There’s only two games left in the Denver Broncos’ season, so it’s as good a time as any to start paying attention to the upcoming draft class. Today marks the beginning of the college football playoff. The games provide a perfect opportunity to familiarize yourself with some of the best players in college football in high stakes matchups against a strong opponent. Unfortunately the Alabama Crimson Tide’s Heisman-winning passer isn’t eligible for the NFL Draft until 2023, but if George Paton is unwilling to wait on Bryce Young, he could find the Cincinnati Bearcat’s Desmond Ridder very intriguing. The Michigan Wolverines’ contest against the Georgia Bulldogs will feature three of the best edge players in this draft, as well as a slew of other talented defenders.
Simply put, these games are appointment viewing for draft aficionados. You won’t find Aidan Hutchinson or Evan Neal below because both look like locks for the top five picks of the draft, a spot Denver can only reach via a trade up. Instead, A.J. Schulte and Joe Rowles elected to share the most intriguing attainable prospects playing in today.
Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo
The Broncos pass rush has become extremely dependent on Fangio’s calls to create pressure since Von Miller became a member of the Los Angeles Rams. While Bradley Chubb is showing progress on his way back from the ankle injury that robbed him of most of the season, he’s also heading towards the end of his rookie contract. Malik Reed has also nearly reached Restricted Free Agency, which means the future looks murky at edge beyond Jonathon Cooper.
A four star recruit in the 2019 recruiting cycle who started playing football at the age of 17, Ojabo’s combination of very good length, top tier athleticism, and relative inexperience suggests he’s only just begun to tap into his potential. Ojabo played football for the first time in 2017 and entered the 2021 season having played in just six games for the Wolverines. This year he blew up with 11 sacks and five forced fumbles as he and Hutchinson gave Michigan one of the best edge duos in college football.
Ojabo has an ideal build for a speed rusher, a hot motor, and the combination of bend, burst, and lateral quickness to threaten most tackles around the arc. He has the quick hands to force strips when he makes his way to the quarterback and is a solid run defender. He’s got quite the test in front of him in Georgia. Warren McClendon and Jamaree Salyer did a commendable job against the Tide’s Will Anderson in the SEC championship game. Michigan has also made an effort to protect Ojabo from Wisconsin and Michigan State’s power running games this year. Will the Bulldogs try to run down his throat?
Georgia edge rusher/defensive lineman Travon Walker
Where Ojabo’s ideally rushing as a nine technique, Walker’s better suited for rushing over the tight end or further inside. A former five star recruit from the 2019 recruiting cycle, Walker’s been a contributor on Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense since his freshman season. At 6’5” and 275 lbs., he’s shown the versatility to contribute in multiple roles, which is something that will draw in evaluators despite a ho-hum 7.5 career sacks and just 11 tackles for loss.
A very good athlete with notable play strength, Walker’s a power rusher who has the lateral mobility to cause mayhem looping on stunts. He’s got the anchor to hold up at the point of attack and he’s got the juice and motor to make plays in pursuit. Walker has heavy hands and is a formidable bull rusher. He’s displayed hints of the savvy, quickness, and trigger to make plays in coverage. His ability to disengage from blocks and make tackles in space will be tested by a Wolverine offensive line that won the Joe Moore award.
Walker's range really surprised me. pic.twitter.com/f4rHhAjuaY— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 29, 2021
Cincinnati edge rusher Myjai Sanders
Joe described the Broncos’ pass rusher situation well earlier. The Broncos need an edge rusher or two in a BIG way. I’d argue it’s their biggest need on the team, even with the quarterback situation. You have to be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, that becomes even more critical. With Chubb’s contract deadline approaching and his unreliable health plus the play of Malik Reed, the Broncos are in a tough situation with this spot. Fortunately, it’s a pretty talented edge class in the 2022 Draft class.
Myjai Sanders wasn’t a highly sought-after recruit in the 2018 cycle. According to the 24/7 composite, Sanders was just the 56-ranked WDE in the country and the 151st-ranked player in the state of Florida. Yet, Cincinnati believed in what the saw and struck gold. Sanders wins primarily as a “finesse” rusher, using his quickness and bend around the EDGE to beat blockers.
Sack numbers might be down but @GoBearcatsFB EDGE Myjai Sanders (@MyjaiSanders) is still affecting the QB. Explosive & bendy rusher is drawing lots of extra attention after 7.0 sacks as junior. Could make big in Senior Bowl 1-on-1 pass rush drills.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/MLFoD3OF3r— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) October 30, 2021
Where Sanders struggles some is in the run game, which will give some Denver fans nightmares after some of the struggles from that group in 2021 against the run. I’ll be curious to see how often he lines up against Alabama LT Evan Neal. While Neal will give him fits in the run game, Sanders’s explosiveness and lateral ability might give Neal trouble enough for Sanders to cause some disruption. As far as complementary pass-rushers go, you could do much worse than Myjai Sanders. I don’t believe he’s the EDGE1 answer for Denver, however, but he’s still a great football player. I’d keep an eye on him for Denver’s picks in the second and third rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Alabama linebacker Henry To’o To’o
Eight different players have logged snaps at off ball backer for the Broncos this season, and most of them aren’t under contract in 2022. Barring injury it looks as if Baron Browning should lock down one starting spot for the foreseeable future, but only Paton truly knows what he has planned for the rest of the linebacker corps.
A former four star recruit from the 2019 recruiting cycle who transferred to Alabama before the 2021 season, To’o To’o quickly established himself as a starter and emotional leader for the Crimson Tide. At 6’2” and 230 lb., he’s more Kenny Young than Alexander Johnson, but he’s willing to stonewall a run at the point of attack and has enough sand in his pants to get the job done. He’s also a capable space player who should be able to match up with most tight ends and backs in the NFL,
Georgia running back James Cook
Finally, an offensive player on this list! When Joe and I have talked about Denver’s offseason needs, we keep mentioning how running back is a sneaky need for the Broncos. With Melvin Gordon presumably heading to free agency and no proven names behind Javonte Williams, a spot opens up for a new name to enter the RB room. With a potential new offense as well, the Broncos might need a back better equipped to handle zone runs than Javonte Williams as well.
I’ve written Cook’s name before in a previous mock draft I’ve done for MHR. A 4-year back at UGA, Cook’s been buried behind some of their standout backs in recent years, but he’s enjoying a nice breakout year now under Todd Monken. He’s quite the dynamic weapon out of the backfield in the receiving game. UGA loves to mix his skillset up, putting him out wide and running sweeps, putting him in motion to mix up looks and coverage, using him as a receiver out of the backfield, and then as a natural runner.
Let's get some pony personnel working with Javonte and Cook. pic.twitter.com/IqbBF2riBG— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 31, 2021
Cook is patient and quick, which is why I think a zone rushing attack would suit him well. I’d love for him to be a complementary weapon to Javonte Williams, much like how the Colts use Nyheim Hines for Jonathan Taylor or the Cowboys use Tony Pollard for Ezekiel Elliott.
Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner
With both Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan set to become free agents, the Broncos could soon be down to Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, and Michael Ojemudia at cornerback. The Broncos under Fangio play man coverage at one of the highest rates in the league, and if Gardner’s able to harness his physicality he could be a long-term running mate for Surtain. He’ll have his work cut out for him against Young and the Tide’s Jameson Williams.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder
Until the Broncos solve the quarterback conundrum, they’ll have trouble competing in the AFC West. While this year’s quarterback crop looks underwhelming compared to the 2021 draft class, it could be Denver’s best chance at a starting quarterback if George Paton can’t trade for Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.
A three star recruit in the 2017 recruiting cycle, Ridder’s been a starter for the Bearcats since his redshirt freshman season. He’s completed 62.3% of his passes in his career for 10,995 passing yards, 87 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions. He’s also rushed for an additional 2,175 yards and 28 touchdowns. He’s led the Bearcats to a 41-5 record over the last four years and now Cincinnati’s the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff.
Ridder is a 4.5 athlete with good arm talent and should be able to threaten NFL defenses with his arm and legs. The Bearcats use him in the quarterback run game and he displays the ability to consistently make the right decision, protect the ball, and make the most of what the defense gives him without exposing himself to unnecessary harm. When Ridder drops back to pass, he aims to use his legs to throw and displays solid poise and decision-making. He has an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the ‘22 QB class if he can guide his offense past Nick Saban. Ridder’s going to need to lean on his legs against an Alabama defense brimming with NFL talent. The Crimson Tide’s Will Anderson is going to be a constant terror, and the the secondary has the talent to capitalize on any misfires.
Desmond Ridder with a pretty impressive play on 3rd and 9 from the 2.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 28, 2021
Uses his eyes to hold the free safety for a tick, stands tall in the endzone, and gives his receiver a chance at the ball. pic.twitter.com/sUmxIlVigd
Michigan safety Daxton Hill
I know a safety might not be the most sought-after selection for Denver from fans, but there could be a sneaky need for one and Daxton Hill’s playstyle would fit in well with this Denver personnel (more on that later). The Broncos could move on from Kareem Jackson in the offseason. We’ve not really seen Jamar Johnson enough to know what he’s going to be, and the Broncos might slide Caden Sterns to fill in Kareem Jackson’s spot. Given how important the safety spot is for the defense, Daxton Hill could be an important player for the Broncos.
The most important thing Hill brings is the ability to play the nickel spot so effectively. Having the versatility to play deep, split-safety looks, and down in the nickel is intriguing, and Daxton Hill has that in spades. Hill is an excellent and well-coordinated athlete who can match up and cover receivers and tight ends in man coverage. He makes plays look so effortless with his speed.
Dax Hill plays like he's shot out of a cannon every rep. pic.twitter.com/p2IneRIsSy— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 31, 2021
I love the way Daxton Hill plays downfield as well. Despite his frame, he’s so physical against the run. Watching him fly downhill, shed a blocker, and blow up a play at or behind the line of scrimmage is a treat. Hill is shot out of a cannon on every rep and makes just as many plays going forward as he does moving back into coverage.
Alabama defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis
Denver has struggled repeatedly along the interior of their defensive line. Their run defense has been pretty poor the last couple of seasons, and it’s bitten them repeatedly this year. They’re giving up 4.4 yards a carry, are ranked 23rd in Defensive Rushing DVOA, are 27th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, 30th in stuff rate, 31st in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards over left tackle, and 32nd in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards over the middle.
Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris have flashed moments of disruption, but they are each tied at 55th(!) in run stops with just 13 apiece. Shamar Stephen and DeShawn Williams are both tied for 74th with 11, and Dre’Mont Jones is tied at 84th with 10. For comparison’s sake, D.J Jones, the No. 1 spot, has 34.
So, they either need a replacement or an infusion of new talent up front. Enter another player from perhaps the best defensive line pipeline of the last decade in Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis. They ask Mathis to two-gap a lot at Bama, but he still finds a way to flash downfield making tremendous plays in the backfield. His motor is constantly running too, which is a nice plus.
The motor on Phidarian Mathis! For his size, he can move pretty well in space. pic.twitter.com/Qmw1y42LKx— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) December 31, 2021
For his size at 320, the power he plays with was expected. However, he’s also got some snappy quickness for his size and his length pops off the tape too. I think he can fit in pretty much any scheme, whether the Broncos keep Fangio or not. He’ll likely be a second-round choice, so expect Denver to be looking around for him there.