Unless you’re related to Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock, you probably realize the Broncos are still looking for their next franchise quarterback. Assuming George Paton doesn’t go out and execute a trade for Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Deshaun Watson, his best chance at finding a franchise passer comes in the draft. Unfortunately, this upcoming class looks like the weakest QB crop in years.
To find a franchise passer, the Paton may need to practice patience. 2023 looks as though it will have at least two potential franchise quarterbacks in the Ohio State Buckeyes’ C.J. Stroud and the Alabama Crimson Tide’s Bryce Young. Odds are both will wind up top ten picks if they continue to progress as they have throughout this season, so the Broncos may need to get creative in order to have a shot at either. One potential road forward is to do what it takes to collect extra ‘23 picks for trade ammunition.
If Paton can accept yet another season caught in purgatory as Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert chase Super Bowls out of the AFC West, it could set the stage for long-term success in Denver. As you’ll see in the mock below, it also doesn’t have to damn the ‘22 class.
What follows is my attempt at setting the table for a Young or Stroud chase in 2023. Keep in mind this is a very early scenario. Some of the underclassmen below could still return to school instead of declare for the draft. That’s okay, as the point is to explore possibilities and hopefully provide a few names to keep an eye on this upcoming bowl season. One last thing, I used The Draft Network’s Mock Machine for this scenario.
If there isn't a true franchise quarterback prospect in the 2022 draft, the Broncos shouldn't waste a first round pick on a passer.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 5, 2021
T.45 LB, Brandon Smith, Penn State.
Broncos acquire 45, 102, 242, and 2023 first round picks. Saints acquire 17 and 204.
This pick isn’t an indictment of Baron Browning, who’s exceeded the expectations I had for his rookie season after he missed all of OTAs and most of training camp. Instead, it’s about giving him a partner for the long haul. With Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Kenny Young all set to become free agents after 2021 comes to a close and a disappointing second season from Justin Strnad, there could be a rather pressing need for a starting caliber off ball linebacker. Smith has the goods to be exactly that.
A former five-star recruit who made Bruce Feldman’s Freaks list last August, the 6’3”, 241 lb. Smith looks as if he’ll be yet another Nittany Lion to blow scouts away with his testing numbers. He reportedly ran a 4.38 40-yard dash when he was coming out of high school and supplemented it with very good explosive numbers. Combine his athleticism with a background that includes six blocked kicks in high school, extensive playing time covering the slot, and 81 tackles this last season, and Paton is surely interested. Smith has the “juice” the first year general manager has made an effort to add to the defense.
Penn State LB Brandon Smith (@brand0n_smith12) is a special athlete for the linebacker position. He is going to be able to cover TEs and RBs at the next level. Comes downhill hard and is a really fast player. All the tools NFL teams covet in an LB. #NFLDraft #DraftTwitter pic.twitter.com/3fLRp6CgS6— Jack Borowsky (@Jack_Borowsky) March 17, 2021
55. OT, Daniel Faalele, Minnesota
There’s a distinct possibility Vic Fangio and the current coaching staff are gone after 2021 comes to an end, but it made more sense to assume relative stability in Denver for this mock. Assuming Mike Munchak returns as the Broncos’ offensive line coach, it makes too much sense to finally find him a promising developmental right tackle prospect. Few in this upcoming class offer the raw physical tools Faalele does. The former Australian rugby player stands 6’9”, comes in a few gas station burritos short of 400 lbs., and made Feldman’s Freaks list last August because he looks like a quick footed mountain with anvils for hands.
Faalele doesn’t come without questions, mind you. He was such an athletic marvel that 20+ teams offered him scholarships before he ever played a snap of football, and so he’ll enter the NFL with only two seasons of starting experience. There remains rough edges in the tackle’s game that will need to be ironed out, so a proven teacher could be necessary to unlock his potential.
#78 RT Daniel Faalele back & better than ever coming off an opt out year— Brandon Coyle / NFL Draft (@CoyleNfl) September 29, 2021
6’8 380 lbs, Faalele knows he needs to cut down Harrison’s angle and attacks him quickly off snap
Footwork has improved, still learning when to time his punches, NFL teams will be clamoring for this dude pic.twitter.com/hv0uWoB608
58. ED, Jermaine Johnson, FSU
If quarterback looks like one of the weakest position group in the upcoming draft, edge looks like the strongest. Such depth should provide Paton an opportunity to grab and groom an edge rusher who could provide flexibility with the upcoming contract questions looming over Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed in 2023. One such developmental prospect is Jeremaine Johnson, who you may remember from the third season of the Netflix series “Last Chance U.”
The 6’5”, 262 lb. Johnson surely took the road less traveled to become a draft prospect. A 1.9 GPA out of high school kept him off the blue bloods’ radar, so he went and dominated at Independence Community College to become a top rated JUCO recruit. He was so good that teams across the country lined up for his services, and he ultimately chose the Georgia Bulldogs from among 20+ offers. He spent two years in the SEC before transferring to Florida State to receive more playing time, and got it this year with more than 700 snaps.
79. CB, Kyler Gordon, Washington
Keep a few of those corner jokes in the back pocket because the Broncos look prime to chase another DB or two this offseason. Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Nate Hairston, and Mike Ford are all free agents, leaving the secondary woefully undermanned in a nickel league. While Paton could elect to retain any one of the three, this upcoming class looks like it will offer a lot of talent in the secondary. Drafting another rookie would give the Broncos a young running mate to pair with Patrick Surtain II for the long-term.
On paper, Kyler Gordon fits everything the Broncos look like they want in corner prospects. He’s a two-time member of Feldman’s Freaks list and his background in dance, kung fu, and ballet hints at the kind of athlete he is. At 6’2” and 200 lbs., he has the toolkit to blossom into a lockdown press corner and the length to shut opponents down at the line of scrimmage. He was also the Husky’s Special Teams MVP in both 2019 and 2020, and the Draft Network’s Drae Harris called his kick coverage skills “rare,” which is high praise from the 6-year NFL scout.
“In the kicking game, he is rare with his kick coverage ability. He makes plays on kicking units, is nearly unblock-able as a gunner due to his good speed and holds up well as a vice.”
T.87. S, Lewis Cine, Georgia
If you take qualms with this pick on principle, I completely get it. Justin Simmons is the Broncos’ best player and there’s no sign of him slowing down barring a catastrophe, and Paton only just took Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson in the fifth round of the 2021 draft. But when you consider the way Fangio’s defense depends on top tier safety play, the way DBs typically contribute to special teams, and Kareem Jackson’s pending departure, it would make sense to grab a safety if he also happened to be the best player remaining on the board. Cine had a few gaffes in the Bulldogs’ loss to the Crimson Tide, but he’s definitely has the look of a strong safety prospect.
Infamous for the 2020 targeting call that knocked him out of the Bulldogs’ win over the Florida Gators, Cine is a violent hitter who should be an early contributor to the kick coverage units. A 25-game starter in a Kirby Smart, Cine displays the savvy and mental processing to learn and thrive in a Fangio system that puts a lot on the safety’s plate.
Kyle Pitts and Lewis Cine involved in a scary collision. Mercy. pic.twitter.com/s0T3wf2PMF— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 7, 2020
T.102. OT, Max Mitchell, Louisiana
Yes, another tackle. If you haven’t noticed, Teddy Bridgewater relied on Denver’s third and fourth string bookends against Joey Bosa and the Los Angeles Chargers. With both Bobby Massie and Cam Fleming free agents after the conclusion of the 2021 season and Calvin Anderson a restricted free agent, it makes sense to grab talent to groom under Mike Munchak. Mitchell is a player who caught my eye thanks to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler.
One of my favorite under-the-radar OT prospects this year is #Louisiana RT Max Mitchell.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) October 22, 2021
He’s athletic, aggressive and does a great job with his hand exchange. He has NFL starting potential - keep him on the radar. pic.twitter.com/Lb6wprS5R5
One thing that helps justify Mitchell after drafting Faale is the third rounder’s potential as a swing tackle. He played left tackle as a true freshman and beat out a senior to start at the position his sophomore season. It’s also worth noting that he’s logged practice reps at every spot on the line outside of center, something that could come in handy when teams usually suit up eight or maybe nine lineman for gamedays.
Watching some Senior Bowl OT's today. Louisiana's Max Mitchell has the size and athleticism to develop. Also, played left tackle and right tackle in this game (and didn't surrender a pressure).— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 29, 2021
Some room to improve, but I like his traits pic.twitter.com/0q7o56bA6I
126. TE, Trey McBride, Colorado State
Smart teams draft with an eye on tomorrow, and there are few spots where that matters more than tight end. Noah Fant is quickly approaching the end of his rookie contract and both Andrew Beck and Eric Saubert are free agents after the season comes to an end, so there’s definitely room to add a developmental prospect. It doesn’t look like there’s a better one in the ‘22 class than the 6’4”, 260 lb. Ram from Fort Morgan.
McBride is a good athlete who offers versatility to contribute on special teams, play inline, flexed out, and fullback. There’s a decent chance he isn’t available this far down the board. In fact, ESPN’s Todd McShay believes he’ll go in the first round. The Senior Bowl’s Jim Nagy called him “the best draft prospect nobody is talking about,” and invited McBride to Mobile, so he could certainly give his stock a big boost by April.
159. RB, Zonovan Knight, NC State
Melvin Gordon is a free agent after this season and won’t be back unless he takes a significant pay cut. Knight was the Wolfpack’s leading rusher the last three seasons and also brings juice to special teams. In 2020, he averaged 27 yards per kick return and returned one for a touchdown, and he was only getting started. He had 16 returns for 505 yards and two touchdowns this year, which suggests he could be a reliable contributor to special teams in the NFL.
Wait people are really still kicking to him? bam https://t.co/Sb1KDR5F8c— Nyheim Hines (@TheNyNy7) November 20, 2021
235. CB, Storm Duck, North Carolina
Arguably the best name in football, the 6’, 205 lb. Duck will probably go higher than this in April unless there’s concerns around the undisclosed lower body injury that cost him 10 games in 2020. For those who have been banking on the orange and blue for awhile, you may find it interesting that Duck’s cornerback coach is former Bronco Dre Bly.
T. 242. QB, Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
In this mock scenario, Paton is either retaining Teddy Bridgewater or chasing a different short-term answer at quarterback, but there’s uncertainty hanging over every member of the Broncos’ current quarterback room. Despite a four-pick performance against the Pitt Panthers in the ACC championship game, Sam Hartman could make sense as the replacement for Brett Rypien. The son of a coach is the Demon Deacon who pushed Kendall Hinton to receiver back in 2018.
Disaster class by Sam Hartman tonight. pic.twitter.com/ZLAFBGBgDJ— Unnecessary Roughness (@UnnecRoughness) December 5, 2021
What grade would you give this draft?
This poll is closed
A - Setting the table to win from now on.
B - So far, so good. Need to find QB1.
C - I’m ambivalent.
D - I’ve got beef.
F - You’re fired.