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Who should be the Broncos first pick in the NFL Draft?

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My Pre-Combine 1st round Big Board for the Denver Broncos in the 2020 NFL Draft.

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USC v Colorado
Laviska Shenault Jr. would have me holding my breath.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

With the NFL Combine quickly approaching, it’s a good time to release my initial big board for the Broncos’ first round selection. Since the NFL season ended I’ve done as much studying up on prospects as I can to understand who represents the best scheme fits at positions John Elway and Vic Fangio will seek to bolster in the Draft.

They may move up or down over the course of the next couple of months as we learn more and once I have more time to collect and go back over film, but all of these players make some sense in the first round.

Tier 1: If they slide we’re making calls.

With rumors that John Elway called about the first pick in the draft, it’s worth considering what prospects he’d look to move up for. I doubt the Duke is trying to go up for Burrow with Drew Lock on the roster, but there are plenty of other blue chippers that could intrigue.

1. ED - Chase Young - OSU

It’s kind of a cop out to list Chase Young here as snowballs have better chance in hell than he does making it past the second overall pick. That said, he’s a generational type of prospect and even with Miller and Chubb on the roster Elway would need to call around. Do not, and I repeat: do not count on it being a realistic possibility.

It ain’t gonna happen.

2. CB - Jeffrey Okudah - OSU

I’m currently working on my cornerback big board, but I’m going to spoil it for you: he’s number one. Watching his games you’re immediately stuck by his elite click and close and athleticism. Combine that with the size and comfort mirroring as well as his exposure to different coverages and he’s essentially a presidential prospect. They only come around four or so years.

Okudah’s not only a blue chip prospect, but would fit the Fangio defense perfectly.

Tier 2 - Run to the podium.

Do not pass “go,” do not collect $200, do not pick up the phone. If these prospects somehow slide to 15, count your blessings and go Best Player Available. They’re worth it.

3. DL - Derrick Brown - Auburn

If you play around with the Draft Network’s Mock Machine, you may remember the strange time when Brown was sliding into the 20s right around Christmas. It was as likely then as it is now, but he’s everything Fangio could want in a defensive linemen. He also has many of the same kind of leadership qualities Elway has made a point to prioritize in recent drafts.

If I had to describe Brown in two words, it’d be “war daddy.”

4. X - Isaiah Simmons - Clemson

I’ve had a lot of trepidation over the Simmons hype back when people were mocking him to the Broncos because I still don’t know how he’d look in base personnel for Fangio. He’s on the lighter side for an inside backer and it’d negate most of his best traits. The good news? In the modern NFL all defenses use nickel more than 60% of the time and he has a very clear role there with elite traits as a matchup weapon in pass coverage.

Simmons brings so many things to table he’s worth molding your defense around.

5. DL - Javon Kinlaw - South Carolina

I almost placed Kinlaw on my initial “guys I’m sky guy on” list but hesitated because I was still watching his games. Since then I’ve watched what I could of those, read as much as I can on him, and saw him wreck worlds in Mobile. He’s an exceptional fit for what Fangio likes to do with the kind of burst off the snap and heavy hands that will cause issues for opponents early and often.

Kinlaw’s generating a lot of buzz since the Senior Bowl. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the national pundits pushed him past Brown after the Combine.

6. OL - Jedrick Wills - Alabama

There’s been a lot of talk about how he looks as a run blocker, but to me what was pleasantly surprising is how strong Wills looks on an island. He served as a reliable blindside protector for Tua, which alleviates some of the questions about the fact that he was playing right tackle. Moving him to the left side is all projection, and I doubt he’s available at 15, but if Denver nabbed him he could supplant Garett Bolles or Ja’Wuan James in camp.

Believe it or not, Wills’ an underrated pass protector.

Tier 3 - BPA at position of need.

The only argument I’d make for any of these players over the prospects I placed above is the positions they play. That said, they fill long term holes that free agency probably can’t.

7. OL - Tristian Wirfs - Iowa

This tackle class is torture for me as someone who is a complete sucker for athletic tackles, and few if any should match what Wirfs is able to do when he tests. If the Broncos did not employ Mike Munchak I would have him a little lower because I do have concerns about some of the technical aspects of his game, but his versatility and potential are tantalizing.

Some wonder if Wirfs can play in space. His play against Aidan Hutchinson doesn’t help those concerns.

8. OL - Andrew Thomas - Georgia

Word has been that the NFL is lower on Thomas than I am, so it wouldn’t be a shock if he slides. There’s also some truth to the fact that he isn’t as scheme diverse as the two players listed above him. Here’s the thing though, the Broncos will likely feature a heavy dose of the quick sets and power rushing attack that maximizes his effectiveness. They did in 2019 and I don’t expect a drastic overhaul of the blocking scheme. Combine those things with what Munchak could get out of him makes it hard to pass.

Week after week Thomas held up in the SEC.

9. WR - CeeDee Lamb - Oklahoma

I wrote at length about this receiver class a few weeks ago. In a vacuum, I may be higher on Lamb than Thomas and Wirfs, but this receiver class is ridiculous while the tackle class is merely great. This Sooner combines hand eye coordination with a stupid catch radius and sneaky good route running. Some have balked at his personality, but I see an Alpha type who would pair with Courtland Sutton to give Lock two WR1s.

Lamb won’t run like Jeudy and Ruggs do, but he’s plenty athletic.

10. WR - Jerry Jeudy - Alabama

Separation and versatility are Jeudy’s calling cards. He’s one of the best route runners I’ve seen coming out of college and the concerns about his drops in 2019 are the kind of noise you hear when a prospect has been in pole position too long. Barring disaster he’s going to be very good for a very long time.

Jeudy should be a day 1 difference maker.

11. WR - Henry Ruggs III - Alabama

Everyone talks about the speed, and with rumors that he’ll break the 40-yard dash record at the Combine it’s understandable. Don’t sleep on everything else he does though, because it’s a lot. He’s an underrated route runner with reliable hands and a blink-and-you’ll-miss him ability to generate yards after the catch. Only way he falls past 15 is if someone above him on this list is there.

Ruggs isn’t a speed guy who plays receiver, he’s an excellent receiver who’s stupidly fast.

12. DB - Xavier McKinney - Alabama

There has been one big knock thrown around about any and all talk about McKinney as a Broncos’ prospect that people just can’t seem to get over.

  • “But he’s a Safety.”

If you watch him play for any length of time, you’ll see how simplistic that label is. Nick Saban had him playing all over his defense, which speaks to how much the legendary coach trusted him. He lined up in the box, he served as a force player, he blitzed, he covered the slot, he played on the third level. Simply put, he was a versatile chess piece that had a knack for making big plays in tight moments for the Tide.

If you were hoping the Broncos would take Minkah Fitzpatrick when the Miami Dolphins were shopping him last year, you should love McKinney. I have since October.

McKinney could be an instant contributor and eventual star alongside Justin Simmons.

Tier 4 - Make me an offer

These are exceptional scheme fits who may be aren’t quite on the same level as the tier above them. At this point I would hope front office is gauging interest in a trade down scenario. After all, the draft is essentially a lottery, collect extra picks and capitalize.

13. CB - Jeff Gladney - TCU

This Horned Frog has the potential to eventually match up and mirror the fastest opponents in the AFC West with a little refinement. He’s also quick in transition and a willing tackler. Both traits will make him a beast if he’s aligned in off coverage. I love his projection to the Broncos’ systems as much anyone in this class.

Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman aren’t going anywhere for awhile, so a corner who can keep up may be necessary.

14. CB - Kristian Fulton - LSU

It’s interesting to keep up with all of the different opinions on Fulton. Some question his speed while others laud him for his ability to shutdown SEC opponents. I’m curious to see what he runs in Indianapolis, but I’ve never had a question about his athleticism. His hip mobility and quickness look to be near the top of this class and his ability to trail is impressive. The bigger issues I’ve seen in his game are technical things, which wouldn’t be much of a concern with Ed Donatell coaching him up.

Fulton’s a potential shutdown corner at the next level.

15. DL - A.J. Epenesa - Iowa

This feels low for Epenesa, who I like. Like Xavier McKinney, he’s one of the prospects who has probably been most harmed in Broncos’ Country by his position designation. Most consider him a defensive end because that’s what he played in a 4-3 defense last season. He’s certainly capable of becoming a power end in the NFL, but for the Broncos he’d play as a 5T in base just as Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris did so effectively in 2019. On passing downs he’d slide inside, which is something he did for close to 100 snaps his last year for the Hawkeyes.

Epenesa could be the second coming of Justin Smith in Denver.

16. WR - Denzel Mims - Baylor

Call me crazy, but one of the most important parts to maximizing a prospect is their fit on their new team. With Pat Shurmur’s offense calling for more isolation routes, slants, and corners a player who can win 50-50 balls and separate on his own will be in high demand. Outside of the top tier, there isn’t a player who looks as ready made to do these things early while still providing upside as this Bear.

Tier 4 - Risk vs Upside

These are players you can talk yourself into, or out of. They have all the tools you look for in a first round talent, but also bring a lower floor or more rough edges in need of refinement than players above them.

17. LT - Josh Jones - Houston

The Cougar has been on my radar since Dane Bruglar and Nick Kendell brought him to my attention last fall. All reports have made note of his improvement over the course of his career, which alleviates some concern about how he has farther to go than the top tackles in this class. Like Andre Dillard last year, his biggest strengths are pass protection and athleticism. Both go a long way for me when it comes to left tackle prospects, and I’d trust Mike Munchak to sort out his feet, hands, and sets.

18. WR - Jalen Reagor - TCU

It would be a shock if he did not blow up the Combine as Reagor looks like the kind of top tier athlete on film that should woo evaluators with what he could be. So why haven’t I bought in? Mostly, it’s because the route running isn’t on tape and it looks like his hands are closer to adequate than solid. Word has been TCU didn’t ask him to show off what he’s really capable in the former, but highlight plays of his best catches and the “QB sucked” excuse don’t really alleviate the latter for me.

I’ve watched as much Reagor as anyone in this class, and can’t ignore plays like this.

19. OL - Mekhi Becton - Louisville

The big bird would make me really nervous for a couple of reasons. He moves well enough at his current weight, but there’s enough about how it fluctuating to wonder if he’ll be able to win a battle of the bulge at the next level. He’s also raw and far from a sure thing as a pass protector, and at his length a move inside seems iffy. Considering what Mike Munchak was able to do with Alejandro Villanueva with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s impossible to rule him out. And the Cardinal definitely has a high ceiling, but the floor worries me.

20. WR - Laviska Shenault - Colorado

  • 2018: right turf toe, required surgery
  • 2018: torn left shoulder labrum, required surgery
  • 2019: upper core muscle injury, played through pain.

It’s important to note that all of the injuries were independent from one another. Cover 1 has also found studies that showed receivers’ suffer the second highest rate of injuries, so his medical history alone is not my biggest concern.

Rather, it’s his availability combined with how important it is for him to be healthy enough to work on and refine his route running early in his career. As of now it’s at a rudimentary level. It speaks to Shenault’s ridiculous athleticism and play strength that he was still able to produce as he did playing through pain minus technical savvy, but things would be harder in the NFL.

As Jeff Essary and I discussed on Cover 2 Broncos, one of the big ways Pat Shurmur’s offense differentiates from Rich Scangarello’s is how often he asks the receivers to win on their own. It puts more stress on a wideouts ability to create separation against a defensive back, which means savvy route running is more important than before.

If the Broncos drafted him, I’d be equal parts excited and nervous. Shurmur’s said all the right things about calling plays to help his players, but that means Shenault would need more schemed touches early on such as crossers, smoke screens, and gives. If he’s as fast as people believe he could still provide help as a role playing vertical burner.

I don’t know if any receiver in this class has the same upside, but his NFL coaching staff will need to really bend and innovate to maximize all of the things he can bring to the table.

Shenault wins with the ball in his hands, it’s getting it there that makes his projection a gamble.

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#15) Denver Broncos: Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia Garrett Boles is a complete disaster at the left tackle position, which is something you can’t have when grooming a young quarterback. It wasn’t long ago when Andrew Thomas was considered a lock to be a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL draft; however, the ascension of players like Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton push him down the board some. Thomas provides an immediate upgrade to Boles and should stabilize the position for the next decade.

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