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Previewing the 2019 Broncos with an eye on the future

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A discussion with Mile High Huddle’s Nick Kendell about the 2019 Denver Broncos turned into a very detailed breakdown of the organization and where it’s heading.

NFL: Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers
Should the Broncos give Sutton a new running mate in 2020?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the year since I’ve started at Mile High Report, I’ve come to really enjoy conversations with certain members of the NFL media universe. There are few I’ve enjoyed sharing philosophy and bouncing thoughts with quite as much as Mile High Huddle’s Nick Kendell.

Since the dog days of summer, Nick and I have had an ongoing conversation about the Broncos’ ongoing effort to rebuild. So it seemed like a no-brainer to ask him to share his thoughts on the matter with Broncos Country.

What follows our lightly edited conversation. It’s worth a mention that both Nick and I are fully aware of how early in the process things are with preseason games still to be played. The truth is when you love the roster building aspect of the NFL, you never really turn that part of your brain off.

1st and Goal at the 8

Knowing what you do about the Broncos offensive system, how would you prioritize the positions top to bottom? How do you think Elway ranks these in importance?

Well of course quarterback makes the world go round in the NFL. Unless you have an incredible coach and very dynamic system in place with weapons, blocking, and defensive talent abounding (see Eagles with Foles in 2018) or an ALL-TIME defense (see Broncos 2015 or Tampa 2002 or Ravens 2001), you are going to need that quarterback who can raise all ships and carry the load. A true franchise guy. Outside of Peyton Manning, Elway has struggled to land this player.

After that it would seem that wide receiver and tackle would be next in line. Both higher paid positions in today’s game and consistently drafted higher. Given that the league today is seeing more wide receiver packages than ever before, thanks in large part due to the implementation of spread and now air raid concepts, the value of wide receiver position as well as the depth of the position is at an all-time high.

Also in terms of offensive tackles, given the rate of freaks playing the edge rusher position and how teams are now moving these pass rushers around for the most advantageous match ups, teams not only need one solid tackle but two. With so much shotgun and the quarterback able to survey pass rush, the singular value of the blindside blocker doesn’t matter as much whereas having a good left and right tackle in tandem does

Elway has spent premium resources on tackle so far in Russell Okung, Garett Bolles, and Ja’Wuan James but hasn’t needed to as much at wide receiver, thanks in large part to the McDaniels holdovers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as well as the massive steal that was the Emmanuel Sanders signing.

After quarterback, offensive tackle, and wide receiver comes the tight end, interior offensive line, and running back positions. A team can get by with mediocre talent at all these spots if the scheme and players around them are solid enough. It’s more important to have not horrible players at these spots than it is to have truly dynamic blue-chip players. Obviously, it’s better to have great talent here, but teams can succeed with average players at these positions and many teams with great players at these positions continually stink.

The interior offensive line, if there isn’t a true sieve there, can be hammered together. Many wanted the Broncos to spend the fifth overall pick on Nelson last season but landing the solid Dalton Risner who seems to be solidified inside day one should show interior offensive line doesn’t require a premium selection. However, with the incredible premium on tackles in free agency and the draft, some teams’ resource allocation is trickling over more to the interior than before as teams are desperate to field the best five as possible.

I also believe that Elway has been very much influenced by the Mike Shanahan school of thought on running backs being that the position is a dime-a-dozen in today’s league. Teams should stock cheap young talent, use them up on their rookie deals, and let them walk only to start the process over again on a new back. Why pay more for a running back on his second contract when the team is almost surely going to get less return than they received on the rookie deal? The running aspect of the running game is equally about the scheme and blocking as the back’s talent-level.

With that said, the position is evolving as there is an ever-growing importance on their impact in the pass game (see McCaffery, Kamara, Barkley, Gurley, Elliot, Gordon). If the back is equally valued in the pass game as the run game, the argument can change. In today’s NFL, running backs MUST impact the pass game to bring value.

A similar thought process can be made for tight ends. Unless you have a true-blue chip talent, solid will suffice if there is talent elsewhere on the roster (see Rams last season).

Historically, the tight end is a position teams don’t use high resources on. However, in the era of more passing having a tight end can be a real mismatch over the middle of the field and force defenses to play in disadvantageous situations. Stay in base packages and subject a linebacker in an unfavorable matchup in space? Or switch to a defensive back and run the chance of being physically punished in the run game or with the size and power of the tight end.

As the Patriots with Gronkowski showed, arguably the best offensive weapon of the last decade, great tight ends can be true game changers for many years, even if they are rare to find.

Tight end is becoming almost two different positions in today’s ever-specializing league. From the inline Y to the more pre-snap movement pass catching F. The pass-catching TEs are obviously more valuable, but there is still a role for blockers - just see this year’s free agency signings of Nick Boyle, Tyler Kroft, and Jesse James. Being able to pass out of 12 personnel is huge in stressing defenses as there is no bigger advantage in the pass game than a tight end (or running back) against a linebacker in space.

Also, the efficiency involved with over the middle passing involving a tight end is becoming much more used in today’s game. If you do have a tight end who can do both at a high level though (see Gronk, Kelce, and Kittle) then the upside and versatility is massive. Really looking forward to seeing the Eagles this upcoming season with F Zach Ertz and Y Dallas Goedert and how they stress defenses. The Broncos lacked dynamic ability and athleticism, with at least “solid” blocking potential, so Fant does make sense in adding some dynamic ability to the pass game. The pick was somewhat surprising, though, given it was Elway’s first time selecting a non-premium paid position with a first-round selection.

In the end it comes down to fielding good players that can be difference makers, but building a team specifically in the draft is about risk assessment as much as evaluation. Drafting a defensive lineman that only becomes a solid back up rotation piece round one is massively more valuable than doing the same for a position like the interior offensive line. The player MUST HIT if a team uses a premium resource on a ‘low-value’ position. Elway has stayed mostly true to this model to this point, especially in the draft.

2nd and Goal at the 6

In a similar vein, how would you rank the importance of defensive personnel and how does Elway stack up to it?

It very much falls in line with the previous line of thinking - follow the money. The players who are paid the most and the highest valued are those who impact the pass game, i.e.; pass rushers and defensive backs (mostly cornerbacks.) There is an ever-increasing debate on the value between pass rush and pass coverage, but one cannot thrive without the other in today’s game. Like last season - Von Miller and Bradley Chubb cannot get home if Bradley Roby and Darian Stewart are being burned, and Chris Harris Jr. cannot guard a guy for 10 or more seconds if the quarterback can just sit back in the pocket unbothered by an impending defensive lineman.

Elite pass rush play is far more consistent season to season than the highly fluctuating ups and downs of corners. Also a singular pass rush force can be more impactful and create more game-wrecking plays than a singular great cornerback. So for myself, and likely Elway given his resource allocation, pass rush is king. From his first draft pick in Von Miller, to paying Demarcus Ware and drafting Shane Ray, to drafting Bradley Chubb, Elway has prioritized edge rush talent.

It can and should be argued that a truly dominant interior pass rusher is in fact more impactful and devastating than that of an edge given it is much harder to scheme help to stop a dominant interior pass rusher with a tight end or chipping running back and the impact pass rush up the middle has on the quarterback, not allowing them to step up into throws as well as much harder to slide within the pocket to escape the pressure.

However, truly dominant pass rush talent that also is at least solid against the run is nearly impossible to find in comparison to the freak athletes and impact players available at edge. Also solid plug-and-play defensive tackles are much more readily available on the open market than solid plug and play edge, see the likes of Ndomakung Suh and Gerald McCoy hitting the open market and staying there for a decent amount of time this offseason.

Also interior defensive linemen who are simply space eaters and run stuffers, playing in base package, are at an all-time low in value. Denver arguably isn’t even carrying a true nose this year, just to emphasize how little the position is valued. With that said, from interior to edge, getting pass rush has been something Elway has always prioritized.

Under the previous regime and scheme with Wade Phillips and then Joe Woods, the next obvious choice would be cornerback. From the lucky find and amazing development of Chris Harris Jr, to drafting Bradley Roby in the first round, to signing Aqib Talib, cornerbacks who could do press man and just “line up and blanket” were key. If the corners were good enough to play in man coverage, they could help cover up some deficiencies in talent and coverage at linebacker and safety.

Things will likely be a bit different with Fangio, however, given the heavy man scheme will be transitioning to more matchup zone and multiple pre-snap shifting looks from the safeties. Cornerbacks are still going to be the moneymakers in the backend, but the new scheme will not be nearly as dependent on high-end press man coverage in theory.

The burden of coverage in Denver will instead be spread more to linebackers and safeties than it has in many years. This may create a red flag for some in Broncos’ Country with the coverage woes of the linebackers, but the zone should also should help protect these linebackers at the same time.

No longer should we see poor Todd Davis severely outgunned lined up against a damn wide receiver in the slot, but instead the zone will allow the backers to play facing forward and relying more on discipline, instincts, and communication than outright athletic talent and movement skills in space. The safeties should also be much less dichotomized than in years past where Denver played many cover one looks with an obvious free safety and an obvious strong safety with differing skill sets.

Instead multiplicity will be key.

As far as Elway valuing positions, it comes down similar to the offensive side of the ball. Edge rushers (as well as defensive linemen with pass rush ability) and cornerbacks are more valued because even just a solid rotational piece provides decent value, but difference makers and blue chip players at linebacker and safety will always be welcome.

There is just more risk in using a high value asset on the position and only having an average player at the position in return given their availability later in the draft and on the open market.

3rd and Goal at the 3

What do you see as the Broncos’ biggest offensive needs in 2020?

Well as fickle and pessimistic as this sounds, it’s quarterback until it’s not. Even with Drew Lock showing flashes and the Broncos using a second-round pick on him in the 2019 class, if the team bottoms out in the upcoming season and is picking top five, quarterback must be discussed.

Somewhat early to discuss this hypothetical too much as it will take a number of factors to get there. I do believe in Drew Lock, but he was a mid second-round pick for a reason. Much like the Browns taking Deshone Kizer in 2017 in the second round only to take Baker Mayfield first overall in 2018, if there is a guy the team believes can be a transcendent talent at quarterback and they are picking top three, they should take that shot most likely. The early favorites for quarterback one in 2020? Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa , and sleeper, but not for long, Utah State’s Jordan Love.

With that said, it’s not likely the Broncos finish as one of the three to five worst teams in the NFL in 2019 unless they are one of the most injured teams in the league (*knocks on wood*). Even with the extremely tough schedule, this team is simply too talented and improved in a number of areas to fail that spectacularly.

Running back is probably the only position the Broncos are more or less ‘set’ at on paper going forward through the next few seasons. Having two talented backs in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman on rookie deals allows the Broncos to look for bargain bin players to fill specific niches if need be rather than spending any sort of real valued assets on the position. The signing of Theo Riddick does however point to the Broncos prioritizing pass catching from their running backs, wanting more in that area than they currently had on the roster.

Lindsay and Freeman will have to show their chops there this season to expand their value and potential future earnings. If not, a receiving back out of the backfield will be on the shopping list.

Tight end is just such a question mark outside of Noah Fant going forward. Jeff Heuerman is the team’s best blocker, but his contract and injury history make it possible he is gone after 2019. Troy Fumagalli is a low-upside tight end but does possess a high floor. Given his limited athletic profile, I do wish he possessed a better frame and was more dominant as a blocker at the point of attack. Jake Butt is a complete unknown. Getting a better inline tight end to complement Fant in the future is possible, but not really a high priority compared to other areas on the roster.

The offensive line is trending upward in Denver. Given the addition of Mike Munchak, the resources used this past offseason on Dalton Risner and Ja’Wuan James, the years of bottom-tier pass blocking will hopefully soon be over. However, Garett Bolles and his massive inconsistencies, the pending free agent Connor McGovern, and likely on-the-outs Ronald Leary given his injury and contract structure, make the offensive line a possibility to be added to further.

I do believe that Bolles will improve in his pass-blocking sets to warrant another season starting in 2020, especially given how expensive finding a tackle can be in the draft or free agency. It is very likely though that one if not both of McGovern and Leary will need to be replaced. Whether the draft or free agency or the development of a player currently on the roster under Munchak, these two positions are worth watching for this upcoming season.

If the Broncos do look to go offensive line early in the 2020 Draft, watch for incredible center prospect Tyler Biadesz from Wisconsin who was born to play the position and is one of the better center prospects of the last few seasons, or Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Bruce Feldman’s No. 1 freak in college football.

Wirfs plays right tackle at Iowa but projects at either guard or tackle spot at the next level. What makes Wirfs very intriguing is that upon drafting him he plays right guard, but also can offer insurance at either tackle position. Given James’ contract structure as a two-year deal with a two-year option, as well as the unknown future for Bolles, Wirfs’ ability to start at guard year one but eventually play tackle massively increases his value and fit.

The Broncos could use a premium resource on the offensive line, but with Munchak there, perhaps the need to spend that kind of capital on the unit is lessened.

The one position that really needs to be discussed and looked at for the Broncos going into next season is wide receiver. Not only is it arguably the second-most important offensive position, right there with right tackle, but the group really is lacking in arguably the most important area in today’s pass game - explosiveness.

With Emmanuel Sanders coming off injury, over the dreaded 30-year-old mark for a skill position player at 32 years old, and on the last year of his deal, the Broncos may be left with little to no explosive firepower at wide receiver.

Courtland Sutton has yet to show he can uncover in the short to intermediate areas of the field and lacks true top-end speed to draw coverage consistently at this time. He has the tools to be a solid X receiver on the boundary, but a true pivot player for the offense is a ways off yet.

Tim Patrick, who also possesses solid size on the boundary with better top-end speed but less above the rim and change of direction ability, can also fill in as an X and push Sutton.

DaeSean Hamilton showed soft hands in college and the ability to run routes and separate in the short to intermediate areas of the field, as well as on the boundary or on the slot. However, much like Sutton, he lacks truly dynamic speed or ability after the catch to create explosive pass plays.

Personally, it is too early for me to judge Juwan Winfree given his limited tape at Colorado and preseason action, but from the broadcast tape, he seems to be a happy medium between the two as far as solid route running and hands to go with the ability to make contested catches. Nevertheless, a true explosive player or pivot for the passing offense is lacking in these young players.

Luckily for the Broncos, the 2020 draft class seems to be flush with a multitude of different high-end wide receiver talents. From the Alabama duo of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, to Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr, to Oklahoma’s Ceedee Lamb, TCU’s Jalen Reagor, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, and more, the Broncos will have a chance to address the wide receiver position early in 2020 if they wish.

Finding a true speed threat that can win from the Z or slot positions seems like the easiest fit and need to complement the young players and replace Sanders’ skill set. So Ruggs III, Jeudy, and Reagor seem like the obvious fits, but getting pass catchers who can be offensive creators after the catch opens the doors for a guy like Laviska Shenault as well.

Speed is really needed in life-after-Sanders to open up the offense, but finding a true number one option to help run the offense through and demand attention from the defense is more important.

4th and inches

What are the Broncos’ biggest defensive needs?

The needs on the defensive side of the ball are not nearly as obvious as the need for more dynamic receiving ability on the Broncos’ offense. However, given the multitude of free agents on the defensive side of the ball in 2020, anything is possible and dependent on how the offseason progresses and whom the Broncos can lure back in the offseason.

The defensive line is heading towards an inevitable overhaul. With Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe, and Adam Gotsis all playing on contract years in 2019, there very well could be new faces along the front in 2020. I don’t have the slightest clue who the Broncos will try to re-sign, and it could come down to money as much as skill when deciding who they will attempt to retain going forward.

Reserves Dre’Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker could be in future plans, but neither look like the types to be able to own multiple blockers and anchor in base packages at this point. The upcoming draft class doesn’t look like it is as top heavy at interior defensive line as 2019, but there are length, burst players who can play 4/4i/5 spot (as well as 3 in sub packages) in guys like Derrick Brown from Auburn, Raekwon Davis from Bama, Justin Madubuke from Texas A&M, as well as 0/1 at the nose such as Jordan Scott at Oregon, Neville Gallimore at Oklahoma, and Ray Lima at Iowa State.

The Broncos don’t really NEED edge rusher, but I would be remised without mentioning Iowa’s AJ Epenesa. Standing at 6’6” 280 lbs, Epenesa is one of the more powerful edge rushers to come out in some time. But for his size, he also has really solid hip and ankle flexion for the position, burst, and change of direction. Epenesa was a pass rush specialist at Iowa his sophomore season but goodness was he impactful. With 37 total tackles, 165 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles, he made the most of list time on the field. While playing mostly true edge at Iowa, Epenesa’s skill set indicates he may also have some versatility from the interior. Given how 6’4” 285 lbs heavy edge turned 3-4 defensive end Justin Smith absolutely thrived under Vic Fangio in San Francisco, a player of Epenesa’s skill set can’t be ruled out. Also, as dark as it sounds, Von Miller has hit the 30 years of age mark. Just like the Texans drafting Jadaveon Clowney after already rostering JJ Watt and Whitney Marcellus, Epenesa might be too good to pass on given the old cliché, a team can never have enough pass rush.

Linebacker is probably the position most will be pining for if looking at the defense going into next season. With the limited athletic upside and coverage ability in space of Todd Davis and Josey Jewell, and the relative unknowns of Alexander Johnson, Joseph Jones, and rookie (but intriguing and improving!) Justin Hollins, fans will likely once again hope that Al Wilson reincarnate finds his way to the Mile High City.

If the Broncos want to go this route, it looks like free agency will be their best bet. With the likes of Dallas’ Jaylon Smith, Jacksonville’s’ Myles Jack, and Cleveland’s Joe Schobert set to hit the market next season, the Broncos could look to spend cap dollars as opposed to draft capital on the position. On the draft front, however, watch for Alabama’s Dylan Moses, Miami’s Shaq Quarterman, and intriguing safety/linebacker hybrid in Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. This does not look like a great linebacker crop though as far as depth goes.

Safety, much like interior offensive line, running back, tight end and linebacker, is a position teams can find serviceable players later in the draft if need be. Look no further than Vic Fangio’s incredible Bears’ defense last season starting the likes of fourth-round pick Eddie Jackson and fifth-round pick Adrian Amos as prime examples.

However, like those positions, if a team can find a blue chipper that can be set on the depth chart for the next decade, positional value can be thrown out the window. There appears to be one true transcendental talent at safety this upcoming draft in LSU’s Grant Delpit. His range, instincts, size and speed, and ball skills make him an obvious first-round talent despite ups and downs in tackling. If the Broncos re-sign one or both of Justin Simmons or Will Parks, they won’t NEED to take safety, but if in position to take an incredible talent a team should never let good players stop them from taking great ones.

Finally, and perhaps most obvious, is cornerback. If it weren’t for obvious first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Von Miller on the roster, Chris Harris Jr. would be the face of the defense since the 2011 season. He is arguably the best slot corner in the game and a consistent top five corner in the game given how valuable his versatility is as well as his consistency and incredibly efficient open-field tackling.

However, much like Emmanuel Sanders, 2019 feels like the end of the road for Harris in Denver. The 30-year-old had a sketchy offseason for the Broncos there for a while where it seemed he might be traded, but after renegotiating pay, will play 2019 in Denver. Given that it was just a one-year deal, the writing feels on the wall for Harris in Denver.

The Broncos do have solid small corner Bryce Callahan whom the team paid this offseason, although there are rumors of concerns regarding his foot and long-term health, potentially a reason Chicago was fine to let him walk and why Callahan was on the market decently late after free agency had opened.

Isaac Yiadom and Da’Vante Bausby also have shown out early in preseason but being the team’s third and fourth corner is much different than second and third. The Broncos could live with a Callahan, Yiadom, Bausby trio but that is a far cry from the talent Broncos Country as grown accustomed to in the No Fly Zone.

Again, however, much like wide receiver, the 2020 draft class looks to be loaded at cornerback. Not only does there appear to be a number of high-end talents at corner, but the class is also MASSIVE in terms of size and length for most of the top prospects.

LSU’s Kristian Fulton (better than Greedy Williams last season), Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, Virginia’s Bryce Hall, Utah’s Jaylon Johnson, TCU’s Jeff Gladney, Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, amongst others are some of the top names going into the season. EACH of which is at least 6-foot-0.

Fangio has not been on teams that have prioritized corner highly in the draft for the most part, but the Bears did start two former first round picks in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamura last season nevertheless.

Point After

Overall, the Broncos are a team that could go a number of different directions going forward with the roster. Good teams let the draft come to them rather than going into the draft looking to fill specific positions, aka being absolutely desperate for tackle in the 2018 draft.

If Drew Lock is “the guy,” the Broncos would be wise to continue to add talent around him to give him the best chance to grow, develop, and prosper. From Patrick Mahomes, to Jared Goff, to Carson Wentz, to Baker Mayfield, the best emerging young quarterbacks not only have shown their talent on the field but have been surrounded by picks and signings to help them and ‘build the nest’ around them, so to speak.

Given this, if Lock proves to be the guy, then the Broncos should look to continue to solidify the offensive line and add one, if not more than one, dynamic receiver to the offense.

On paper that sounds nice, but if the best player on the board is a defensive blue chipper, the team shouldn’t overthink it either. At the end of the day it’s about adding good players that can make game changing plays and be building blocks for years to come.

What do you think Broncos’ Country?

Poll

What looks like the Bronco’s biggest 2020 need?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Wide Receiver
    (147 votes)
  • 36%
    Offensive Line help
    (307 votes)
  • 25%
    Linebacker
    (213 votes)
  • 6%
    Defensive back
    (56 votes)
  • 7%
    Defensive line
    (60 votes)
  • 5%
    Quarterback
    (46 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (Please comment)
    (9 votes)
838 votes total Vote Now