On the cusp of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos were still sorting themselves out after head coach Gary Kubiak was forced to step down due to health concerns. The 2016 season under Coach Kubes had brought a respectable 9-7 record- not bad for a team that had lost its all-time great franchise QB to retirement. And despite the changing of the guard among the coaching staff, the roster had a decent stock of talent.
Broncos Country was looking forward to the 2017 season with anticipation. The franchise had a new head coach in Vance Joseph, apparently the hand-picked favorite of GM John Elway, and a young 1st round quarterback in Paxton Lynch who we collectively expected to take a step forward to contend for the starting role in his 2nd season. And he’d have the benefit of two excellent receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders along with the benefit of the newly-signed Ron Leary & Menelik Watson to help shore up the offensive line.
While the offense had plenty of issues and holes, the defense was returning 9 out of 11 starters from the historic 2015 defense. The No Fly Zone was still in full effect under the aegis of Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, and Darian Stewart, and Shane Ray appeared to be emerging as a starter after a pretty good 8 sack, 48 tackle 2016 season across from the inimitable Von Miller. A good 2017 draft would re-stock the offense and send the Broncos back to the postseason with a minimal post-Manning hangover.
As we well know, it didn’t turn out that way.
With three seasons finished since the 2017 draft, it’s time to go back and evaluate the Broncos’ selections during those late April evenings. What went right? What went wrong? And how did it impact the franchise?
OT Garett Bolles, Utah
1st Round, 20th Overall Pick
Certainly the most controversial pick of the Broncos’ 2017 draft class, Bolles gets a benefit in evaluation that many in this group will not: He’s played a lot. Known for his grabby hands and associated penalties, Bolles mixes periods of terrible play with stretches of pretty good play. It’s certainly enough to have Broncos fans frothing at the mouth about him.
What started pretty poorly for Bolles may finish better, as the second half of his 2019 season was pretty good under OL coach Mike Munchak and working with Drew Lock at QB. What the team truly thinks of him will be shown by whether they use his 5th year option. But for now, you can probably pencil him in for his 4th year as the Broncos’ starting left tackle.
One thing that can’t really be escaped when considering the Bolles pick is the contrast vs Ryan Ramczyk. On his own, Bolles is probably a C or C- pick right now. But with the context of choosing him over the All Pro Ramczyk, I can’t go higher than...
DE DeMarcus Walker, Florida St.
2nd Round, 51st Overall Pick
Walker is an interesting case. His first two years were a massive disappointment for a player Broncos fans had hoped would come in and be a long term partner across from Derek Wolfe. In 13 games active, Walker managed only 2.0 sacks and 11.0 tackles in 2017 & 2018 combined. The bust label was being thrown around, and with some good reason despite lines blurred by the coaches making weird decisions like asking him to drop a lot of weight and play OLB instead.
But then came a changing of the guard on the coaching staff, and it’s made a real difference for Walker. His 4.0 sacks were 4th most on the team and his 22.0 tackles meant he neatly lapped his production for the preceding two years. That’s not too bad for a guy who was on the field for only 20.77% of the defense’s 2019 snaps.
Like Garett Bolles, Walker is a borderline case. And, like Bolles, he’ll have one more shot to prove himself to the Broncos in 2020.
WR Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
3rd Round, 82nd Overall Pick
Despite being drafted with the expectation of making an impact in the slot and immediately assuming the team’s kick and punt return duties, Henderson was an utter failure in the NFL. He didn’t get a single regular season snap as a rookie- not even on special teams. Henderson failed to make the team in 2018 amid significant personal issues, and just weeks later he’d been dropped from the practice squad and was done.
The subsequent selections of Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay within the next 14 picks, each of whom has averaged 900+ receiving yards per season so far, really makes this pick sting. Henderson is arguably the 2nd biggest bust of the Elway GM era.
CB Brendan Langley, Lamar
3rd Round, 101st Overall Pick
Is he a corner or is he a receiver? Nobody’s quite sure. After a rocky rookie season that showed some promise late, Langley established the pattern that Isaac Yiadom has repeated by falling apart shortly thereafter. Langley failed to make the roster in 2018, and then decided to move back to WR after a season on the practice squad.
That fell flat as well and Denver didn’t retain him after cutting him again after the 2019 training camp. Langley spent the 2019 season basically out of football until landing a practice squad spot with the Seahawks on New Years Day.
TE Jake Butt, Michigan
5th Round, 145th Overall Pick
Considered a major steal at the time, Butt was a 2nd round talent who fell to the 5th after suffering his 2nd ACL tear in the Orange Bowl in December 2016. Unfortunately, injuries have been the tale of Butt’s career in the NFL as well. He missed his rookie year as he healed from his Orange Bowl misfortune, only to tear an ACL again just 3 games into the 2018 season. His recovery has not gone well, and the sum of Butt’s career NFL stats after 3 seasons is just 8 catches for 85 yards.
The 5th - 7th rounds are the right place to roll the dice on injury luck. It’s a bet any GM should make for a very talented player. Unfortunately for Jake Butt, John Elway, and the Denver Broncos, this bet went bust.
WR Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia
5th Round, 172nd Overall Pick
Of all the Broncos 2017 draft picks, McKenzie may have had the most interesting career so far. He fizzled after just one year in Denver due to bad hands and bad kick/punt return decisions, leading to 6 fumbles vs 24 returns.
He’s since found a second chance with the Buffalo Bills. Over the last season and a half McKenzie has registered 45 catches for 433 yards and 1 TD, as well as 18 rushes for 115 yards and 2 TDs for the Bills. He was also the Bills’ primary returner in 2018 before losing that role to FA WR/returner Andre Roberts in 2019.
Where McKenzie goes from here will be interesting to see. He could continue growing into a role in Buffalo, or he could just as easily fall victim to the Bills upgrading the position and end up on the waiver wire this September.
His grade, however, will be based only on his production for Denver.
RB De’Angelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina
6th Round, 203rd Overall Pick
Very few, if asked right after the draft, would have anticipated that this Henderson would be the more productive NFL player out of the two running backs the Broncos drafted. That said, zero is an easy number to beat. Henderson’s career total of 68 combined rushing & receiving yards & 1 TD won’t impress anyone, but only 2 players drafted after him have scored any TDs and only 4 of the 50 players drafted after him had more yards.
De’Angelo Henderson’s time in the NFL was brief, but it also didn’t end in a ridiculous tableau like the one that torpedoed the next and final draft pick’s career in Denver. Given that & the widespread lack of production from the 6th & 7th rounders, this actually ends up as a rather average pick- for what little that’s worth.
QB Chad Kelly, Mississippi
7th Round, 253rd Overall Pick
It’s hard to really, truly screw up a late 7th round draft pick, simply because the stakes are so low. But when you go from Mr. Irrelevant to getting kicked off of the team days before you likely would have started your first game, something has indeed gone wrong. Chad Kelly not only didn’t live up to his uncle’s legacy, his time in Denver ended in a haze of alcohol, thrown punches, and getting chased away with a vacuum cleaner. It doesn’t get much messier than that.
Overall Grade: F
Let’s not beat around the bush for this: the Broncos’ 2017 draft class was an unmitigated disaster, and is arguably a contender for the team’s worst draft class of all time. Along with the failures of Paxton Lynch and Vance Joseph, it’s a major contributing factor to the 2.5 seasons of misery that followed.
Looking back, we can at least be grateful that Elway learned from his 2017 mistakes. The aftermath of this draft class pushed Elway to totally overhaul the team’s player evaluation process, and that led to consecutive promising draft classes in 2018 and 2019. If it hadn’t, I doubt even John Elway’s reputation and influence at Dove Valley could have kept him in the GM’s seat. But it did, and because of that Broncos Country gets to look at 2020 with some real hope.
Now let’s all forget this miserable abomination of a draft class and enjoy the talented young core of players the next two drafts brought in.
Who was the worst pick by the Broncos in the 2017 NFL draft?
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