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Future Broncos: Men in the Middle

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The Denver Broncos have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but their long-term efficacy may depend on upgrades in the middle of their defense on the line and at linebacker.

NCAA Football: Miami at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We are just hours away from the NFL’s regular season opening game, but as I always say — it’s never to early to start talking about the NFL Draft.

Last year throughout the season, I did several articles discussing dozens of prospects dubbed Future Broncos. I am happy to announce that I will be extending that into a weekly series that will go live in the afternoon each Thursday during the regular season.

For my initial entry analyzing prospects eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, I will focus on men in the middle of the defense, particularly at inside linebacker and nose tackle. These are two positions I feel the Denver Broncos have large questions at long-term and should be addressed early in this year’s draft to keep their defense strong for years to come.

Without further adieu, here are a handful of prospects to keep your eye on this college football season and throughout the entire NFL Draft process.

Micah Kiser, ILB - Virginia Cavaliers

It seems every year myself and may fans across Broncos Country are banging the table hard for the Broncos to select an inside linebacker in the NFL Draft, yet it never happens. Either the team is perfectly satisfied with who they have on their roster, or the Broncos’ Brass in charge of draft operations don’t place a high priority on inside linebackers in their evaluation process. I believe that will change this coming draft, and here is why.

Brandon Marshall, who received a lucrative contract extension in the summer of 2016 is in the second season of his four-year deal. His performance was mediocre last season, but it’s fair to state injuries could have been the main culprit for that. His cap number and dead money are too much for the Broncos to get rid of this season or in 2018, but the team could save major money (upwards of $5 million) if they part ways with him in 2019.

Additionally, Todd Davis, Zaire Anderson and Corey Nelson are all free agents at the end of this season. While it’s completely possible that one of them are brought back to the squad, it’s doubtful the team will invest significant salary cap dollars toward all three of the players. Given the aforementioned, I believe the Broncos would be wise to select a prospect with great potential early in next year’s draft.

One of my favorite prospects at the position is Micah Kiser out of the University of Virginia. Kiser could have easily opted to enter last year’s draft, but chose to return to the Cavaliers for his senior season to boost his draft stock, which could skyrocket into the first round.

To date, Kiser has racked up 272 total tackles, 25 of them for loss, as well as 15 sacks and an interception. He has a penchant for creating big plays and turnovers, and has recovered four fumbles and forced eight over the past two seasons. Those are uncanny numbers, and they have propelled him into uncharted territory as far as prospect production at the position.

As an All-American and All-ACC player, you can bet your bottom dollar that scouts from every team will be visiting Virginia often to see him play. Very few prospects at the position possess the size (6’2, 240 and estimated 4.65 40 yard dash) and athleticism Kiser has, and if he is as consistent as he has been the past two seasons, he will certainly hear his name called on the first day of the 2018 NFL Draft.

I believe he would become a star player this league and be a formidable run stuffer, pass defender and sack artist for the Broncos in the middle of their defense. Kiser just makes plays, and Denver could certainly use a playmaker like him at linebacker.

Other inside linebacker prospects to watch: Cameron Smith, USC - Kendall Joseph, Clemson

Derrick Nnadi, DT - Florida State Seminoles

Christian Wilkins of Clemson is widely-regarded as the top defensive tackle prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, but there is a prospect in Tallahassee who might have something to say about that.

Senior defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has been a force on the interior of Florida State's defense since arriving as a freshman in 2014. In his first three seasons, he saw action in 31 games and amassed 112 tackles, 14.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks.

One of the keys to the Broncos’ success on defense this season will be stopping the run, which is something Nnadi is terrific at. As a junior, he ranked second in Division I in respect to run stopping percentage. The article above stated he can also bench 525 pounds, as well as squat 750 pounds, so concerns about his strength and ability to anchor well at nose tackle should easily be erased.

The Broncos did add Zach Kerr and Domata Peko to their defensive line, but they only received two-year deals. If the Broncos want to get serious about improving their play at nose tackle, Nnadi will likely be a prospect in range for them in the middle-to-late portion of the draft’s first round. He’s a wise choice for a team looking to shore up the play on the interior of their defensive line, and would be a welcomed addition to the franchise.

I expect the Broncos to get a good look at Nnadi through the draft process, and assume they are already familiar with him, as they selected his teammate DeMarcus Walker (who I wrote about last year) in the second-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He is receiving glowing praise throughout the draft community, and NFL.com’s Lance Zerlein was gloating about his abilities prior to the season.

It’s a loaded class at defensive tackle if many early entrants declare, but Nnadi is one of the best senior defensive prospects available in the draft and will be a hot commodity on draft day. Even as a rookie, I would expect him to provide an immediate impact, especially in regard to run defense, for the Broncos’ defensive line.

Other defensive tackle (nose) prospects to watch: Christian Wilkins, Clemson - Da'Ron Payne, Alabama - Vita Vea, Washington - Daylon Mack, Texas A&M - Lowell Lotulelei, Utah

Feel free to sound off in the comments section and discuss some of your favorite draft prospects at inside linebacker and defensive tackle in this year’s NFL Draft!