I've always assumed that NFL teams give a lot of thought as to whether they fill holes in the team via free agency or via the draft. Depending on whether their needs are long/short term, caliber of need, etc. That may honestly be giving NFL teams more credit than many of them deserve --- but now that the franchise tag date and the CBA has, for all practical purposes, expired --- we now have a list of the true free agents out there. So we can now compare potential draftees to free agents and see which way the Broncos may go in filling needs......
I'm going to ignore a bunch of positions -- WR, QB, "core" RB, interior OL. Those are the least of the team's holes. Starting with the offense:
TE -- Broncos are very deep with young blocking TE's. Not so much with receiving TE's. The biggest limit here is actually the roster slot. Releasing Daniel Graham does also release a roster slot for the Broncos to use at a position where there isn't as much depth. I see zero chance of drafting a receiving TE above the late rounds since there is more depth in the 2011 class than there are NFL teams who need an elite/solid receiving TE. I also don't see a need for an elite FA TE ( Owen Daniels, Zach Miller ) since other teams that use receiving TE's more will outbid us. The only other receiving TE out there is Kevin Boss - below that is really a bunch of so-what's. So my guess is that either Graham will be re-signed to a smaller contract -- or Kevin Boss or one of the so-what's will be a FA signing -- and one of the younger TE's will lose his job in training camp. Most likely the former.
RB -- I really don't know what the Broncos real needs are here. But they are definitely not "elite-caliber" needs. Is it a punishing FB-type who doesn't get injured? There are two FA's who fit that -- Lawrence Vickers and John Kuhn - maybe Brian Leonard . Or is it a backup or third-down RB? Maybe a Jerome Harrison or Brandon Jackson or Darren Sproles or Tim Hightower or Jason Snelling ? The depth at FA is such that I really hope the Broncos don't even think about drafting a RB/FB above our 6/7 round picks.
OT -- The depth need here is critical. Perhaps the most critical on the entire team. One injury and all we have is -- nothing. Unfortunately, this is also a position that requires a high draft pick to get a starter-caliber player and even then it takes time. So this is one position where IMO Broncos should pay for a FA OT. Fortunately there are quite a few -- Willie Colon , Jammal Brown , Tyson Clabo , Matt Light , Marshal Yanda , Barry Richardson -- and our own Ryan Harris . So I would guess that FA is the way we will go and it will depend how much $$ it costs and whether/ how much we are choosing to upgrade/deepen that position. Regardless -- we will also be drafting an OT either this year or 2012 -- even if it is backup/rotational caliber.
Now the defense. Pretty sure everyone here agrees that we are going to be drafting heavily on the defense this year -- and next year. And we still may need FA signings to fill holes. The main value of a FA listing on the defense side is to figure out the round in which we may need to draft someone this year or 2012. ie do we need an immediate starter -- or a raw potential -- or depth/rotational -- or what? In all this, I am now assuming that we do go to a 4-3. Not what I would do if I were coach assessing our talent/draft -- but presumably that's why the Broncos didn't hire me.
DT -- We have plenty of rotational bench depth -- but no core starter. Draft depth is very deep and I can easily see an upgrade (immediate and/or a bit longer-term) via the draft using either our #2 or #36 pick. Below that, a draft pick would be more developmental and a FA signing would be necessary. The 4-3 DT FA upgrades are -- Barry Cofield , Brandon Mebane , Mike Patterson and Anthony Adams . There are quite a few rotational/depth FA's but one would really have to second-guess the Broncos for going there.
DE -- This is actually the strongest combo of depth/starters on defense. On paper. A #1 round pick, our best pass rusher, plenty of depth, all of them young. But there are also questions -- particularly re whether Doom is big/healthy enough to be an every-down 4-3 DE. Not questions big enough to use a #2 pick on Bowers or Miller (which would almost force the Broncos to trade Doom or sit a 1st round pick on the bench -- both of which end up being subtraction-by-addition). And thus not questions that are big enough to "go elite" in the FA pool either. But there are some 4-3 DE FA's below that -- Andre Carter , Wallace Gilberry , Travis LaBoy , Jayme Mitchell , and everyone's favorite example of why it can be dangerous to use a high draft pick on D-line - Vernon Gholston .
LB -- Again, like DT, we actually have decent rotational bench depth -- but serious questions about who might start and where. And combined with serious questions about the 2011 draft as well beyond adding a young player to the bench. For 4-3 ILB, the FA's range from near-elite - Stephen Tulloch , Paul Posluszny - to solid - Kirk Morrison , Stewart Bradley , -- to question marks -- Barrett Ruud , D'Qwell Jackson . For 4-3 OLB, there are a lot of solid FA's -- Manny Lawson , Rocky McIntosh , James Anderson , Steven Nicholas , Quincy Black , and Matt Roth . This seems the most obvious position for the Broncos to forget about the draft this year and sign a FA instead based on where they feel the need is.
CB -- The reverse situation of the front-7. Age-risk starters who are solid for now. Below them, a lot of youth. I think the young bench shows enough so that eventually replacing Andre Goodman is likely from them. And in the meantime, they fill nickelback and special teams roles. But they don't have the upside to eventually take on the league's #1 WR's -- think Vincent Jackson and Dwayne Bowe in our division -- and replace Champ. So our draft need is either elite CB or no CB at all. And because Champ is signed, the FA route is completely silly. There are only three potentially elite (playing ability, instincts, and noncoachable things like size/speed/strength/etc) CB's in the draft this year -- Patrick Peterson, Prince Amakamura, and Jimmy Smith. All will be gone by our second pick. The second-tier of CB's has very serious questions about whether they will ever have the upside of a #1CB - and if they don't we don't need them at all. So IMO our only draft option is to either use the #2 pick to draft a #1CB or wait until next year.
S -- Like CB, age-risk starters with a young bench. Unlike CB however, I really haven't seen any indication from the bench that they can ever do more than special teams but they are all young enough to not give up on that possibility. And the age-risks are greater than CB -- and Hill just isn't that good. Unfortunately, there are no immediate starter safeties in the draft (unless Peterson plays safety in year one) -- and the draft class as a whole looks pretty meh. The FA pool is deep - from elite -- Eric Weddle -- to very good -- Dawan Landry , Quintin Mikell , Danieall Manning , O.J. Atogwe , Michael Huff -- to solid w/ questions -- Gerald Sensabaugh , Bob Sanders , Donte Whitner , Dashon Goldson , Roman Harper, Brodney Pool , Atari Bigby , Melvin Bullitt -- and a host of rotational safeties. So i would guess that the Broncos best option here is a FA signing and add another late round developmental pick to the bench.
In summary -- it looks to me like the Broncos best options are:
FA signing for RB, OT, LB, and S
#2 pick for either CB or DT
#36 pick for DT
#46 and #67 pick for either LB, a 2nd DT, DE, or OT -- or trade them down to get extra midround picks for LB, S, OT, DT, DE
6th and 7th round picks for best available lottery ticket at any of the above positions (incl TE and RB) which falls to us.
And since everyone likes a meaningless offseason poll, here's one: