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A way-too-early look at the Broncos’ 2020 needs

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Who has the most to prove in 2019? Here is a look at the Denver Broncos 2020 positional needs.

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NFL: Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers
Is Sutton a WR1?
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

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

No way this looks wrong in a week, right?

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.

Offense

  • Wide receiver
  • Guard
  • 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.

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.

Defense

  • Stack linebacker
  • Interior defensive lineman
  • Cornerback

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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