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GIF Horse - The Good, The Bad, & The Elway

The buck stops with Broncos GM John Elway. How is he going to fix this?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals
With no acting owner in place, Elway has the final say on every part of this Broncos roster. Is that a good thing?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After the Broncos loss to the 49ers Sunday, I posted a simple tweet before finding a way to distract myself from the disappointment of the Broncos 20-14 catastrophe.

Twitter is great for a lot of things, but depth isn’t one of them. 280 characters is hardly long enough to dive into how many of the decisions made since Peyton Manning retired has left this team on the outside of the playoffs looking in once again. So it seemed overdue to address them head on. Every GM makes mistakes, but the issue with many of Elway’s is that they were dubious at the time and have looked even worse with time.

5. DeMarcus Walker

After finishing his collegiate career at Florida State where he racked up 27 sacks and over 40 tackles for a loss, Walker’s stock was pretty high. There was even some talk early in draft season that he may wind up a 1st round pick from some corners of the web, then he worked out. At the NFL combine Walker put up a paltry 18 reps in on the bench but opted against every other workout. His rationale was that he wanted more time to get in better shape before the rest of his workouts, but well, it didn’t help.

Now, workout numbers aren’t the end all-be all in football. I’ll be the first one to tell you that, but there are certain positions where limited athleticism is near impossible to overcome and defensive line is one of them. The draft site compared Walker as a prospect to Cletidus Hunt, Branden Jackson, Markus White, and Za’Darius Smith. That’s damning.

Here’s what Jon Ledyard of The Draft Network said about him at the time.

Ledyard’s 2017 NFL Draft Positional Rankings - Edge Rushers - Talk About the Falcons - Falcons Life Forums

31. *DeMarcus Walker, DL, Florida State Inside the War Room: I’m listing Walker here, but after his atrocious pro day testing, he’ll be an interior defensive lineman who can only be used situationally on long and late downs. I don’t know if a team will have room for that on their roster. He got bodied by tight ends and has zero range against the run. Long shot to make it, but he has the right mentality.

Here’s what MHR’s own Christopher Hart said about Walker.

2017 NFL Scouting Report: DeMarcus Walker, DE - Florida State - Mile High Report

Overall: Late Day 2, Early Day 3 prospect. Walker’s career at Florida State was one filled with accolades and glory. He was a pass rushing terror, but those sacks often came in streaks against less experienced offensive tackles. Some of his physical limitations might inhibit him from being a transcendent pro player, but he has the competitiveness and desire that could help him overcome the aforementioned.

He was a tweener without a real home, who most thought should move inside to play as an interior rusher in the pros. Of course, the Broncos coaching staff instead had him lose weight and try to become a linebacker as rookie, derailing any hope that he’d produce in year 1.

This season, Walker bulked back up and moved to the line, he flashed bits of promise in the preseason but has still been a non-factor with Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris, Zach Kerr and Domata Peko ahead of him on the depth chart. Two or even three of them could be gone in 2019, so theoretically Walker may become a contributor next season. Maybe. Even then, it’s a pretty baffling choice as a 2nd rounder by Elway and reflects how poorly the coaching staff planned player development last year.

Hindsight’s obviously 20/20 but some of the players Walker was taken before include JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alvin Kamara and Shaquil Griffin. All 3 have outshone their fellow Day 2 pick, but so have Cameron Sutton, Montravius Adams, Tarell Basham and Larry Ogunjobi.

Walker had a number of really nice plays in the preseason but can’t get on the field again this year.

4. Tight Ends

Way back in 2011 John Elway took the reigns of the rebuilding Broncos and struck lightning in his first draft. Von Miller at 2 was a no brainer, but Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Virgil Green and Nate Irving all came from that first Elway draft. All of them were produced at one point or another for Denver, even Rahim Moore had solid play until he handed Baltimore a Lombardi.

Following a pair of 12 touchdown campaigns, Julius Thomas left Denver for a huge payday with the Jacksonville Jaguars after the 2014 season. In the four years since Denver has exactly 12 receiving touchdowns from the position. That isn’t to say Elway should have kept Thomas, who has now retired after several disappointing seasons, but illuminates how much Denver has struggled to replace his production.

At this point in the 2018 season Case Keenum is throwing to the Matt LaCosse and Brian Parker, who are only playing because Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman and rookie Troy Fumagalli are on injured reserve. Injuries aren’t Elway’s fault in a vacuum, it happens in football, but the Broncos GM has had a habit of drafting prospects with questionable medical records for years now. Jake Butt famously slid to Denver in the fifth round after tearing his ACL in his last collegiate action. Both Fumagalli and Heuerman fought lower body injuries in college.

There’s a certain point where availability is a skill, and drafting players that will be able to suit up on Sundays is the GM’s responsibility.

3. The Right Tackle situation

Whether it’s been the draft or free agency, Elway has flailed spectacularly at addressing the right tackle position for a number of years now and it comes down to a decision Elway made in 2016 that has since haunted the Broncos.

That was the year Mitchell Schwartz left Cleveland as a free agent and eventually signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for a $33 M over 5 seasons. Elway opted against signing the former Brown for Donald Stephenson, who came to Denver for $14 over 3 seasons after an inconsistent career with the Chiefs. The Broncos PR team sold the signing as a shrewd move and few questioned the GM who just helped Peyton Manning ride off into the sunset.

Stephenson was so bad that Elway dipped back into the tackle market in the 2017 offseason to sign Menelik Watson, a talented prospect who couldn’t stay healthy for the Raiders. This offseason, Menelik Watson was put on injured reserve and eventually released after playing all of 7 games in 2017. Even when he played, he was awful.

If you look up “Turnstile” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Menelik Watson.

So 2018 was the third year in a row when Elway knew he needed to address the position. Credit to him for at least recognizing that there was still a glaring need and his creativity in addressing it by sending a 6th round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for Jared Veldheer, a former left tackle who had switched to the right side in 2017 before injury prematurely ended his season. 2018 will mark the third straight year he has failed to play in all 16 games, but when available he has been average, which is alone a remarkable improvement over his predecessors.

Perhaps Mitchell Schwartz was never interested in signing with Denver, but Elway should have tried. There are some that have tried to argue that the Broncos cap situation kept them out of a serious pursuit, but Schwartz counted for $2,400,000 against the Chiefs 2016 cap. Stephenson and Watson dead cap hits eat up more of the 2018 Broncos cap than Schwartz number does Kansas City’s.

2. Garret Bolles and the rest of the 2017 NFL Draft

I’ve already talked at length about DeMarcus Walker, but the rest of this class deserves mention here. Carlos Henderson and Chad Kelly are out of football. De’Angelo Henderson couldn’t make the 2018 team out of camp at a loaded position but gave Denver nothing during his rookie year. Isaiah McKenzie is on the Buffalo Bills after a preseason that showcased all aspects of what he could bring to the table.

You take the good and the bad with a player like McKenzie. Joseph and Elway weren’t willing to do that.

McKenzie at his best is a boom or bust player, but that was the rub on him coming out of the draft. The fact that he was taken and suddenly expected to change reflects poorly on both the coaching staff and man overseeing the roster. Releasing McKenzie was done in part because Adam Jones could adequately fill the Broncos need for a returner while providing depth at cornerback, only he was released in November, which left Brendan Langley returning kicks against the 49ers.

Langley looks a lot like McKenzie did his rookie year.

The most polarizing player from the class is the first round pick, of course. It was rumored far and wide that the Broncos had to take a tackle as it became a glaring need when Elway turned down Russel Okung’s contract option. Then the week of the draft it became common knowledge that the 25-year old Bolles was the apple of Elway’s eye because of his athletic tools. Denver took him 20th overall, before Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk who was seen as the superior prospect. This is what USA Football’s Brandon Thorn had to say about Bolles when I spoke him earlier this season.

Bolles looks a lot like the player he did coming out of Utah when I did a full evaluation on him. His athleticism, play speed, and competitive toughness show up on tape, whereas his inability to consistently anchor to stop power, and overall hand usage struggle. I haven’t seen much improvement from him since last season in these areas. “

He has since improved markedly, helped in part by Bill Musgrave’s conscious decision to scheme a passing offense that gets the ball out of Case Keenum’s hands as quickly as possible. Even with that improvement though, he lags way behind Ramcyk, who has already played both left and right tackle in the league and looks like a future All-Pro for the New Orleans Saints.

1. The Fly Zone

It seems weird to add the cornerback situation to Elway’s mistake list as the 2015 Broncos won the Super Bowl because of the “No Fly Zone,” but even as the Broncos pass defense had a mini resurgence this season the depth chart at corner looked problematic.

The biggest issue the Broncos will face going forward is that Elway traded one of their Hall of Famers for a 5th round pick last spring while the other will hit 30 this coming June, just broke his leg, and has an expiring contract in 2019. What’s left is Bradley Roby, who is a free agent at the end of the season and has been so inconsistent it’s anyone’s guess what his market value really is. Deeper down the depth chart is Tramaine Brock, who signed on for 2018 but can’t stay healthy, Jamar Taylor who signed last week and two prospects who are so raw it’s foolish to expect them to realistically step into the starting lineup without glaring coverage errors cropping up.

Yiadom’s come a long way since Baltimore, but he’s still a liability.

Isaac Yiadom has improved as the year has gone on, but according to Sports Info Solutions receivers are averaging 8.4 yards per pass with him in coverage, which ranks 115th in the league. Even that’s miles ahead of Langley, who has proven to be one of the few true busts in a completely loaded 2017 defensive back class.

Aqib Talib is not the reason corner is the pressing need it’s become, though it was every bit the kind of long term move the Demaryius Thomas trade was. Both were made with the future in mind, even if that led to a step back in the short term. In each situation the decision left Denver perilously thin on proven experience at positions where depth is worth the weight in cap space.

The Good

With all that is clearly wrong with the Broncos, there is still a lot of things Elway has clearly done right that should give this team a foundation to build upon going forward.

5. Retaining Matt Paradis and Billy Turner

Both of the Broncos linemen were resigned prior to the 2018 and I’ll be the first to admit I was clearly wrong about Billy Turner, who I thought looked overwhelmed in the preseason. He has filled in admirably for Jared Veldheer and now Connor McGovern. Long term he could provide the Broncos a potential answer at the right tackle or one of the guard spots, depending on how Elway handles Ronald Leary’s contract situation with the team.

Turner would already play in place of Leary if it weren’t for the broken fibula suffered by Matt Paradis that required Connor McGovern to shift over to center. Prior to injury, Matt Paradis looked like one of the best interior linemen in the entire NFL and played a remarkable 3,850 consecutive snaps. He was the lone source of consistency along a line that has been reshuffled a number of times since he first stepped into the lineup in 2015.

Both players will be free agents after the season concludes and it would be a huge mistake for Elway to let either sign elsewhere.

4. Resigning Todd Davis

Davis is the kind of underrated fixture elite defenses need to operate at peak proficiency.

Last spring Davis was resigned to a very team friendly deal. It made sense as he was seen as a valuable role player. No more. I didn’t expect him to grow into the kind of every down contributor he has become in Brandon Marshall’s absence, but he leads the team in tackles by a country mile and is the best coverage backer Denver currently employs.

Davis doesn’t come without limitations, as he lacks the kind of elite range that would aid the Broncos D against tight ends, but he’s a tackling machine between the tackles and was an unsung key to victories over both the Steelers and Chargers in 2018. He’s a steadying force between the front four and secondary and Denver’s run D would be significantly weaker without him.

3. The 2016 draft

Paxton Lynch throws a dark cloud over this one, but the rest of the class still offers a great deal of promise. Adam Gotsis has grown into one an upper tier defensive linemen through his third year in the league and while he’ll probably never become an elite pass rushing threat, he’s capable of disrupting the pocket and swatting passes down at the line. His off field questions may always cloud how he’s perceived, but on the field he’s been a solid player.

Justin Simmons has been a bit of a disappointment this season after flashing the kind of promise that led me to say: “Studying up on him, he has the kind of work ethic and leadership qualities you pray for when your drafting players. If he can make the small improvements a player should as they gain experience in a pro system, the sky’s the limit” last summer. At 25 there’s still time, obviously. With the Broncos all but certain to move on from Darian Stewart this offseason the onus will be on Simmons to step into that leadership role in the deep part of the secondary going forward.

If not for Simmons, George Kittle would have added another touchdown Sunday.

I wrote about Booker last week, but the long and short of it is that he’ll never be a star in Denver but fits the role Musgrave found for him perfectly. He’s a strong route runner and works well as a passing game compliment to the backs ahead of him. Andy Janovich has been good when called upon but as strictly a fullback he’ll always be at the mercy of his coordinators demand for 22 personnel.

Will Parks is another player that has improved markedly since last year. He’s one I hope to study more once the year finishes, but after a forgettable 2017 the future looks much brighter now.

That leaves Connor McGovern, who has been the surprise stud from this group and one of the reason’s fans should come around to the promise the 2016 class offers as a foundational draft by Elway. A bit out of his depth at center, he was clearly flourishing at guard and could provide a bedrock with Paradis and Turner along the interior going forward.

2. Giving Shelby Harris a Home

Harris came to Denver as a free agent prior to the 2017 season after two years with the Raiders and if Broncos Country is lucky he will stick around for years to come. A restricted free agent after the 2018 season, Harris has blossomed into one of the best defensive tackles in all of football.

Personally, he’s one of my favorite players dating back to last season when he flashed the kind of dominant potential he only needed to tap into full time. He’s done that and more. While the game sealing interception against Pittsburgh has generated the headlines, it’s his disruptive presence down after down that should have Elway ready to open up the checkbook.

Harris was one of the shining stars from last week’s game, as he has been all year.

1. The 2018 draft

Once again, I’ll admit that I was mistaken. Last year I was pulling for Denver to take Quenton Nelson if they passed on Josh Rosen (which everyone and their mom knew Elway would do) and questioned if Bradley Chubb would ever grow into more than a complimentary rusher in the NFL. Boy was I wrong.

If that was the only homer Elway hit in the 2018 class, it’d be a good draft. Instead he nabbed Courtland Sutton in the 2nd round, who has been near impossible to cover on jump balls and could blossom into a full blown superstar if he refines his release and route running. Then in the third he grabbed Royce Freeman, who’s been solid even if he’s completely outshone by the true superstar of this class and heir apparent to Terrell Davis.

Denver’s Dynamic Duo have combined for 1638 yards and 15 touchdowns so far. They’re just getting started.

Anyone who’s caught every Broncos game this year can tell you how tiring the “Phillip Lindsay went undrafted and signed with his hometown Broncos” story has already become, but it’s told by every announcer because it’s almost as remarkable as he is. The Colorado alum bet on himself, signing with a team that drafted 4 running backs over the last three years and won big.

Five other members of the class have earned substantial playing time. Yiadom in the secondary has had his share of growing pains but should benefit from the experience, while Keishawn Bierria and Colby Wadman have been fixtures on the special teams. Josey Jewell has filled in admirably for Brandon Marshall and DaeSean Hamilton just scored his first NFL touchdown. He and Tim Patrick were just about the only functional parts of the Broncos passing offense against San Francisco.

Hamilton also earned the praise of The Draft Network’s Brad Kelly, who called the Broncos rookie his favorite receiver in the entire 2018 class. High praise and he’s just one of the nine who should have the best years of their careers before them. For that to translate into playoff trips and Super Bowls though, Elway needs to address the two situations that have held Denver back at every turn.

The Elway

2. The QB Conundrum

There is little doubt that the part of my initial tweet about Elway that generated the most ire was my comment about Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers who has been out of the league since kneeling to protest police brutality.

Some readers were quick to point out to me that Elway did in fact try to trade for Kaepernick, but that the QB spurned an offer that would have cut his $26.4 million guarantee to a $14 million deal over two seasons. To agree to the deal would have cost the then 28-year old $12.4 million in base salary and as much as $16.2 million over two years. In a league that just saw Alex Smith’s career end to injury, no player is signing up to take that kind of pay slash. Not. one.

Other readers got into the debate about how he can’t play because he’s been out too long, he compiled stats in garbage time, he can’t read the field, etc. Basically the same rehashed dribble that has come under fire as the league continues to hire players like Mark Sanchez, Josh Johnson and the like. I get it. For many it goes beyond football, on either side of the argument. My point was that Elway had two different chances to sign a quarterback who twice led his team to the NFC Championship game.

Ask Jared Goff if this was “garbage time”

Instead he traded up in the 2016 draft for Paxton Lynch, who was only needed because Brock Osweiler chose the Houston Texans offer instead of Elway’s $15 million-a-year deal. Denver then signed Mark Sanchez as a stopgap starter but Kubiak eventually chose Trevor Siemian as the best option to compete.

Even if the cap situation was a legitimate reason for passing on Kaepernick in 2016, Elway could have easily signed him when he became a free agent after the 49ers released him in 2017. Instead, he and Kubiak opted again for the Lynch and Siemian show. The former 1st rounder couldn’t beat out the 7th rounder again and was mercifully released after Chad Kelly passed him by during this year’s training camp. He remains unsigned, one of the only former first round quarterbacks in recent memory to never receive another opportunity.

Now Denver pays Case Keenum $18 million to give them some semblance of competent professional quarterback play.

I don’t even mind Keenum. More than once I’ve compared him to Jake Plummer, who was my favorite Broncos quarterback before a certain ad salesmen left the Colts. The problem with the Jake Plummers of the world is that they require a strong supporting cast around them to truly thrive. With the Minnesota Vikings Case had two of the best receivers in football, a dominant defense and one of the better playcallers in the league. As the 2018 season winds down he has rookie receivers and a patchwork offensive line. It’s not reasonable to expect him to do much more than flounder against talented defensive lines like the Niners have.

Where that leaves Broncos Country going forward is staring at another rookie crop of quarterbacks and praying Elway finds the right one. Is it Drew Lock? Is it Justin Herbert? Will Grier? Should the Duke trade up to nab Dwayne Haskins? Would it be smarter to wait until Tua Tagovailoa comes out? It’s not an enviable place to be with Von Miller and Chris Harris staring at the backside of their careers.

1. John Fox, Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph...

It’s no secret that Vance Joseph was fleeting moment from the firing line following last year’s 5-11 campaign. Fans want blood after Kyle Shanahan embarrassed their team last Sunday and it’s hard to blame them as many still wish he was leading the Broncos. The younger Shanny was the hottest coaching candidate in the league following Atlanta’s Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots and had his pick of interviews. He met with 6 teams but ultimately felt like he never really had a chance with Elway.

“I’d like to think I made the decision hard for them, but I didn’t think I had much of a chance before [interviewing],” Shanahan said Wednesday as the 49ers prepare to face the Broncos, via Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area.”

How close was the decision for Elway? Les Shapiro and Eric Goodman commented on that last season:

“Closer than anyone realizes,” Shapiro said. “John Elway, to use that tired phrase now, saw Vance Joseph as a ‘leader of men.’ He wasn’t sure if Kyle Shanahan was a ‘leader of men.’

“He felt Kyle needed a year or two or three to get his head coaching legs under him. And you don’t want to hand a team that is ready to win now to a head coach who might not know how to win right now. ... (Still) The decision was made harder than John Elway thought it would be.”

Ironic, given the issues Vance Joseph has had.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the entirety of the Broncos shortcomings fall solely at his feet. Issues 2 and 1 are completely interlinked and both fall squarely at Elway’s feet. The 2019 head coaching should determine a large part of his Post-Peyton Legacy as a General Manager. If he keeps Vance Joseph, the 3rd year coach has got to produce or both will be marred. If Elway chooses to move on and find another “leader of men?”

It has to be the right one.