Is it ever too soon to start looking at the upcoming draft and free agency? If you think so, you’ve probably never spent hours poring over reports on sites like the Draft Network. It’s totally fair, of course. There’s a ton of moving parts and speculative projections that this piece hinges on, so a quick disclaimer is in order.
I write this as a way to start focusing myself on NFL Draft prospects as much as anything. Instead of making notes and reports in the dark, I thought it’d be better to include Broncos Country into my line of thinking. What positions are worth obsessing over on Saturdays this year? Which ones make little sense to invest time into?
The projected 2020 roster
Now before you throw tomatoes over any guy in camp that’s missing from the list above, a quick reminder that this is an overly conservative projection to try and focus on the 2020 offseason. There’s a halfway decent chance Elway pays two of the three starting defensive linemen, not one, for example.
I’m also projecting 10 players onto the Broncos practice squad (and through waivers back to the 2020 roster, which probably isn’t realistic) despite half the preseason remaining. Heck, I’m projecting all of one player coming off of I.R.
Again, I get that this is a bit of a fool’s errand for what I’m trying to accomplish. So with that in mind: the projection above should illuminate some areas where the 2020 Broncos have real needs.
- Wide receiver
- 3rd-down back
- Offensive line depth
There was rampant speculation going into this training camp that the Broncos would part ways with Emmanuel Sanders, even after they picked up his roster bonus. Such is life for a 32-year-old receiver coming off a serious lower body injury.
Everything coming out of practice has suggested Sanders is ahead of schedule and should be ready to contribute in 2019. This is awesome news. As I’ve said elsewhere, losing him caused the 2018 offense to crater. It’s fair to wonder if there’s no player on the current roster as important as E.
This will make negotiations between Sanders’ camp and John Elway very interesting if and when the Broncos’ front office tries to extend the veteran receiver. He’ll count $12,937,500 against the cap this season in the final year of the three-year $33 million extension he signed back in 2016. He’s already rebuffed Elway’s attempts to restructure the deal.
With Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick in the fold, it’s fair to assume the Broncos hope there’s enough burgeoning talent on hand to adequately handle an increased target share in the short term. It’s very early in all of their respective careers, but each have shown promise.
It’s also fair to wonder if any of the three can flourish as a legitimate number one option. I’m an ardent believer in the philosophy that an NFL receiving corps is a lot like an NBA starting lineup. Ideally the top dog is a do-it-all receiver who can handle the press, and get open against man coverage, and demand double teams. The attention should provide opportunities for other pass catchers.
Earlier this summer I dove into Courtland Sutton’s film and came away wondering if he can develop the route running chops and consistent hands to grow into a legitimate WR1. I wasn’t alone. Lance Zierlein had this to say when he came out of SMU:
Sutton is a possession receiver who has the size and toughness to handle a heavier target load if necessary, but he will need to improve as a route runner because his play speed and separation is nothing special. Sutton’s ability to win in contested catch situations could get him early playing time as a second or third receiver, but he may not have the explosiveness to ever become a top-flight WR1.
The Broncos’ short- and long-term fortunes get a lot rosier if Sutton can settle any doubts in this area. If he can’t, things get trickier for everyone else. Now, it’s worth mentioning that a WR1 doesn’t have to be a prototypical big/fast/physical receiver. You only have to look to the Raiders with Antonio Brown or the New England Patriots during the Rob Gronkowski era to see how a receiving corps’ primary option can come from anywhere.
Still, this looks like a group that’d benefit from another mouth to feed in 2020. Luckily, next year’s draft class is looking like it will shape up as a historic one for pass catchers. Colorado’s Laviska Shenault, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, and Alabama’s Jerry Juedy are just the tip of the iceberg. If Denver finishes the year around where I placed them in my preseason Power Rankings, they could still have options like Alabama’s Henry Ruggs, or TCU’s Jalen Reagor.
Jalen Reagor could not be stopped on this 65-yard TCU touchdown— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 17, 2018
( @Carhartt) pic.twitter.com/BzBjnvMAFX
Assuming Elway will give Lock all of 2019 to prove himself as the guy, the other pressing need on the Broncos offense looks like it will be right guard. Ronald Leary has had an injury-marred Broncos career, but has looked like the guy fans hoped he’d be when he came over from the Dallas Cowboys.
There’s a chance Elijah Wilkinson slides inside as a starter going into 2020. If that doesn’t happen and the Broncos chase a guard high in the draft, someone like Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey could make sense. Oregon’s Jake Hansen or Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz would fit if Connor McGovern sticks around as a guard, as that sort of move potentially upgrades two positions at once for the long term.
Nice feet, great placement by the #Broncos Drew Lock on third and long. pic.twitter.com/35Zu1BTcG6— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 9, 2019
- Stack linebacker
- Interior defensive lineman
With the way most NFL offenses have moved toward a three-receiver, 11-personnel, base defenses have adjusted with a base nickel package. It doesn’t matter so much if a team is a “3-4” or “4-3” defense anymore because all but a handful of teams follow a nickel blueprint.
Every NFL team is looking for:
2 interior rushers
2 edge rushers
2 stack (off ball) linebackers
2 boundary corners who can play a deep third
1 rangy middle field safety who can help over the top, play the middle third, or save thirds.
1 slot player who can defend a run gap and also be ale to take on small guys or flexed out tight ends in coverage.
You’ll notice the math adds up to 10 there. Where variance starts to come in is how different defensive coordinators deploy their eleventh defender. Some want a Kam Chancellor type of enforcer between the deep safety and line, a guy who serves as a better coverage backer who can help against the run. Others, like Fangio, want another guy who can play over the top of of a 3X1 offensive formation, a second rangy safety.
Devin Bush already looking physical in the run game. Strong at the POA. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/taGVTZNqgE— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) August 9, 2019
Which gets us to the Broncos needs. Let me just say that if you’re still fuming over the Broncos trading down from 10 and passing up the chance at Devin Bush, you’ll probably feel validated by the following paragraphs.
The contract Todd Davis signed back in March of 2018 is closer to three subsequent one-year deals than a three-year $15 million contract. After this season the Broncos can keep him on the roster where he’ll count $6 million against the cap, or they can save $5 million by letting him go. I like Davis enough to rank him as one of the 14 most valuable Broncos in 2019, but could just as easily see Elway moving in another direction next year.
Davis’ injury in camp has given Vic Fangio and the Broncos’ coaching staff a chance to look at the depth behind him. I would bet he’s come away fully aware that the position will be one he’s going to need to scheme around in 2019.
While Iowa fanboys will rage over this, Josey Jewell’s ceiling is probably something close to “competent” starter. If he can play with perfect technique, he reaches that. Like Davis, his long speed is limiting enough that he relies on the Broncos’ superstar edge duo to funnel plays back inside to him. As a rookie he also had a fair number of issues against play action and playing in space.
As I’ve written numerous times over the summer, Fangio’s defensive system should do a better job hiding the linebacker’s athletic limitations than Vance Joseph’s system did. There just comes a point where the coaching staff and Elway probably ask themselves “why should we?”
Fangio’s proved over the years he can make hay with lesser talent at the linebacker position. He’s also shown how his defenses turn from good to great or even historic when he can deploy elite play from the linebackers. This holds true over his entire career, and it’s one reason there was rampant speculation he’d chase after the Devins in the 2019 draft.
If he’s looking to add that kind of dynamic, three-down backer next offseason, Fangio will have one really enticing option. Alabama’s Dylan Moses looks like the next prospect to come out of Nick Saban’s linebacker assembly line. He came off the field on obvious passing downs for Mack Wilson last year but should have the opportunity to prove himself there. Outside of that, he checks a lot of the boxes you look for in an elite LB prospect.
Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons is another “linebacker” type that may be worth keeping an eye on. He’s a hybrid safety-backer type who rings the kind of athletic range and coverage ability I dream of when I build a Madden defense. He’d probably need a little protection from blockers at the next level, but since Fangio already deploys an under front this shouldn’t be as large a concern.
Broncos CB @ChrisHarrisJr is in his ninth NFL season and said he's never had a coach quite like Vic Fangio: pic.twitter.com/4HZ7akAWRZ— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) August 15, 2019
I share the quote above because if you’re like me, you hope Chris Harris Jr. finishes off his career in orange and blue before going on to make the Ring of Fame and possibly Canton. Until the day he signs a contract from someone else, I’ll hold out hope that’s the case. For this exercise though, it’s necessary to take a look at how the Broncos’ secondary looks if he and one of the Will Parks/Justin Simmons duo departs next spring.
The versatility Kareem Jackson offers as a corner/safety hybrid means the Broncos could potentially survive either departure by adding whatever has the most talented scheme fit at their budget. Jackson’s age, however, suggests a cornerback would be a wiser investment for the long term.
Fangio’s defense runs a lot of match zone out of MOFO shells, with a heavy dose of Cover 4. What this means from a personnel standpoint is that guys have ample opportunity to play beyond their athletic measurables with above-average mental processing. It’s also a big reason why Fangio’s had success with guys like Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, and Tarell Bown.
More recently, he’s seemed to put a far greater priority on the position. When he was with Chicago, the Bears matched a four-year $56 million offer sheet for Kyle Fuller and handed Prince Amukamara a three-year $27 million deal. There’s a decent chance the secondary becomes a high priority if Harris and/or Simmons/Parks departs.
If that happens and the Broncos look to the draft, there’s a number of enticing options in what looks like a far more talented defensive back crop than 2019. LSU’s Grant Delpit has already generated buzz as the best overall prospect in the class, so unless the bottom falls out in 2019 he’ll probably go too high for Denver to have a shot. Some analysts have already mentioned how Delpit’s teammate Kristian Fulton is a better prospect than Cleveland’s Greedy Williams. Virginia’s Bryce Hall could be an option, he looks a little like a baby Richard Sherman. Paulsen Adebo out of Stanford will probably catch Elway’s eye. The former receiver’s ball production is hard to ignore.
One of the few bright spots to watch in Columbia this season...check out Javon Kinlaw (#3, lined up over the center). He is a monster... #Gamecocks #SEC #SomebodyBetterCallAnAmbulance pic.twitter.com/vFFO2fL2y8— Ryan Clifford (@RyanClifford) August 8, 2019
It seems the Broncos’ impending 2020 free agency exodus is something I’ve been writing about for over a year now. In case you’ve somehow missed it: Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, and Shelby Harris all have expiring contracts after this coming season. There’s next to a 0% chance Elway keeps all three and a small chance Fangio and the Broncos enter training camp in 2020 with a completely revamped interior.
Because the Broncos will deploy nickel personnel 60-percent of the time, a true nose tackle isn’t a pressing need. In 2019 it looks like Shelby Harris and Zach Kerr will split duties with the latter serving as the true big body. Once things move to the nickel, the team will use a lot more 3-and-1 technique play.
If Dre’Mont Jones shows out as a rookie and Elway re-signs one of the big names, this position is probably the third most pressing need on the D. If neither occurs, the upcoming draft offers a few prospects that could be worth a look.
If Elway is looking for a base down 5 technique who can slide inside, guys like A.J. Epenesa out of Iowa hold a ton of appeal. The Broncos would probably have to really tank the 2019 campaign to have a shot at him, but I’ve already heard one analyst compare him to former 49er Justin Smith, who had a ton of success under Fangio.
If the front office is looking for something closer to Chicago’s Akiem Hicks, then Alabama’s Raekown Davis and Auburn’s Derrick Brown are the big names, but neither offers the same kind of pass rushing chops South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw already has. All three are bigger than the Broncos’ current defensive linemen. Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore and Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike also look intriguing. If the Broncos do want a 1 technique or something closer to an Eddie Goldman type, a guy like Oregon’s Jordon Scott could hold some serious appeal.
What do you think Broncos Country?
What looks like the Bronco’s biggest 2020 need?
This poll is closed
Offensive Line help
Other (Please comment)
Your Broncos Links
The Denver Broncos defense is sneaky good - Mile High Report
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Bradley Chubb working on new moves in joint practices with the 49ers - Mile High Report
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Not betting against it, but just reminding #Broncos Country that sacks aren't the end all, be all of pass rushing.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 18, 2019
If he gets as many pressures as last year while growing into a well rounded defender I'm stoked. https://t.co/LmUTABhNRQ
Broncos Podcast: Should we be worried about the tight end position? - Mile High Report
The Denver Broncos have tried damn near everything to bring back a strong tight end position group, but injuries have thwarted seemingly every attempt.
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Kyle Shanahan expresses his confidence in mentee, Rich Scangarello stepping into the offensive coordinator role for the first time at the NFL level. pic.twitter.com/QaGLLhvgby— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) August 17, 2019
Previewing the 2019 Denver Broncos with an eye on the future - Mile High Report
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.
Denver Broncos: Taking a look at their 2020 NFL Draft needs - Mile High Report
Checking in on the Denver Broncos biggest 2020 NFL Draft needs and sleepers with NFL Draft Network’s Trevor Sikkema.
Not just the #Broncos problem. https://t.co/amnVjts7IC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 19, 2019
Broncos coach Vic Fangio influenced by hometown of Dunmore, Penn. | SI.com
Broncos coach Vic Fangio has coached in many different locations over the years, but he’s never forgotten his roots in his hometown of Dunmore, in Northeast Pennsylvania. And now that Mike Munchak, from the neighboring Scranton, is also on his coaching staff, there’s an undeniable influence around the Denver facilities.
PFF Rankings: NFL starting quarterback rankings for 2019 | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF
JOE FLACCO, DENVER BRONCOS
We’re still a few years removed from Flacco’s best work, as his 2014 season is one of only two years in which he’s posted a PFF grade of at least 75.0. While his velocity has been down in recent years, Flacco’s best years showed off his ability to drive the ball outside the numbers while giving his playmakers opportunities to make plays down the field. Between a lack of aggressiveness and a lack of quality targets, Flacco has become one of the more conservative quarterbacks in the league, ranking sixth in check-down percentage since 2016 (9.1%) and posting the first and fifth-lowest average depth of completion in a season since 2016 (4.7 in 2017, 5.2 in 2016). Perhaps a change of scenery and a new scheme will rejuvenate Flacco this season, and his last good year in 2014 was built around a similar outside zone/play-action-heavy system.
FMIA: Kyler Murray, All-In On Arizona; Raiders, ‘All-Out’ On Antonio Brown? – ProFootballTalk
This week’s King-for-all Peter shares his favorite players to interview, which includes some Broncos.
The same thing that happened when he replaced Tim Tebow in the #Broncos O. It would adjust for his skillset. https://t.co/3iNUkYQ5Xg— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 19, 2019
AFC West Links
Raiders’ WR Antonio Brown was at practice today, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2019
Broncos news: Does Raiders Antonio Brown drama factor into Week 1? - Mile High Report
Should Broncos fans be concerned about the season opener?
AB vs. the Raiders https://t.co/V5NzNMmAxH— Steve Wyche (@wyche89) August 19, 2019
Drew Rosenhaus: I think Antonio Brown will be back soon – ProFootballTalk
“I do think he’s going to be back soon,” Rosenhaus said. “We’re looking into any and all options right now to resolve the helmet issue. Antonio is very genuine. He wants to be there, he wants to be part of the team, he wants to practice, but he’d also like to do it with the helmet he’s worn his entire life.
This man once had a client who responded to an involuntary boot from camp by doing televised sit-ups in his driveway. A voluntary camp departure — albeit due to a helmet dispute that’s even new for Drew — is a piece o’cake.— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) August 19, 2019
That said, this does look like a hostage video. https://t.co/mTl2syBNVD
Raiders have limited options with Antonio Brown – ProFootballTalk
The Raiders could cut Brown, but they’d owe him more than $30 million over the next two years, offset by whatever else he’d earn with a different team. As mentioned when the issue first surfaced, at a time when Brown was still away from the team, the Raiders’ nuclear option consists of sending a five-day letter to Brown. If he doesn’t come back within five days, they can place him on the reserve/left squad list and shut him down for the year. At that point, he wouldn’t be able to play for the Raiders or for anyone else, and the Raiders wouldn’t have to pay him.
Well, yeah. I think the story here is Gruden clearly thinks of the Steelers as a top-rate organization, yet he never seemed to question why they were eager to let Martavis and AB go. https://t.co/jXdmZmIV37— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) August 19, 2019
Drama timeline: Even while ABsent, Raiders training camp was all ABout AB - Silver And Black Pride
We look at a day-by-day account of just how Antonio Brown dominated the news cycle while barely setting foot in Raiders training camp.
Five things to know from KC Chiefs HC Andy Reid’s Sunday media call - Arrowhead Pride
The Chiefs head coach spoke to the media following the 17-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kansas City Chiefs to bring back offensive lineman Jeff Allen - Arrowhead Pride
Allen provides the Chiefs good, veteran depth at the offensive line position.
Chargers safety Derwin James will likely be out at least 3 months - Bolts From The Blue
We now have additional information regarding Los Angeles Chargers superstar safety Derwin James and, well, it is not great.
Rivers’ contract drama will have to wait - Bolts From The Blue
Chargers aim to address Rivers contract after this season
Longest active streak of games started:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 15, 2019
1. Philip Rivers: 208
2. Brandon Carr: 176
3. Matt Ryan: 147
T-4. Ryan Kerrigan: 128
T-4. Patrick Peterson: 128
T-4. Matthew Stafford: 128
Los Angeles Chargers LB Uchenna Nwosu leaves Saints game with apparent injury. - Bolts From The Blue
During the Chargers second preseason contest against the New Orleans Saints, linebacker Uchenna Nwosu pulled up on a play in the third quarter in which the Saints quarterback threw for a touchdown.
There are nine 50,000-yard passers in NFL history.— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) August 19, 2019
Three of them were drafted in 2004:
6. Ben Roethlisberger - 56,194
7. Eli Manning - 55,981
8. Philip Rivers - 54,656
What did NFL buy in Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid settlement
First, it’s crystal clear that Kaepernick never agreed to cease seeking employment in the settlement terms reached with the league. Any doubt about that was put to bed by a handful of videos posted to the social media accounts of Kaepernick and Reid – all remarking that Kaepernick is “still ready” and still being “denied work” in his job pursuit.
Second, and perhaps more glaring for the league, it seems the NFL failed to get either Kaepernick or Reid to refrain from talking about the league following their settlement. Kaepernick’s videos took shots at the NFL, and no voice has hammered the partnership between the league and Jay-Z more bluntly than Reid in the past few days.
This is probably one of the worst preseason hits I can remember seeing. pic.twitter.com/hfbINRyBQO— ThatsGoodSports (@BrandonPerna) August 19, 2019
DK Metcalf to undergo knee surgery, still could play Week One – ProFootballTalk
Seahawks rookie DK Metcalf did not play in Sunday’s preseason game against the Vikings. It turns out there was a good reason for his absence. He had his knee checked out and learned he needs surgery. “DK’s got an injury to his knee that we found after a couple of days.
"Minor" surgery is when it happens to someone other than you. https://t.co/6JknXLOtRQ— David J. Chao (@ProFootballDoc) August 19, 2019
Will the Vikings’ New Offense Get the Most Out of Kirk Cousins? - The Ringer
Minnesota overhauled its offensive coaching staff this year in an effort to get the most out of its $84 million QB. Now the team’s Super Bowl aspirations lie in the hands of a young coordinator and the man who created the system he’s running.
Zim hiding the dip in the seeds bag? pic.twitter.com/NLelAvsFdf— Paid man gets bored (@cjzero) August 19, 2019
After reinstatement, Patriots’ Josh Gordon faces long odds - The Boston Globe
Yes, Gordon is back, but he’s one misstep from his football career crumbling again.
Players, owners open to playoff expansion as CBA talks resume - NFL.com
An expanded playoff format has not yet been formally proposed in bargaining, nor has expanding the regular season to 17 or 18 games, which players continue to oppose. It’s possible the preseason could be shortened even without adding regular season or postseason games. But sources say that adding two playoff games remains squarely in the conversation amidst unexpectedly positive dialogue that continued to yield progress in staff meetings last week on secondary issues such as current and retired player benefits, player health, and safety.
3 Group of Five Sleepers for the 2020 NFL Draft | The Draft Network
So even though some of these prospects are playing at a lower competition level, that does not mean their learning curve in the NFL is necessarily steeper. Several of the league’s best players came from “Group of Five” schools, which includes the Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt, and the American Athletic Conference.