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Broncos 2021 First Round NFL Draft Board

Who should George Paton consider in the first round?

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No team can succeed for long in the NFL if they do not lean on the draft as a foundation for their roster. It’s the lifeblood of every franchise. The human element also makes it a bit of a crapshoot. NFL scouts can spend 12 months on the road only to see a blown Achilles on the first day of camp ruin their hopes. Or a franchise can draft who they see as a franchise cornerstone only to watch a 21-year-old’s love of the game evaporate upon receiving his signing bonus.

The NFL Draft is an inexact science.

I see my role in the process as something akin to an intermediary. With the Broncos’ roster and coaching staff in mind, I spend months digging through reports, articles, podcasts, and whatever film I can scrounge up. With that information, I create what you’re reading now to hopefully provide you with list prospects that I believe will fit on the Broncos.

In the name of transparency, I feel it necessary to share whom I consider trusted sources for evaluations as well as other information regarding draft prospects.

There’s no question this is a hopelessly subjective exercise. To create space for discussion where possible, I’ve ranked prospects by tiers and also stacked a vertical board. As part of each breakdown, I made a point to lay out how I see a player fitting the current roster during his rookie season as well as what I think is the most optimistic three-year outcome.

History has emphatically shown that there will be players who fail to live up to expectations on this side of the draft. I’ve made a point to share any potential risks associated with each prospect. To be clear, just because I list an issue as a risk does not mean I am condemning a player, it’s merely something I consider noteworthy information that I would be aware of as I consider him for the Broncos. Obviously every other NFL team has access to medical records, interviews, and background information that I do not, so they may not see these risks the same way I do.

Without additional information, lists like this can only go so far, and yet I hope that it better informs you on how individual prospects could help the Broncos’ roster.

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

These are the players I’d move from 9 for in the NFL Draft. Fair warning, they are all quarterbacks. Barring some sort of trade to one becoming available, I would not make a move until draft day.

1. Trevor Lawrence - QB1

Fit: Day one starting quarterback and heavy favorite for OROY.

How far I’d move: The only way you get Lawrence is by moving to one.

Risk: Clemson offense dialed up plenty of easy completions via screens, RPOs, and he’ll need to improve at reading the field while also slowing down his process. Played for dominant power in a weak conference. Left shoulder surgery in February.

3-Year Ceiling: Best quarterback in the NFL with the ability to carry an offense on his back, the arm talent to attack every level of the defense, and the deep accuracy to create reliably favorable 50-50 situations for his targets. Has the mobility to present as a consistent red zone threat.

2. Justin Fields - QB2

Fit: Immediate competition for QB1 who could elevate his offense from day one with his combination of mobility, accuracy, and never-say-die playstyle.

How far I’d move: If he makes it past the 49ers at three, I’m calling Terry Fontenot at four.

Risk: Epileptic. Needs to improve at throwing with anticipation which is not an easy task. Prone to “hero ball” when pressured and will hang onto the ball too long trying to make something happen. Played for dominant power in a weak conference.

3-Year Ceiling: Best quarterback in the NFL with the arm talent and ball placement to shred every level of the defense with the mobility to present as a consistent redzone threat and the poise under pressure to erase mistakes in the protection.

3. Zach Wilson - QB3

Fit: Immediate competition for QB1 who could elevate his offense from day one with his ability to make magic happen after plays break down.

How far I’d move: If he makes it past the Jets at two, I’m double checking with the medical staff as I call Terry Fontenot about a move to four.

Risk: One year wonder. Before 2020 he wasn’t on the NFL’s radar as a potential starting QB. Labrum surgery on right shoulder in January, 2019. Broken right thumb in September, 2019. Takes medication for ADHD. Narrow frame compounds durability concerns. Has a tendency to bail on play design to make plays out of structure. Gunslinger mentality could lead to turnover issues, as he’ll pass up easy completions for big plays. Faced a creampuff schedule in 2020 and most opponents were outclassed top to bottom, which hid his issues against pressure.

3-Year Ceiling: Franchise passer on a Hall of Fame track with a gunslinger attitude that rivals Mahomes.

4. Trey Lance - QB4

Fit: Immediate competition for QB1 who could have a transformational impact on the offense from day one with his ability to rip bombs and beat a defense with his legs.

How far I’d move: It depends on the three players above. If all three are gone, I’m trying to get up to secure Lance. If they aren’t, I’m willing to play the waiting game.

Risk: One year wonder who has played one game since 2019. 17 starts with only 318 pass attempts in college and 113 attempts in high school. Threw all of 22 passes with his team trailing during college career. Mechanics need refinement to deliver ball with consistent accuracy. See-it-throw-it passer who needs to improve at throwing with anticipation. Rugged running style begs durability questions. NDSU offense didn’t put a lot of full field reads on his plate.

3-Year Ceiling: Franchise passer on a Hall of Fame track who combines elite arm strength with the mobility and power to present as a consistent threat on the ground.

Tier 2: True BPA

I don’t care what position they play or if the Broncos currently have a starter in place. At the end of the day, your team has a chance to be a lot better if these prospects are on it.

5. Penei Sewell - OT1

Fit: Immediate competition for a starting job in a “best of 5” situation and could push Graham Glasgow, Lloyd Cushenberry, or Ja’Wuan James out of the lineup.

Risk: Torn labrum in left shoulder in 2017. Right ankle sprain knocked him out of six games in 2018 and required surgery. Missed first drives of Arizona game in 2019 because he was late to a team meeting. No tape since 2019. Arm length falls under 50th percentile for OTs. Rarely exposed to top edge players who could string moves together.

3-Year Ceiling: Elite tackle on a Hall of Fame track who is dominant at the point of attack and has the mobility to wreak havoc on the second and third level while also capable of erasing rushers in pass pro.

6. Kyle Pitts - TE1

Fit: Joker who presents as a mismatch for cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers.

Risk: Creates a logjam at TE/WR with so many young pass catchers on roster.

3-Year Ceiling: Best tight end in football and go-to guy who is a true mismatch weapon with his ability to play across alignments.

Tier 3: The Blue Chip prospects

Barring a Tier 1 or 2 prospect falling, these are the players I hope the Broncos consider at 9.

7. Patrick Surtain II - CB1

Fit: Immediate competition for CB snaps. Potential CB4 who can fill in wherever with short notice early in his career.

Risk: Limited on ball production. More smooth than sudden. Skipped 3-Cone and Short Shuttle at Pro Day so concerns about COD remain unsolved.

3-Year Ceiling: Elite eraser on the outside who has the length and physicality to win along the line of scrimmage and at the catch point against all types of assignments.

8. Rashawn Slater - OT2

Fit: Immediate competition for a starting job in a “best of 5” situation.

Risk: No tape since 2019. Missed one game to injury in 2019. May take time to adjust to stunts in league. Is more refined than powerful, which could show up when asked to down block on gap scheme runs or move someone at POA. Length and strength has given him issues in pass pro (A.J. Epenesa). Arm length falls under 50th percentile for OTs. Ceiling could be higher inside.

3-Year Ceiling: Pro Bowl tackle who eats at the second level with the reactive athleticism to erase most edge threats.

Tier 4: Best remaining players at positions of relative need

Each of the following prospects brings something that holds them out of the tier above, but make plenty of sense for the Broncos in the first round of the NFL draft.

9. Teven Jenkins - OT3

Fit: Immediate competition for a starting job with previous experience at everything but center.

Risk: Right hip injury in 2020. Opted out after seven games in 2020. Will need to improve and maintain consistent footwork to survive in the league and issues against speed and length could force a move to guard. Arm length falls under 50th percentile for OTs.

3-Year Ceiling: Pro Bowl right tackle with the sheer power and appetite for violence to give running game an identity. Able to match up against most edge threats in pass pro.

10. Azeez Ojulari - ED1

Fit: ED4 who can contribute meaningful spot snaps against the run or pass with his versatility, burst, and play strength.

Risk: Tested as a good, but not elite athlete with a poor 3-cone, Vertical and Broad Jump. Tore ACL in right knee November of 2017. Over reliant on speed rush and needs to add variety to pass rusher repertoire.

3-Year Ceiling: Starting Edge rusher who can bend the arc, drop in coverage, eat pulling lineman, and work on stunts.

11. Christian Darrisaw - OT4

Fit: Immediate competition for a starting job at right tackle or guard in a “best of 5” situation.

Risk: Missed one game in 2020 to left knee sprain. Plays down to competition and general effort questions. Over-reliance on upper body. Quick twitch speed rushers in the league could really test him. Stunts could prove problematic for him early in career. Needs to improve use of hands. Isn’t a natural finisher.

3-Year Ceiling: Pro Bowl right tackle with the ability to win on down blocks or leading out in space. Has the feet and power to match up with the majority of edge rushers.

12. Kwity Paye - ED2

Fit: ED4 who can contribute meaningful snaps against the run and pass with his twitched up power.

Risk: Missed two games due to groin injury. Looks like a much better fit as a 4-3 end than a Fangio backer. Rushed out of a 3-point stance 92% of the time at Michigan Football. Young and needs to continue to add to and refine his pass rush plan. Wins more often inside than outside. Ability to read during a drop, anticipate, and play around the catch point is a projection.

3-Year Ceiling: All Pro edge rusher who can dominate the run game and win with speed or power while also creating mismatches against most guards.

13. Trevon Moehrig - S1

Fit: Backup safety with versatility to see field in nickel or dime personnel as well as special teams.

Risk: Concerns about COD unanswered, as he skipped broad jump, 3-cone, and short shuttle drills at Pro Day. Tested poorly in vertical jump. Solid play strength and can struggle to disengage from blocks.

3-Year Ceiling: All Pro safety and perfect scheme fit for the Fangio defense.

14. Jaycee Horn - CB2

Fit: Immediate competition for CB snaps. Potentially CB4 who can fill in wherever with short notice early in his career.

Risk: Missed two games due to an ankle injury in 2018. Grabby and flagged 10 times during collegiate career, including five in 2020. Off-coverage questions. Skipped 3-Cone and Short Shuttle at Pro Day so concerns about COD remains unanswered. Needs to improve technique in run defense.

3-Year Ceiling: Elite press corner with an “alpha” mentality to set a tone on defense, the length and physicality to match up with top tier X receivers, as well as the ball skills to punish throws in his direction.

15. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - LB1

Fit: Immediate competition for linebacker snaps in nickel and dime personnel as well as a potential meaningful contributor to special teams.

Risk: Broken foot in 2018. Issues at POA may limit snaps/effectiveness in base 3-4 personnel and short yardage. Needs to maintain consistent form on tackles.

3-Year Ceiling: Modern hybrid that will make the defense faster with his ability to patrol the middle of the field, match up against slot receivers, and burn rubber off the edge in pressure packages.

16. Greg Newsome - CB3

Fit: Immediate competition for CB snaps. Potential CB4 who can fill in wherever with short notice early in his career.

Risk: Missed 13 games across his first three seasons before a mostly healthy 2020, missing the second half of the Big Ten title game. Too physical in coverage and will draw penalties if it isn’t cleaned up. Adequate play strength hurts ability to shed blocks or prevent leakage as a tackler.

3-Year Ceiling: Corner you can win with who can win on the ball or off with the versatility and length to thrive across coverage calls.

17. Mac Jones - QB5

Fit: Immediate competition for QB1 with the ball placement and anticipation to maximize supporting cast.

Risk: Arrested for driving under the influence with a fake ID in 2017. Adequate physical talent creates small margin for error. Struggles to create outside of structure. Dependency on protection (the pocket passer to really “hit” is Matt Ryan). 17 starts surrounded by a historically dominant supporting cast.

3-Year Ceiling: Starting quarterback you can win with due to very good ball placement, anticipation, poise under pressure, and decision-making.

Tier 5: Day 1 talent

It’s impossible to deny that these prospects look like first round players, but they bring some combination of risk, downside, or fit issue that holds them out of the tiers above. For the sake of transparency, I chose to rank them as I see them for their position groups, but there are some major questions that need answering before I would consider drafting them.

Ja’Marr Chase - WR1

Fit: Immediate competition for receiver snaps with the physicality and ball skills to win on jump balls and generate yards after the catch.

Risk: Partial PCL tear in right knee in 2017. No tape since 2019 and best season came in historic offense with Joe Burrow, Joe Brady, and a very good supporting cast. Bully ball WR who stands 6’ and weighs 201 lbs. 10 career drops. Will need to improve at beating press and creating separation. Broncos currently have very crowded WR room.

3-Year Ceiling: All Pro receiver on Hall of Fame track with inside/outside versatility who can “big boy” corners.

Jaylen Waddle - WR2

Fit: Immediate competition for receiver snaps with the short area mobility and deep speed to influence box counts. Dangerous return man.

Risk: Fractured right ankle in 2020. Small WR at 5’9, 180 lbs. and probably isn’t getting any bigger. Needs to cut down on body catches. Career spent in historic situation with a scheme that made his life easier while being consistently surrounded by elite supporting cast. Broncos currently have very crowded WR room.

3-Year Ceiling: Tyreek Hill without the off-field concerns.

DeVonta Smith - WR3

Fit: Immediate competition for receiver snaps who can play at the X, Z, or slot in short order.

Risk: Suffered dislocated right index finger in January, 2021 that required surgery. Ejected from game in 2019. Suspended for beginning of game in 2019. Extremely light for the position, at 170 lbs. he’s in the 2nd percentile for baseline measurables for the position. Did not run a single drill at Pro Day and tape shows a good, but not elite athlete. Play strength is adequate at best. Career spent in historic situation with a scheme that made his life easier while being consistently surrounded by elite supporting cast. Broncos currently have very crowded WR room.

3-Year Ceiling: All Pro receiver on Hall of Fame track who wins with route running, ball skills, and the kind of savvy that can’t be taught.

Caleb Farley - CB4

Fit: If healthy, immediate competition for CB snaps. Potential CB4 who can fill in wherever with short notice early in his career.

Risk: Did not work prior to Draft because of microdiscectomy and status for camp is unknown. Missed final two games in 2019 due to back injury. Tore ACL in 2017. Only two seasons at CB and most recent tape is from 2019. Can become too physical in coverage and is still a work in progress at finer points such at anticipation and route recognition.

3-Year Ceiling: Elite CB1 who can win on or off the line of scrimmage with inside/outside flexibility. Has the size, athleticism, and ball skills to match up with any assignment.

Jaelan Phillips - ED3

Fit: ED4 who can contribute meaningful snaps against the run or pass with his combination of power, tools, and quickness.

Risk: Injured left wrist and both ankles in 2018. Three diagnosed concussions during collegiate career and was not cleared to return from UCLA doctors. Music > Football? Concussion history may precede medical retirement at UCLA. Vast majority of his snaps came against right tackles. Notably low pressure percentage compared to other top 2021 edge prospects. Hasn’t unlocked the tools as a pass rusher yet.

3-Year Ceiling: All Pro edge rusher who has the savvy to drop in space, the strength to be a very good force player, and the juice to win rushing the passer.

Alijah Vera-Tucker - iOL1

Fit: Immediate competition for interior OL snaps in “Best of 5” situation, can play tackle in a pinch.

Risk: 19 career starts with 13 at guard, 6 at tackle. Hamstring injury near end of 2020 season would have prevented play in bowl game if USC didn’t opt out. 32 1/8” arms fall under Thorn threshold for OTs. Adequate snap timing and power at POA. Hand placement needs to become more consistent. Good+ edge rushers rushing from wide will expose his snap timing and stress set points if he’s a tackle. Could be overwhelmed vs. size and strength inside. Best as zone blocker and Broncos run heavy gap.

3-Year Ceiling: Guard you can win with thanks to his savvy, foot quickness, body control, and hands.

Micah Parsons - LB2

Fit: Immediate competition for LB snaps with the skillset to become an impact player on blitzes.

Risk: Was named in hazing allegations by a former teammate that simply can’t be vetted properly, which casts doubt about character and makes his fit into a locker room a large question. Transferred high schools and accused of inciting a riot. Missed a start in 2019 due to “behavioral issue.” Most recent tape is from 2019. 13 starts in his career after changing positions when he arrived at Penn State. Relative inexperience shows in mental processing. Still a work in progress in terms of coverage and needs to improve at anticipation, angles, and ball skills.

3-Year Ceiling: Elite 4-down linebacker who can do it all: corner on rushes, blow up blocking backs, fill against the run, and terrorize opponents across the middle of the field.