Let's be perfectly clear, one year of evaluation is hardly enough to provide a final say on the efficacy of a draft, but it can certainly be enough to have us seeing stars and busts in fanland.
After the disappointing end to the first true rebuild project in over 15 years, the Broncos appeared rudderless at the conclusion of the 2010 season. With Free Agency delayed due to the Lockout, the 2011 draft was the first real look at the new culture and team concept that John Elway and John Fox were trying to instill and install. Leading up to the draft, weaknesses in the linebacking corps and secondary were identified, along with defensive line depth and talent. On offense, the offensive line figured to need depth, and tight end talent continued to be an issue, but overall, the focus looked to be on the defensive side of the ball.
Let's get below the fold and see how the actual draft meshed up with needs....
Denver prioritized starting talent at rush OLB, FS and OT, while grabbing insurance at SAF, and developmental prospects in the last half of the draft at ILB and TE. The only defensive line help they considered was a late round college standout with less than ideal measurables.
|1||2||Von Miller||OLB||Texas A&M|
|3||67||Nate Irving||ILB||North Carolina State|
|4b||129||Julius Thomas||TE||Portland State|
Von Miller: Miller was the consensus best pass rusher in the 2011 draft, and was expected to move around to get matchups and get into the offensive backfield. His upfield burst was universally labeled "special" by scouts and analysts. The only significant knock against him was his limited run stopping role, though he had the vision and quickness to run backs down from behind and trail a play in the backfield. In his rookie season in Denver, Von did not disappoint, leading the team in sacks (11.5), sack yardage (77yds), tackles for loss (19) and QB hits (24). His efforts earned him the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Amazingly, this production came despite a broken thumb that kept him in a cast for the last six weeks of the season. Heading into 2012 his health appears to be on track, and his future is bright in Denver.
Rahim Moore: At UCLA over the course of three years starting Moore established himself as a natural center-fielder, with range and run vs. pass intelligence, coupled with the quickness to get where he needed to go, overlapping deep coverage on both sides of the field. He wasn't known as a hitter, but more a sure tackler. Unfortunately, upon arriving in Denver, he played away from his strengths, trying to make the big impact hit that would cement him into the minds of coaches and fans. After a huge hit in the preseason Buffalo game resulted in a fine, Moore's head wouldn't quite be where it needed to be throughout the remainder of the season, resulting in him getting benched in favor of his draftmate Quinton Carter as the season reached its zenith. Injuries would give him opportunities from time to time which he didn't take advantage of, and heading into 2012 he finds himself back where he was as a rookie: trying to impress his teammates and coaches and earn a role on the team. If he can play to his strengths, he should be able to supplant the veteran Mike Adams in the deep half of the field sometime in 2012.
Orlando Franklin: Defined predraft by his long arms and huge hands, and by a violent streak in his game, he projected as a starting RT, developmental LT who could move into the interior in a pinch. Due to free agency rules that sent Ryan Harris out the door, Franklin got the opportunity to start at RT right away, and went on to not miss a start over the season. While his pass protection was always a work in progress, he truly made an impact early in the running game, with runs on RT averaging 4.7 yards per rush. Going forward he will need to improve on his understanding of the pass protections, moreso than his actual techniques. With Orton in the pocket Orlando was much more comfortable, and often Orton would make a point of doublechecking that Franklin knew his responsibility, but once Tebow came in, Orlando was on his own, and too often was out of place. With Peyton Manning at the helm, Franklin will at once be challenged beyond anything he has had to do in the NFL to date, but also helped tremendously to be on task at the snap. Going forward, Franklin could be looking to make tremendous strides in pass protection, and could be a key cog in the line at RT for years to come.
Nate Irving: After missing the 2009 season after an auto accident, Irving seemed to have returned to his expected levels of explosion and production, playing his senior year at ILB after manning both outside positions in the years prior. An aggressive, hard hitter, he came into camp and couldn't quite seal the job away as his own, being challenged hard by Joe Mays. He did manage to play in every game, in a special teams role, including forcing a fumble on an onside kick in Miami. Overall however, he looks to still be in development. The Broncos retained starter Mays on a short contract, so signs are that they are still looking to see if the 2011 draft class will provide them the MLB of the future.
Quinton Carter: Carter was pegged pre-draft as a versatile FS/SS type, and was considered the second best SAF prospect behind Moore. He was a head up hitter who was good in run support with sideline to sideline speed, though he was considered limited in run vs. pass recognition and diagnosis. In his rookie season he logged 16 games played, primarily on STs, though he also earned 10 starts at both SS and FS, where he logged 49 tackles and a sack. That experience should do him good heading into a 2012 season that sees the retirement of Brian Dawkins, and few obstacles to a starting role again for Carter. The SS spot is his to lose at this point, with the only real challenges being vet special teams gunner David Bruton and the versatility and experience of Mike Adams, should Moore beat him out for FS.
Julius Thomas: Thomas was an exceptionally raw developmental prospect, and in a draft where rookies were seeing playing time all over the field, Thomas saw his role reduced to nothing after a week 2 ankle injury on his first career reception left him sidelined for the majority of the season, including being listed as a gameday inactive for 13 of the contests. After hitting the 2012 free agent market hard for TEs, it looks like Denver is going to give Thomas a mulligan for 2011, and hope to start fresh in 2012. Given how raw Thomas was coming out of college, it is doubtful that the injury set him back so much as delayed his development, since he had never really played at a high level in the first place. Having moved up into the 4th round to get him, it is likely that the Broncos are willing to be patient and let him grow into his role, and with two starters acquired in free agency, they certainly have the freedom to do that.
Michael Mohamed: Drafted primarily for his durability and instincts, Mohamed was forecast as a valuable contributor to some teams special teams unit. Despite looking good in preseason in that role, and seeing action in the first game of the season, roster math led to the Broncos parting ways with Mohamed in week 3, but then bringing him back to close out the last seven weeks of the season. He is currently on the Broncos roster and slated to compete in camp for a backup ILB role and a place on all of Denver's coverage units.
Virgil Green: Green was actually a higher rated TE than Thomas, and many others that went before him, but reports of complications with his microfracture surgery from 2009 had teams moving him down the board. Some teams had him rated as high as the third best TE if not for the surgery issue. Considered a steal in the seventh round it was hoped that his speed, natural ball skills and good hands would earn him early playing time. He would go on to play in all but one game of his rookie season primarily as a key contributor on special teams, but also logging 3 starts over the course of the season. Used primarily in a runblocking role, that experience should only help him in a Peyton Manning led offense where one TE injury could have him stepping into a starting role any given week. His natural strengths as a pass catching TE may have a chance to shine in 2012.
Jeremy Beal: the 2010 Big-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, Beal was an overachieving, high production 3 year starter at Oklahoma, who fell down draft boards after a timed 40 was among the worst in his class. Believed to be a beneficiary of scheme and surrounding talent, scouts came to the conclusion that Beal would not have the first step necessary to make an impact in the NFL, and so far they may have been right. Beal spent the season on Denver's practice squad, and was recently resigned for another shot at making the roster in 2012. All signs point towards an uphill battle for Beal, but he didn't become the second in all time sacks and tackles for a loss at Oklahoma because he didn't try.
Out of 9 draftees, the Broncos managed to retain all 9 heading into their sophomore season. At first glance that may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but good teams develop all their players, not just the stars, and so retention from year to year is no small thing. Admittedly, a couple of players are hanging on by a thread heading into 2012 (Beal, Mohamed, Thomas) while others have a lot still to prove (Moore, Irving, Green), but 2 solid starters and an All-Pro are enough to make most drafts grade out at above average. Include the retention of the entire class, and the 2011 draft class looks to have a bright future, and I would give it an A grade at this point without hesitation.