ESPN Football Outsiders recently cited the Broncos' top need this offseason as being in the secondary. The Broncos have two corners who are 30 plus years of age, and two of our top reserves ended last season on injured reserve.
By all accounts, the Broncos also found a gem in rookie undrafted free agent Chris Harris, whose physical play earned him a role as the nickel cornerback. He had his share of mistakes, but for the most part, he showed enough in 2011 to earn himself a decent shot at the number three job again in 2012.
With the impending return of Syd'Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn, the Broncos are going to have to do some moving around at cornerback. Each player has a different kind of upside, but cornerback is undoubtedly going to be a need for this team going forward as none of the current prospects on the team seems to have potential as a number one or two corner in the NFL.
Thus, it seems likely if not a certainty that the Broncos will target a cornerback early in the draft, possibly with their first round pick (25th overall).
The Broncos also have some guys who could compete in camp like Tony Carter, Jonathan Wilhite, Rafael Bush, Joshua Moore, and Ramzee Robinson, but unless one of those guys comes out and surprises, Denver is going to seek someone with more upside.
Right now, I have five cornerbacks with first round grades:
- Morris Claiborne, LSU
- Dre' Kirkpatrick, Alabama
- Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama/Florida
- Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
- Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
There is a second tier of players right after that who have high second round grades that could potentially warrant a first round pick, but in my opinion would be considered a reach:
- Brandon Boykin, Georgia
- Chase Minnifield, Virginia
- Leonard Johnson, Iowa State
- Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina
Out of nine potential targets, I think it's realistic to expect that all but two of these players--Claiborne and Kirkpatrick--will be available when the Broncos are on the clock come draft day. My current thought is that while Janoris Jenkins played his final year of college ball at North Alabama after getting kicked out of Florida, there will be some team that sees fit to not only take a flyer on him in the first round, but to take him in the top 20 selections.
Jenkins is easily a top 20 talent when you put on the game tape. His ability to mirror a receiver and play cover one so effectively is going to make him very attractive to NFL scouts. Not to mention, in his senior season he showed off what he is capable of as a returner, and regardless of the competition, this guy has always been a very good player.
He is potentially a big risk off the field, but if he somehow slides past all the teams in front of us, specifically a team like the Detroit Lions, I will be quite surprised. Therefore, I will consider it a pleasant surprise if Jenkins winds up still on the board when Denver is on the clock.
So, when the Broncos are on the clock at 25, I foresee the top player available at cornerback being South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, who was my top rated cornerback heading into the 2011 season.
Gilmore really excels in zone coverage because of his closing ability and he can make plays on the ball better than a lot of corners out there. He's also really physical, and it could be beneficial for him to learn from a guy like Champ Bailey who has a similar style of play.
One thing you also really like when you watch Gilmore is the fact that he is a great blitzing cornerback, and can be used either as your primary corner or as a nickel corner and make plays that way.
Another solid prospect that should be on the board is Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, who was largely overshadowed in 2010 by one Prince Amukamara, who was a first round pick of the New York Giants. Dennard then battled injuries through 2011 but still flashed the type of shut-down ability that made him one of the hottest cornerback prospects heading into this past football season.
Dennard flashed that ability specifically in the final game of the Huskers' regular season against the Iowa Hawkeyes where he pretty much eliminated the best wide receiver in Iowa football history from the game entirely.
As far as early second round prospects that I have on my board right now, Brandon Boykin leads the way. There are a lot of people who think the former Georgia jack-of-all-trades has first round ability, and some have compared him to Alphonso Smith, who was one of our second round picks back in the day.
I definitely don't think Boykin reminds me all that much of Smith, but you could argue it because of how well they play the ball. Boykin has huge upside as a returner and has even played receiver for the Bulldogs.
Virginia's Chase Minnifield and Iowa State's Leonard Johnson are both guys I could see either going in the early second round or possibly later, but I have them rated as high second round prospects. I think both have solid size and tackling ability, and both would be good fits for our defense but in the late first round, I think it'd be a questionable pick to take either of them. It's possible we could trade down out of the first round to try and snag one of them.
One real wildcard is Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman, who showed over the course of this offseason that he can hang with the best of the best after a very solid college career.
Norman caught the eye of scouts at the East-West Shrine game earlier this offseason with his size and athletic ability, and then he showed up at the Senior Bowl and did a lot of the same. He has drawn comparisons to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for his meteoric rise this offseason. Maybe if he has a dominant combine, he can wind up in the first round discussion as well.
In the first round, I think Stephon Gilmore is the corner that really fits what the Broncos are doing, and I think he'd be great value. If that is the direction the team goes early, he would be a great option who could possibly start right away depending how the rest of the roster unfolds between now and then.