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Denver Broncos Draft Strategy Part 1a - Josh McDaniels

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Each year, as draft day approaches, I try to figure out what the Broncos will do and who they will select. I found out last year that I knew far more about Mike Shanahan's draft tendencies than I did Josh McDaniels. The question of Josh McDaniels' mentality towards the draft began to haunt me many weeks ago.

How does one begin to mock up the draft when the teams Head Coach and General Manager have only been with the team a short amount of time? The pursuit of an answer to that question is what began my decent down into a rabbit hole that I have yet to escape from.

Each fact, correlation, or piece of information only raised more questions than it answered. The main question I sought any answer for was simple. Who will McDaniels and Xanders target in this years' draft? Ha! The answer might be simple...to them, but for an outsider like me it would be no easy task.

In fact, much of the research contained in this post and the next three was subjected to my own interpretation, for the only true answer lies within the minds of McDaniels and Xanders.  My goal was to look at each of their professional histories - Josh McDaniels in New England and Brian Xanders in Atlanta.

Today we will examine Josh McDaniels' experience within the New England Patriots organization. My first subjective act was to assume that McDaniels has taken what he has learned in New England and brought it with him to Denver. Over time, I expect him to develop his own philosophy and tendencies, which will come with experience. Therefore, we must take a look at what he may have learned while in New England in order to hope to gain insight into his overall philosophy.

I have researched the Patriots drafts from 2001 to 2008, with a special emphasis on 2005-2008. I examined each position and each individual player from these drafts - correlating tangible data from each into a broad database of how Bill Belichek drafted during this time.

The analysis wouldn't be complete without throwing in the Denver Broncos 2009 draft. The result is a comprehensive analysis of the Bill Belichek-inspired draft philosophy that McDaniels has carried with him into Denver. 

Again, allow me to reiterate that this analysis is by no means scientific nor are my conclusions pure fact. No one can know for sure the mind of Josh McDaniels except for Josh McDaniels, but what I am trying to do is understand the point of view of Josh McDaniels when approaching this years' draft.

Some of my findings are backed up more concretely than others, but I think the overall the picture of the 2010 draft is becoming a little clearer than it was a month ago. We all know and recognize the teams needs, but there is more at play than just pure need. In addition, much of the 2009 draft that left us scratching our heads actually makes a little more sense today.

Overview

The New England Patriots during Josh McDaniels tenure drafted, for the most part, intelligent and physical players. They would ignore injury concerns if the prospects checked out healthy in their physicals and drafted according to need more often than going after the best player on the board.

I will examine each individual position below, but overall, the Patriots focused their higher round draft picks on their offensive and defensive lines. They had six first round picks in McDaniels first five seasons with the team. They were as follows: DT, TE, DE, NT, TE, and OG. All six were "in the trenches" kind of players. Both tight ends were big physical blocking tight ends. I also found it interesting that the Patriots Super Bowl success began to erode after that last "in the trench" first round pick. From 2006-2008, they selected a RB, DB, and ILB. Not sure what the means, but it is obvious that they are no longer the juggernaut they once were.

It is that dedication to both fronts that impressed me the most. It has made me realize that perhaps the "sexy" pick is not the best pick.

For example, the Patriots in the second round drafted players mostly on the outside. Three wide receivers, two corners, a free safety, and two linemen. I like this approach. The fronts on both sides of the ball are far more important to winning than the outside players and by drafting interior linemen in the first and "skill" players in the second, you are still able to build a talented football team.

So far, the Broncos 2009 draft is shaping up to mimic the Patriots drafting successes of the early part of the last decade. In the first two rounds, McDaniels and Brian Xanders selected a RB and a DE/OLB in the first, and a CB, FS, and TE in the second. Richard Quinn was the top blocking tight end prospect in last years draft, so his second round status is nearly equal to the two first rounders the Patriots expended in years past on this position. The Broncos were also terribly thin at running back, so their hands may have been tied to Knowshon Moreno early on. Ayers, Smith, and McBath all fit the Patriots mold and draft strategies.

It's time to find out what can be learned for each position and how it might relate to future Bronco drafts.

Quarterbacks

The Patriots love taking big(6'3"-6'5" & 220+) quarterbacks in later rounds as much as Mike Shanahan used to love drafting obscure running backs in later rounds.

The difference being the Patriots had success. Tom Brady, Matt Cassell, and Kevin O'Connell have all contributed far more than their draft position should have allowed them to contribute.

Josh McDaniels carried that philosophy with him to Denver when he selected Tom Brandstater in the sixth round last year. It is unclear how Brandstater will work out, but he fits the Patriots profile to a T.

Common Traits:

  • Big, mobile athletes
  • Lots of potential, but tend to be raw and typically need a year or more to develop
  • College experience tends to be in spread offenses or out of the shotgun

Analysis for 2010:

There are quite a few prospects that fit this profile very well. The big question is, how confidence does McDaniels have in Brandstater? If McD has questions about Brandstater, then look for a later round pickup to compete against Brandstater for a roster spot in training camp.

My prediction for the 2010 draft is that McDaniels and Xanders will target a quarterback in the 6th or 7th rounds.

Update: I started writing this series of articles in February, so you will see these kinds of updates throughout as I change my predictions due to signings or other moves the Broncos make.  The trade for Brady Quinn all but negates any chance the Broncos draft a quarterback this year.  I also believe the move to get Quinn was superior to any QB prospects on this board for the price the Broncos paid. 

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Tim Tebow, Tony Pike, Dan LeFevour, John Skelton, Mike Kafka, Levi Brown, Tim Hiller

Offensive Tackles

The Patriots prefer to use the power run game and their selections of tackles in the draft show this. Not one tackle drafted by the Patriots weighed less than 300 pounds. The good thing for the Broncos and McDaniels is that they have no need for a starting tackle.

There is an issue with depth, however, so it will be important to look at late round prospects in this years' draft.

McDaniels and Xanders did not select a tackle in last years' draft, so we have no correlation to run with this position. We will assume that since McDaniels is running a system similar to New England and that he will target similar tackle prospects.

Common Traits:

  • Big, physical specimens with room on their frames for additional bulk
  • Prospects tend to be hard workers and versatile, playing all along the line
  • Injury histories have been ignored by Belichek at this position
  • Run blocking abilities take precidence over pass blocking skills
  • Tend to reach at this position

Analysis for 2010:

I just do not see how the Broncos can pass on a tackle in this years draft. Depth is a major concern along the offensive line and the lackadaisical efforts during Free Agency to address these issues have left McDaniels and Xanders little choice here.

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Kyle Calloway, Ed Wang, Will Barker, J'Marcus Webb, Jeraill McCuller

Offensive Guards

The guard position is one that draft experts value almost not at all. However, this position is one of those positions that the Belichek ranks high in value, much like the tight end position. He consistently reached at this position.

I say reach, but I don't think selecting a now all-pro guard in the first round when he was "projected" to go in the third round is a reach at all. How valuable is an all-pro lineman?

That said, Josh McDaniels has followed Belichek's example in this regard as well. He selected Seth Olsen in the 4th round when Olsen was projected by some to not get drafted! McD does not care about best player available in later rounds, rather, he cares about what his team needs to be successful.

Obviously he had Olsen high on his draft board and didn't blink twice pulling the trigger.

Common Traits:

  • Wide frames, thickness of lower body
  • Aggressive attitudes, high emotions, & enjoy physicality
  • Injury histories not a concern here
  • Will reach, a lot, for the right player at this position

Analysis for 2010:

The 2009 Broncos had a major flaw last season, well lots of major flaws, but the guard position was one of them.

It is time for McDaniels to make the full transition from the zone-blocking scheme to the power run game. Guard must be addressed with that in mind.  McD and Xanders could target anywhere in the draft for this position.

If Mike Iupati is not snatched up in the first round, then look for guard prospects in the second round or later that fit the power run attack and have the size (6'4" 310+) to match the Belichek/McDaniels philosophy.

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Mike Iupati, Vladimir Ducasse, John Jerry, Mike Johnson, Brandon Carter, Marshall Newhouse, Shawn Lauvao, Chris DeGeare, Brian Simmons, Sergio Render, Reggie Stephens

Offensive Centers

There isn't much draft history from the Patriots to correlate any data here. Judging by McDaniel's failed attempt to pick up a late round center last year, he may try again this year.

The two centers that were drafted in the period researched were smaller than one might expect(6'2" 290ish). Considering the huge hole at this position on the current roster, something has to give.

There are not many common traits to go on, so I decided to look at the free agents the Broncos have looked at so far this offseason as well.

Common Traits:

  • Free Agents have tended to be bigger and more physical than the players drafted in years past - this could be an indication of where McX is going at this position

Analysis for 2010:

Despite the huge hole at this position, don't look for the Broncos too go big here. The team has too many needs elsewhere to devote a high draft pick this year.

They could address this position in future drafts, but for now, look to the 3rd-7th rounds for a serviceable center.

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Maurkice Pouncey, J.D. Walton, Matt Tennant, Eric Olsen, Erik Cook

Tight Ends

The tight end position is likely the most important offensive position in the McDaniels system. At least it is when you look at the Patriots and McDaniels draft histories.

During Josh McDaniels' eight year tenure with New England, Bill Belichek drafted no less than seven tight ends, including two; count 'em, TWO in the first rounds.

That is a stiff price to pay for such an unambiguous position. Therein lies the secret to the Patriots success, ball control and power run game - at least before they became a pass-heavy team. You know, when they were winning Super Bowls.

Many of us were shocked and even angry when Josh McDaniels trade up to the second round to draft some run blocking tight end no one had on their radar, yet if anyone had noticed this correlation last year they may have known about Richard Quinn.

Of those seven tight ends drafted in New England and the Quinn last year, not a single one weighed less than 250 pounds. Adieu Tony Scheffler, we barely knew ye.

Common Traits:

  • Big, physical run blocking tight ends with adequate receiving skills
  • McD's trade and reach for Richard Quinn is an indication he shares Belichek's views toward the tight end position
  • Big frames, maintains position & sustains blocks - power run blockers
  • Team will be aggressive with this position, borderline obsessive

Analysis for 2010:

My brain says the Broncos will not be drafting another tight end in 2010, but I cannot deny the strong correlation between McDaniels and the Patriots draft history.

If the Broncos select a tight end anywhere in the draft, I will not be surprised like I was last year. I now understand how important this position is to the McDaniels Way.

My prediction is that McX will not draft a tight end in this years' draft, but all bets are off in 2011!

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Anthony McCoy, Nate Byham, Michael Hoomanawanui

Wide Receivers

This position is one that does not rank very highly on draft day for the Patriots or McDaniels(so far). The Patriots had most of their success drafting wide outs in the second round, however, they had to dive into free agency to successfully address their needs at that position.

If Brandon Marshall departs, then this position becomes a priority in the second/third rounds. Judging by the drafting histories involved, wide receiver will not be a first round priority. Period.

Common Traits:

  • Average height and weight in past draft selections(6'ish 210ish)
  • A strong desire for deep threats over possession receivers
  • Though the Patriots and McD have looked for players that possess both attributes
  • Value prospects route running over hands
  • Injuries not a concern at this position

Analysis for 2010:

The one thing that surprised me is the inactivity in the free agency market to acquire a solid wide receiver in case Brandon is dealt. Either this means the Broncos intend to keep Marshall regardless, or they have an eye on a few draft prospects that McX may reach for come the end of this month.

My prediction is that the Broncos will go wide receiver in the 4th through 7th rounds.

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold:

Golden Tate, Damian Williams, Taylor Price, Carlton Mitchell, Andre Roberts, Jeremy Williams, David Gettis, Dezmon Briscoe, Danario Alexander, Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Carter, Verran Tucker, Kyle Williams

Running Backs

This is one position that Josh McDaniels broke from the Bill Belichek mold, showing me he has a mind of his own and over time he will shed his Patriot-philosophy in favor of his own philosophy.

The Patriots have a piss poor draft record for running backs. The problem was that they preferred big bruiser types over faster, lighter backs. Not one of the five running backs taken during McDaniels tenure weighed less than 220.

McDaniels broke the mold by selecting Knowshon Moreno. He could have followed his mentor's philosophy by taking Benie Wells, but didn't. Knowshon will develop into a solid running back and at 5'11", 210, is much lighter and quicker than the Patriot-mold of running backs.

Common Traits:

  • So far, there are few common traits. Knowshon Moreno is unlike any of the previous Patriots draft picks at this position while McDaniels worked there. It could just be that the Patriots never had the chance to draft a player with as much talent as Moreno, though a case could be made that they flopped with Laurence Maroney.
  • The Patriots scheme prefers big bruiser-like prospects, however, Belichek missed on most of his big back selections.

Analysis for 2010:

The Broncos are set at this position, but look for them to add depth through either free agency(JJ Arrington) or through the college free agency markets. I do not see the Broncos wasting a draft pick on a reserve running back. There are just too many other needs for the team to address.

Potential Prospects that fit the McD mold(late round prospects):

Lonyae Miller, Andre Anderson, Chris Browns, Keith Toston, Deji Karim

Conclusion

There are too many strong correlations between Josh McDaniels 2009 draft and other roster moves and how the Patriots had built a dynasty in the early part of the last decade for a guy like me to ignore. So far, I see a coach that has taken what works and discarded what hasn't worked from his mentor and friend, Bill Belichek.

It is clear to me that Josh McDaniels is attempting to build a run-oriented offense, similar to the one the Patriots ran with Corey Dillon. That's also the offense that won three Super Bowls.

The media, and their short term memory, believes McDaniels will attempt to employ the system he ran with Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker. I don't think they could be farther from the truth.

There has been much ado about the NFL becoming a pass heavy league and that the only way to win a Super Bowl is through the air. Like the belief that the Jets were an "aberration". Sorry, but I believe there is an ebb and flow to the NFL. 2009 was a passing year, 2010 could be a runners year. If I had to choose which type of offense the Broncos run, I'd pick the run over the pass. I'd pick ball control over three and outs.

Of course, none of what McDaniels does here will matter one iota without a championship defense to back them up. The Patriots defense of the early part of the last decade was phenomenal. That is priority #1 for McDaniels and Brian Xanders. Part 1b will be posted tomorrow and it will be all about defense, baby!