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Broncos at a crossroads with young talent

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What happens this year at a couple key positions will go a long way in determining the future of the franchise.

NFL: Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

This year is a crossroads for John Elway and the Broncos roster.

When Elway arrived in 2011, he laid out the top four most important positions he believes every team needs. Those positions are, in order: Quarterback, Edge Rusher, Left Tackle, and Cornerback.

Here is what Elway said about those positions at the time:

1. Quarterback

“Far and away the most important position. You need the guy to win you a championship from the pocket, to be a leader, to make it go. And you’re looking for the athlete at the position who can operate from the pocket and get out when he needs to.”

2. Edge pass rusher

“I know the players who you didn’t want to see across from you, the disruptive players you had to game plan for.”

3. Left offensive tackle

“He protects the most important player’s blindside. You can’t play if the guys you can’t see coming keep hitting you. He has to be athletic, smart and tough, and you hope he’s there a long time.”

4. Cover cornerbacks

“I just believe the coverage and the rush go hand in hand. The way you give quarterbacks fits is to get their receivers under wraps and to make them uncomfortable in the pocket.”

It is no coincidence that in four consecutive drafts, Elway has spent his premium pick on each one of these positions, at times spending multiple picks to trade up.

We’ve talked about that list at length here on this site, so it is nothing new. But, here is where things get interesting. This is the first year where all four of the premium picks at those positions have the opportunity to take the field together.

How each of those guys plays at the team’s most important positions, and more importantly the potential they show, will go a long way in determining the future of the franchise and whether Denver rises back to the top of the division, or stays mired in playoff-missing mediocrity.

So let’s take a look at Elway’s franchise-building wishlist and see what he expects from these positions, and what we as fans can expect to see this year:

#1 Quarterback

There’s a reason that so much has been written about the quarterback battle this year. In today’s NFL, you only go as far as your quarterback will take you.

Elway gets this. He’s been spending picks on quarterbacks nearly every draft, as you can never have enough. This is the year, however, that we might get to see the guy he traded up for in the first round get his shot at steering the ship.

Elway drafted Paxton Lynch to eventually be the guy once Brock Osweiler bolted for Houston. This move was lauded at the time by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King as the story of the night on Draft Day 2016.

The story is not just that Denver traded up five spots in the round, from 31 to 26 with Seattle, to take Lynch. The story also is what a good job GM John Elway did in managing a minefield situation after the decline and retirement of Peyton Manning, with the mega-expectations that come with trying to repeat as champs.

Consider, first, the financial implications on a franchise trying to keep most of its star players.

Lynch, with his 26th-place slot in the round, will sign a four-year contract worth about $9.1 million.

Brock Osweiler, the one-time heir to Manning, bolted to Houston for four years and $72 million, after starting seven career games in Denver.

The biggest question at this position is can Lynch step up and be the long-term answer that he was drafted to be? That’s the $20 million question; one that’s much more likely to be answered in December or January than in September.

One last note on this. It’s no surprise that Elway identified wanting an athlete at the position who could both operate from the pocket and get out when necessary, as this is how he played the game, and was one of the best all-time at creating once a play broke down.

Additionally, several of the top quarterbacks currently in the league — Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson — all have the ability to extend plays with their legs, while also operating effectively from the pocket.

#2 Edge Rusher

Elway started his tenure as decision-maker by hitting an absolute home run with Von Miller, so the cupboard is definitely not dry at this position. However, the Super Bowl MVP needs a Robin to his Batman, now that DeMarcus Ware has retired.

This position feels the closest to being locked up. Shane Ray was already showing flashes last year in limited action and seems poised for a breakout year.

However, with less depth and veteran presence at the position than Denver has become accustomed, the pass rush is the most fragile it’s been since 2013.

Ray coming back healthy and having a big year will go a long way toward changing that. We’ll see what happens.

#3 Left Tackle

Denver has been in flux at this position since Ryan Clady started going down with injuries. They have had a different starting left tackle in each of the last four seasons; so finally, Elway spent a premium pick on this position, picking Garett Bolles at #20.

While this wasn’t the most stellar draft class for tackles (which is putting it lightly), Denver was very fortunate to have its pick of the top tackles so far down the board.

They didn’t have much of a choice about whether to draft a tackle this year, so not having to overextend and trade up to get their guy was definitely a boon for Elway.

The word from camp so far is that this is Garett Bolles’ job to lose. The jury is still out on whether Bolles can be the long-term answer at the position, but he does possess two of Elway’s top qualities in spades - athleticism and toughness.

Players and coaches alike have raved throughout camp about the toughness and attitude Bolles has brought, even as a rookie.

For athletic ability, leading up to the draft, I wrote a breakdown on Bolles from some of the scouts I follow, and they said “I think his athleticism is pretty close to elite...he has it all as far as athleticism.”

Whether he can translate those traits into becoming a franchise left tackle remains to be seen, but it looks like he’s on the right path.

#4 Cornerback

Similar to edge rusher, this position is one of strength for Denver, but also one where a key first round draft pick needs to take another step.

I wrote a month ago that Bradley Roby was one of the most important members of the No Fly Zone. Denver has already picked up Roby’s fifth-year option for next year but will need to see that he can be a bona fide No. 1 corner before thinking about extending him any more past that.

With Aqib Talib over 30 years old, the thinking is that Roby would eventually be his replacement in a year or two. Thus, this year is key for Roby’s development as he attempts to be more consistent and live up to his potential.

The good news is it seems like he’s already beginning to take that next step. Aqib Talib commented a few days ago on his development:

“He's one of the top guys on the production chart this year so far in camp. [S] T.J. [Ward] and I were talking about it today, just his communication. His alertness—he was just a mute last year, he just played his technique and was just out there. This year, he's actually in tune to the defense and he's communicating with guys. I think that's the first step of making you better when you can see stuff pre-snap.”

Now, we wait

Watching what happens at these positions this season is what I’m most excited for and has ramifications far beyond just this year.

If Denver is able to hit on three of these four first round picks at the cornerstone positions, the franchise could be setup for another five years of dominance. However, if any two of the four don’t pan out, it could severely hinder Denver’s climb back to the top of the division.

Keep an eye on these guys this year; as they go, so go the Broncos.

Poll

Of the four ‘key positions’ for Elway, which one is the strongest right now for the Broncos?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Quarterback
    (47 votes)
  • 37%
    Edge Rusher
    (764 votes)
  • 3%
    Left tackle
    (66 votes)
  • 57%
    Cornerback
    (1173 votes)
2050 votes total Vote Now