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Broncos 3rd & long: explaining the lack of depth

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Poor drafting has finally caught up to the Denver Broncos as they start the 2019 season 0-4.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Normally I discuss defensive stats here, but I’m only going to say one two things about the Denver Broncos defensive performance on Sunday and then I am going to spend the rest of the article trying to explain why a handful of injuries has turned this team into an 0-4 club that is contemplating selling off assets to fully rebuild.

The defense failed to stop the Jacksonville Jaguars on first down runs. Jacksonville ran the ball 22 times on first down and only one of those runs was stopped for no gain (the run with 1:08 left in the game). Thirteen of those 22 runs gained 3 yards or more (59%) and that 81 yard run that broke the defense back, was on first down.

Starting with that excruciatingly long drive to open the second half here is listing of the gains (in order) gotten by the Jags on their first down runs: 13, 8, 2, 5, 6, 2, 81, 4, 13, 4, 2, 16, 3, 2, 0, and 3 yards. That is the Jag offense “winning” on all but five of those 16 runs and you could argue that those two yard runs were also wins since they further wore down the defense. So in that sense the Jag offense “won” on 15 of 16 first down runs in the second half. That lone stop was when the game was all but decided and the Bronco defense was selling out to stop the run because we knew that they were going to be running the ball.

The defense was also unable to get off the field on 3rd down in the second half. The Jags converted on 4 of 7 and on one of those three stops, they converted on 4th down. So our defense only stopped two drives in the second half of the game. Only one stop led to a punt (the Malik Reed sack with 12:08 left to play in the 4th quarter) - the other led to the FG to make it 23-17.

So how did we get here to 0-4 with a team that is so bereft of talent that a handful of injuries have the vast majority of the fanbase giving up on the team (and calling for a firesale) after one quarter of the season? Well to begin with, we have gotten little return from our off-season free agent acquisitions. Kareem Jackson has played well, but he was inactive on Sunday due to injury. Their other big free agent signings (Ja’Wuan James, Bryce Callahan and Theo Riddick) have combined for ten snaps this season. The team, however, should not be reliant on free agents for the core of the team. That should be made up of players we drafted, and two of our off-season free agent signings were players that we drafted (Jeff Heuerman and Corey Nelson). Nelson is not being counted in this study since he was only resigned out of desperation when none of the depth at ILB was serviceable.

The Bronco organization has been unwilling (in most cases rightfully so) to resign the players that they have drafted when their rookie deals are up. Starting with the 2012 draft (which was the first where John Elway was in full control) the Denver Broncos have resigned exactly two drafted players - Derek Wolfe and Jeff Heuerman. How does this compare to the rest of the league? See the table below

Team Number of total picks 2012-2015 Still on NFL active roster in 2019 or on IR % still active 2012-2015 active draft picks resigned by team % resigned
Falcons 30 12 40% 8 27%
Panthers 23 12 52% 6 26%
Vikings 39 15 38% 9 23%
Eagles 30 14 47% 6 20%
Steelers 35 10 29% 6 17%
Rams 37 15 41% 6 16%
Chiefs 31 17 55% 5 16%
Cowboys 31 12 39% 5 16%
Buccaneers 26 10 38% 4 15%
Patriots 34 16 47% 5 15%
Bengals 37 11 30% 5 14%
Chargers 24 5 21% 3 13%
Saints 25 10 40% 3 12%
Bears 26 9 35% 3 12%
Seahawks 38 13 34% 4 11%
Colts 30 6 20% 3 10%
Jaguars 31 10 32% 3 10%
Lions 32 13 41% 3 9%
Dolphins 33 11 33% 3 9%
Jets 33 7 21% 3 9%
Re. Potatoes 34 13 38% 3 9%
Texans 34 13 38% 3 9%
Broncos 29 11 38% 2 7%
Cardinals 30 16 53% 2 7%
Browns 34 9 26% 2 6%
Packers 36 10 28% 2 6%
Ravens 36 15 42% 2 6%
49ers 40 13 33% 2 5%
Titans 30 5 17% 1 3%
Raiders 34 12 35% 1 3%
Bills 30 13 43% 0 0%
Giants 27 9 33% 0 0%

The Broncos are one of ten franchises to have resigned two or fewer of their drafted players 2012-2015. Players from 2016 are still playing on their rookie deals. First rounders from 2015 might still be as well.

Note that the majority of the teams near the top of this ranking have been quite successful over the past five or six seasons, while the bottom six have not. Teams do not resign their draft picks for a three main reasons: the were complete busts, they were OK but not really worth the money that they were going to get in free agency (easily replaceable by a newer draftee at their position), or they were too expensive even if the team wanted to keep them. In the case of the Broncos, I can only think of two drafted players that the team tried to keep, but lost in a bidding war: Malik Jackson and Brock Osweiler.

So you could argue that we should be getting the majority of our production from the players that we drafted in the last four drafts, 2016-2019. Unfortunately, we are not. On offense players we drafted in the last four drafts have accounted for 13.6% of the possible offensive snaps (roughly 1 in 7) and on defense that is only 11.9% (roughly 1 in 8). While I would love to put those numbers in context by running that analysis for the rest of the league, I don’t have time tonight and the poor start of the Broncos has sapped some of my energy. What I will do is look at one other team, our division rival, the Chiefs.

The Chiefs have resigned five of their draftees from 2012-2015: Jeff Allen, Travis Kelce, Eric Fisher, Laurent Duvarney-Tardiff and DeAnthony Thomas. What’s interesting is that they are getting significantly fewer snaps from their recent draftees (2016-2019) on both offense (5.9%) and defense (5.9%) than we are. Their starting 24 players (12 on O, 12 on D - explained later) include three undrafted college free agents, 9 players that they drafted and 12 players that were drafted by other teams.

For comparison, we have six undrafted college free agent starters: Chris Harris Jr, Phillip Lindsay, Ronald Leary, Todd Davis, De’Vante Bausby and Elijah Wilkinson. Four of those six are “home-grown” UCFA’s. Fourteen of our starting 24 (counting an extra WR or TE on offense and an extra DB on defense) are players that we drafted and we only have four starters that were drafted by other teams: Joe Flacco, Kareem Jackson, Shelby Harris and Emmanuel Sanders.

So, for the most part, we are rolling with the players that we have picked in the draft and/or found in the “college discard pile” and developed. Unfortunately, given our results so far, it would seem that we are not doing a very good job of either finding and or developing our young talent.

We are particularly thin at ILB. The injury to Todd Davis and the lack of development from Keishawn Bierria, Alexander Johnson, and Justin Hollins (who is a rookie trying to learn two positions, so I’ll cut him some slack) led to comical move of resigning Corey Nelson who had been cut by the Bucs days before and starting him in game one (where he played almost every snap on defense). Since 2012 (and including 2012), the Broncos have not invested anything higher than a 4th round pick on the ILB position and that was on Josey Jewell in 2018. Jewell appears to be a limited and below average ILB, but at least he is mostly competent and a serviceable starter. Bierria and Johnson appear to be lost causes given their lack of snaps on defense (0 for both of them) even with our injuries at ILB. Nelson’s ceiling seems to be below average starter and special teams player (or maybe nickel LB). Lamin Barrow was a wasted pick. In fact, only Danny Trevathan turned into an above average ILB in the NFL of the six that we have drafted in the past eight drafts. Jewell and Hollins could still develop into above average ILB’s, but right now, neither appears to be.

Cornerback used to an absolute and unquestionable strength of the Broncos. That is no longer the case. We have drafted eight CB’s in the past seven drafts and with the exception of Bradley Roby, none has developed.

Brendan Langley was so bad he was moved to WR. Isaac Yiadom has not “figured it out” yet, and may never do so. Kayvon Webster and Omar Bolden were fringe players.

OLB continues to be a strength, but where we had an overabundance of depth in previous seasons, we now have so little that we were running Von Miller and Bradley Chubb into the ground. Shane Ray never developed and turned into a bust. Shaq Barrett wanted to start somewhere and that was never going to happen here with Miller and Chubb firmly ensconced as the two starting OLBs. Malik Reed may turn into the “next Shaq Barrett” (and we need him to badly now with the loss of Chubb), but right now we have zero depth at OLB. Ahmed Gooden should get called up soon (if he hasn’t already) unless we plan to sign a free agent to fill the void left by Chubb’s injury. Hollins is probably going to be needed at ILB with Jewell’s injury. So unless you are counting Hollins as depth at OLB, we we will have Von Miller and two rookie UDCFAs as our OLBs. We may even be desperate enough to bring Jeff Holland back.

A final, and somewhat unrelated point goes to our lack of size on defense. With Chubb’s injury every front-7 starter on defense is below average for his position in the NFL - with the exception of Von (if he is heavier than the 250 lbs listed on the roster). Generally to play a 2-gap 3-4, as Vic Fangio normally does, you need heavy DEs (300-315 lbs range) and a heavy NT (310-340lbs). The mass is necessary to handle double teams from offensive lineman. Here are the listed weights of our DE/DT/NT players on the roster: 287, 281, 280, 285, 328, 290. Only Mike Purcell (who has been inactive since game 1) is listed as heavier than 290.

You also generally like to have at least one heavy OLB. That was Chubb, but now it will have to be Von, who is listed at 250. Malik Reed is listed at 235. Hollins, who can play OLB or ILB in theory, is listed at 248. Gooden, if he gets called up from the PS, is listed at 245. Our ILB’s are also on the small side (and either slow or indecisive). Their listed weights are 231, 236, 230, 226, 255 and 223. The only ILB with any “beef” is Johnson and he has yet to take a defensive snap for us this year.

The Broncos front 7 has no beef.

Summary

We have drafted fairly poorly over the last eight drafts, so despite having a lot of “home-grown” players, most of our starters are below average or worse. Our poor drafting has led to a lack of depth at almost every position on the team. This has been compounded by our reluctance (mostly rightful reluctance) to resign the players that we have drafted when their rookie contracts expire.