstater 3. Hiller

RB 1. Moreno 2. Buckhalter 3. Starks 4. Ball

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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