On this week’s Cover2Broncos, Mile High Huddle’s Nick Kendell and I had a chance to discuss roster construction. It’s a topic I hold near and dear to my heart, as fantasy drafts in Madden is a huge part of how I became obsessed with football growing up. It was enlightening to see where Kendell saw things and also gave us a lens through which to analyze George Paton’s first offseason.
Due to time constraints we didn’t get a chance to really break down every single position, so I thought it’d be fun to wax poetic about it here. My hope is this provides a chance to see where I view things on a macro level and also why I may disagree with some of the decisions made by John Elway and George Paton: Sometimes I like the player brought in, but disagree with the process or opportunity cost it.
Tier 1 - Foundational pieces
You are fighting an uphill battle if there’s a hole at any of the following spots.
There are those who hold onto outliers such as the 2015 Broncos or the 2017 Jaguars as proof that quarterbacks aren’t the most important ingredient to a contender, but the fact of the matter is you can’t win consistently without a competent signal caller. No other position can make up for deficits elsewhere on the roster like a passer can.
QBs who have won a playoff game since Peyton Manning retired— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 10, 2021
I’m splitting hairs ranking the positions above because each is defined as much by their floor as their stars.
I consider a true game-changing wide receiver the most valuable among them because of how he impacts gameplans, opens up the passing offense, and makes the quarterback better. In an ideal world, this player offers inside/outside flexibility and is capable of serving as a go-to guy on obvious passing downs with the ability to threaten defenses deep downfield. Courtland Sutton’s 2019 offered promise that the Broncos have this player on the roster.
Of course, a quarterback won’t have a chance to find this receiver if he’s constantly on his back. Protection is vitally important and the OT1 has to be able to survive on an island when the rest of the line slides away from him. Ideally, this player protects the quarterback’s blindside.
The fact Courtland Sutton is returning from injury makes negotiations with the Broncos a question, so it's cool to see Paton was forthright here. pic.twitter.com/E8FKusYBbS— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 23, 2021
For a few years now there’s been a debate about what’s more important: pass rush or coverage. You need both to field a halfway decent defense in the modern NFL, so once again I found myself splitting hairs.
I’m not as concerned about where the top pass rusher lines up. Aaron Donald is a defensive lineman while Von Miller is an edge, and both have been key parts to dominant pass defenses. What’s vital is this player demands constant attention and serves as a thorn in the opposing pass protection while being a guy you can win with against the run.
A true shutdown corner who can play inside or outside is extremely valuable because of how much he can open up for a defensive playcaller. One way to maximize him is to isolate him on the second most dangerous receiving threat and roll the coverage away from him to blanket the WR1. Make Defense Great Again’s Coach Vass calls it the “Deion principle” because of Deion Sanders, and it’s something the Broncos used to do with Champ Bailey.
It feels too easy to overlook that the Broncos get Von Miller and Courtland Sutton back in 2021. pic.twitter.com/c5MggRYP6S— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 1, 2021
Tier 2 - Critical complimentary pieces
Each of the following should be able to take advantage of what the Tier 1 positions offer while making their lives easier.
The OT2 has to be a good pass blocker who can win against most matchups without help when five receivers are running routes. If this player is the right tackle, he’ll also need to be a good+ run blocker who can serve as a snowplow in short yardage situations.
The hope is the CB2 is a boundary player who is capable of manning up against opposing WR1s with some help, but if the top corner is an outside only player this corner needs to be capable of playing inside/outside. A recent example where this worked out is Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib on the No Fly Zone.
The things that make Patrick Surtain II so special are subtle. He's an eraser who can match up with all body types. pic.twitter.com/j2mxNrQCwB— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 30, 2021
I’m one again open to an edge or defensive lineman serving as the second pass rusher, as the most important part is he and the PR1 serve as anchor points for the front. This player needs to be able to win the majority of his individual matchups on passing downs since it will force the opponent’s protection into conflict: devote too many resources to PR1 and PR2 will eat you alive. This player also needs to be at least solid against the run.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to see a safety so high up this list, but having a defensive back who can patrol the middle third of the field makes everyone better. This player needs the range to play out of single high structures and should be able to mirror and match the majority of assignments that come his way. As the last line of defense, this player also needs to be able to work his way free from blocks with some regularity so he can reliably stop the ball.
Justin Simmons picks off Justin Herbert! pic.twitter.com/DD2uFDSOuW— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 1, 2020
This is the guy who takes advantage of all the attention WR1 receives, while also filling in any gaps where WR1 isn’t particularly strong. I’m completely open to this player being a boundary receiver, a slot, or a tight end, but at the moment there are very few tight ends in the NFL who are so good as to actually qualify as weapons. In a perfect world both Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant reach this level.
You didn't worry about Jerry Jeudy, right? pic.twitter.com/MHbZuu7PuL— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 4, 2021
Tier 3 - System fits at valuable spots
Ranking the positions in this tier really comes down to fit, what they offer, and what is required after taking into account what the Tier 1 and 2 players provide.
This player ought to be able to handle stunts and also hold his own against the majority of individual matchups in pass protection. Ideally he’s a good+ run blocker, with strengths that fit the core rushing concepts his team utilizes.
Nickel is base in today’s NFL and this player needs to be able to log snaps like a starter while filling in the gaps for the two corners ahead of him on the depth chart. If he’s the slot corner, he needs to be quick enough to handle option routes while being a solid+ run defender because he’ll be closer to the action. If he’s a boundary player, he needs to be able to handle individual matchups deep downfield when opponents dial up shot plays.
13. Weapon 3
If the first two pass catchers are receivers, I prefer a tight end for this spot because of the stress it puts on the second and third level defenders from a matchup perspective.
If the Broncos bring on Aaron Rodgers, I expect Noah Fant to make the Pro Bowl. pic.twitter.com/J5HGdIUiiY— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 6, 2021
The third defensive front player needs to compliment the PR1 and PR2 while being a solid+ pass rusher himself. If he’s an edge defender, he needs to be at least solid as a force player so as to prevent issues in run defense. If he’s an interior defensive lineman, he needs to be able to withstand and hopefully defeat most double teams.
Shelby Harris with a nice swim and Tom Brady whines to the zebras. pic.twitter.com/PpfRWvxnVx— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 27, 2020
If the iOL1 isn’t a center, my hope is this player is.
Rooting for Cush. He's got the right approach https://t.co/xHR8m7pc67— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 8, 2021
While this player is technically the strong safety the hope is he’s able to bring a similar skillset to the table as the FS, even if he’s not quite as capable in coverage. While we can debate Vic Fangio as a head coach, I think his defensive system is ahead of the curve and believe smart teams will begin to incorporate more two high coverage shells going forward. That means both safeties need to be able to play in space.
The return of Kareem Jackson makes it pretty clear the Broncos' 2021 roster is just a quarterback away.— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 23, 2021
Tier 4 - Filling in the gaps
These positions support the tiers ahead of them and often go unnoticed to casual observers.
17. Weapon 4
If the offense is still missing a tight end, then this player ought to be one. Otherwise this player should fill whatever pass catching role the base personnel still needs. This player should compliment the strengths of the quarterback be capable of maximizing more limited opportunities as he’s a tertiary option on most passing concepts.
I suspect it depends on the QB.— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 3, 2021
Hamler is going to have a much harder time producing with Lock. https://t.co/RmkhIhSJzd
Whether this player is the Mike or Will isn’t as important as the player’s ability to play in coverage. He needs to have the savvy, range, and reactive athleticism to contest passes into the middle of the field as well as a reliable tackler.
One area where I could see Alexander Johnson making a big jump as he grows from the experiences of last year is his anticipation. When he reads the play design and has an opportunity to attack. #Broncos Country should hope for more of this: pic.twitter.com/nl2RCjsd6l— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 31, 2020
This player needs to address the current hole in the front four, whether it be at edge or on the defensive line. He should be at least a solid pass rusher and adequate run defender.
Dre'Mont Jones brings down Bridgewater. pic.twitter.com/iXysBLpSxx— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 13, 2020
The offensive line is often defined by its weakest member, which makes it important this player is a solid pass protector overall, even if he’s below average on running downs.
Graham Glasgow looks like a potential cap casualty in 2022. https://t.co/IWJUeVUxMq— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 1, 2021
With the way the NFL is becoming even more pass driven, the lines are blurred for what this position is. So long as the defensive coordinator’s capable of playing out of dime personnel as base I’m completely open with this being a sixth DB or linebacker. The emphasis is on being a solid+ pass defender, reliable tackler, and adequate run defender overall.
Josey Jewell with a nice play. pic.twitter.com/VnmupcKYLN— Joe (R-E-L-A-X) Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 27, 2020
Tier 5 - Ancillary
I’m not someone who believes running backs don’t matter, but the vast majority of their rushing production is tied to their environment and supporting cast while they also tend to be the least valuable receiving option.
As is the case throughout my list, a backs ability to contribute on passing downs is at the forefront of my mind. He needs to be able to block and serve as a reliable outlet receiver. In an ideal world he’s also a mismatch for second level defenders on choice routes out of the backfield and capable of playing a small handful of snaps running receiver routes, but the list of backs who can do so at a high level is extremely short.
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“In terms of the trade talks, I think anytime you play professional sports, there’s always a possibility of something happening, right? I think that’s just the reality. I think that there’s a lot of teams out there that people were saying that I was going to, or would go, that I requested a trade. I did not request a trade. I’ve always wanted to play here. The reality is I think calls were getting thrown around and this and that, and I mean that’s just a reality. But I think at the end of the day the real reality is I’m here and I’m here to win. I’m here to win at all.”