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4 simple rules the Broncos should follow to “win” the 2022 NFL Draft

NFL Draft dos and don’ts to start the Russell Wilson era off right.

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Now that the Denver Broncos are through the exciting part of free agency, eyes have moved to the NFL Draft. Thanks to the Russell Wilson trade, George Paton is headed into his second draft as general manager without a selection in the first 63 picks. He also has a franchise quarterback. Those two factors should impact his strategy this season.

Last year around this time I shared my four core philosophies that I believe smart teams follow in the draft. It seems like a perfect opportunity to dust those off and offer some new thoughts based around the reality Denver finds themselves in at the beginning of the Wilson era.

Rule #1: Every pick is a lottery ticket.

For years, NFL teams, media, and fans overrated draft picks, and it makes sense. The entire NFL landscape buys in on the draft as a sort of marketplace for hope. Theoretically, if a general manager is simply better than the rest of the league at identifying talent, he can acquire star talent for relatively cheap rookie contracts. Seems simple enough, right?

The problem centers on how picks are valued. History continues to show that draft return is mostly random. Two summers ago Benjamin Ellinger wrote a piece about draft efficiency from 2010-2019 over at Football Outsiders. I can’t recommend it enough, but this is the long and short of it:

What this all tells me is that drafting well is a lot of luck, mixed with some skill and an extra layer of a random “jackpot” on top (the one or two later-round picks each draft that become unexpected Hall of Famers).

In February of 2021, Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske dug into historical draft return from 2006-2020 and came to a similar conclusion:

It’s generally notable that draft success doesn’t solely describe the performance of the scouting department. It is surely confounded by the coaching staff’s ability to develop young players and the synergy between the scouting department and coaching staff, as identifying scheme fits is just as important as identifying pure talent.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any differences between teams and their scouting departments when evaluating draft prospects. It does mean that the statistical evidence for the existence of significant differences is fragile, to say the least.

In addition to the studies above, Richard Thaler also found evidence that draft picks in and of themselves are overrated. The NFL Draft is a crapshoot because the human element, player development, and injury risk inherent in the game of football makes it impossible to accurately predict what will happen to each prospect over the course of many years. There’s no secret sauce that completely eliminates this reality from the process, even if fans and media often subscribe to the belief that certain GMs and teams are better at it than others.

What may surprise you about the data above is that NFL general managers are well aware of it and have been for at least a decade. After factoring in the differences between rounds and how they influence a return, as well as undrafted free agents, Bill Polian considered a .640 “hit rate” on draft picks good in 2011:

“I think you have to divide it into top 12 and bottom 20. If you’re in the top 12, it ought to be in the .640 range. That’s about 4.5 guys on average per year out of the seven. You measure that at the end of three years and what you are measuring is whether or not those guys become winning players, guys that contribute to wins. Bottom 20 is .571, that’s four out of seven…

“You either make it or you don’t. We’ve been above the .570 mark when you count collegiate free agents like Melvin Bullitt who come in and play, and they count. So we’ve been above the .570 mark. This past year we could get close to the .640 mark drafting 31st but it’s early.” [See box for my breakdown.]

A draft pick is valuable because of the possibility is represents and no pick is a guarantee. NFL teams seem to be catching on to this, which makes this offseason fascinating. We’ll probably never know how much the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl win influenced things, but their approach to first round picks seems to have spread around the league. Eight teams have traded out of the first round of the 2022 draft, including the Broncos.

What remains to be seen is how those teams approach the rest of their picks. Les Snead’s “%@#% them picks” shirt has become a bit of a meme, but the Ram’s general manager also makes a point to play out the compensatory pick process so L.A. constantly has extra picks to support their stars with cheap depth across the roster. This is something the Broncos have not done under George Paton to date.

Rule #2: Russell Wilson means Paton shouldn’t overdraft a backup QB.

The NFL is a passing league and no single player can impact an offense like a franchise quarterback. Because of the way rookie contracts are set up to provide cost control for the first four years of a player’s career, finding an elite quarterback provides an enormous advantage towards roster building. 17 quarterbacks average more than $20 million a year, including Russell Wilson, who currently counts for $24 million against the Broncos’ cap. Meanwhile last year’s first overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, will count for just $8,362,156 against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ cap in 2022.

Hypothetically speaking, if Lawrence can reach Wilson’s level of play in his second season, his contract will afford the Jaguars a tremendous advantage the Broncos won’t receive from Wilson’s. He’d be providing a similar level of play for about a third of the cost, and that $15,637,844 in additional cap space is more than Von Miller, D.J. Jones, and Randy Gregory’s current contracts will count against the ‘22 cap.

The potential financial advantage a rookie contract quarterback provides makes it more beneficial to swing on quality QB prospects the last 10 years than at any other point in NFL history. If the pick is a “hit,” the team has what amounts to an extra $15-20 million to build a Super Bowl contender. Broncos Country is watching this up close in the AFC West, where Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert have afforded their teams a tremendous advantage when it comes to team building.

In reality, a Herbert or Mahomes is extremely rare. While it could be interesting to one day look back at Paton’s first draft to evaluate if he erred in passing on Justin Fields and Mac Jones, he elected to take Patrick Surtain II because he did not believe either would become a franchise quarterback. Should a prospect fail to develop into a league average starter, the benefits of a rookie contract QB is impacted by the developmental phase and the costs of a quality supporting cast necessary for their success.

The Broncos traded for Russell Wilson in part because there’s been 107 quarterbacks drafted since Wilson in 2011, and yet the 33-year-old remains one of the 10 best in football. Paton can reasonably assume Wilson will continue to provide similar play to what he’s done over his career to this point. This allows the Broncos to plan around a known commodity with the assumption that Wilson can continue to provide very good to elite quarterback play over the next three or four years, while Jacksonville’s plan in 2022 centers on evaluating if Lawrence can actually reach that level of play.

Wilson’s play, durability, and age means Denver should have their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. That combined with decades of NFL data should compel Paton to avoid using anything but a late round pick on a quarterback prospect this year. This may sound counterintuitive when the Broncos employ one who has developed into a future Hall of Famer, but Wilson is an outlier.

Rule #3: Go into the draft with realistic expectations about the picks.

If draft picks are mostly coin flips, it makes sense to collect extra lottery tickets. However, there’s obvious caveats that do need to be considered. In 2019, OvertheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald wrote about how salary data should influence draft pick value. To summarize his findings:

  • The first 100 picks in every draft tends to have to notably better return than the rest.
  • Moving from the backend of the first to the second round makes sense.
  • Third round picks are extremely valuable.
  • Sixth and seventh round picks tend to provide little more return than a minimum salaried veteran. For this reason, they’re typically more valuable as trade chips than selections.

This is especially relevant for the start of the Wilson-era Broncos because they currently do not have an early pick in either of the next two drafts. Following the Wilson trade, the Broncos’ first pick is at 64, late enough that it isn’t realistic to expect an early starter from the upcoming class. It should also be noted that Paton has said multiple times that he aims to have 10 picks in the upcoming draft. Tankathon currently has the Broncos with eight. To get more, they’ll either trade players or move down from one of their earlier selections. NFL history suggests it would be a mistake to slide down too far if Paton is only collecting late day three ammo in return.

There is additional historical analyses by Riske that suggest some positions such as offensive tackle and edge rusher do need to be considered early if a GM expects to land a starting caliber prospect. As I’ve written previously, the Broncos do have pronounced needs at both positions. It’s unlikely Paton finds a real long-term solution to either need with a second or third round pick this year, much less a later round selection, though one can surely hope.

Rule #4: Don’t overdraft low-impact positions.

“Running backs don’t matter” is a rather tired meme at this point and the NFL largely agrees based on the fact RBs make on average the least of any position group in the league. There is a larger point to the phrase that warrants a little examination because of how it impacts the Broncos this year. Due to the way NFL teams currently allocate cap resources, an overabundance of talent, or both, the following positions should rarely, if ever, be drafted in the first round:

  • Running back
  • Off ball linebacker
  • Kicker
  • Punter
  • Long snapper
  • Fullback
  • Y Tight end
  • Box safety

I believe in this rule because of opportunity cost more than anything. In an NFL where the cap is real, it makes sense to consider positional value in the early rounds. Exceptions exist, but by and large drafting a player such as Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick is going to look foolish really quickly. This is currently part of the debate around Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, who is considered one of the best players in the 2022 class.

The fact is other teams will overdraft low impact positions in the first 63 picks and that’s to Paton’s benefit. Every time a general manager takes a running back or linebacker is a selection they didn’t use on a position such as offensive tackle or edge rusher. It’s also notable how NFL history shows some of the positions above remain shaky investments further down board. The numbers suggest fullbacks and specialists shouldn’t be drafted at all, and only rarely reward investments above the sixth round.

Your Broncos’ News

Who fits the Denver Broncos’ needs in the 2022 NFL Draft? - Mile High Report

On this week’s Cover 2 Broncos, Sports Info Solutions Nathan Cooper joins me to dig deep on prospects who make sense for Nathaniel Hackett and the new coaching staff.

NFL announces offseason workout schedules for all 32 teams - ProFootballTalk

DENVER First Day: April 11 Voluntary Minicamp: April 25-27 OTAs: May 23-24, May 26, May 31-June 1, June 3, June 6-7, June 9-10 Mandatory Minicamp: June 13-15

How learning to pass block in the NFL is a difficult process - Mile High Report

Some history on recent young lineman who failed miserably at first, but then figured it out.

Report: No timetable for Russell Wilson contract extension - ProFootballTalk

For now, there’s no owner. A year from now, there likely will be one. What happens if the new owner resists paying Wilson market-level money? What happens if the new owner refuses to make the entirety of the contract fully guaranteed, like the Deshaun Watson deal? What happens if Rodgers eventually tries to pull the NFL across the next barrier that teams arguably have colluded to avoid — tying the player’s compensation to a fixed percentage of the salary cap?

Denver Broncos: Building a new offense doesn’t happen overnight - Mile High Report

Nathaniel Hackett has quite a mountain to climb in order to get this Denver Broncos offense online in 2022

Javonte Williams’ rookie season and expectations for his second year - Mile High Report

What should we expect from the second year back in a new offense with an elite quarterback?

Denver Broncos’ Win/Loss record a fade from PFF - Mile High Report

Despite the addition of Russell Wilson and others, PFF’s forecast isn’t fully embracing the Broncos’ immediate success

The Ringer’s 2022 NFL Draft Team Needs

The Broncos just sent Seattle their first- and second-rounders in the trade for Russell Wilson, so they don’t pick until the end of the second round (a pick they acquired by sending Von Miller to the Rams last year). Denver doesn’t need much on offense, besides maybe an upgrade at right tackle. Instead, they need defensive reinforcements. Signing Randy Gregory away from Dallas helps at edge rusher, but they could still use a good defensive tackle to clog the middle of the field. And for a team that will face Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr six times a year, having more cornerbacks would always be helpful. But ultimately the Broncos pulled the trigger on the Wilson trade because they don’t need much.

NFL News

Could regular-season overtime eventually revert to sudden death, or go away completely? - ProFootballTalk

In March 2010, when the owners converted overtime from sudden death to the clunky half-measure that survived until Tuesday, the rule applied to the postseason only. In May 2010, at the behest of coaches who loathe the idea of having two sets of rules, the owners extended the rule change to the regular season.

Source: NFL considers closing Rooney Rule loophole - ProFootballTalk

For the first time since the Rooney Rule was passed, a head-coaching vacancy has emerged after March 1. The development exposed a loophole that easily could be exploited by a team that hopes to quickly and cleanly hire a non-minority coach, without taking the time to conduct the required interviews of at least two external minority candidates. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL is considering closing the loophole.

Colin Kaepernick will throw during halftime of Michigan’s spring game - ProFootballTalk

Kaepernick will participate in a throwing exhibition at halftime of the spring game, Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News reports. The throwing session will be sponsored by a UM student group, Wolverines Against Racism.

Chargers News: 13 headlines that totally could never, never happen - Bolts From The Blue

We like to have fun here.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave millions to woman who filed paternity lawsuit, lawyer says

“On numerous occasions I have made payments on behalf of Mr. Jones to Cindy and Alex Davis,” Jack said in a statement. A longtime friend of Jones, Jack said he struck an agreement on Jones’ behalf with Spencer Davis in 1995, paying her $375,000 and providing “for monthly payments for child support which ultimately totaled over $2 million.” Jones has not acknowledged that Davis is his biological daughter. Asked why he used the term “child support” in his statement, Jack said, “I used the term child support because that’s what the agreement calls it.” Asked if the “child support” payments indicate that Jones is Davis’ father, Jack paused for five seconds before saying, “I am not going to answer that one. My statement speaks for itself.”

Report: Daniel Snyder has resumed his day-to-day role with Commanders - ProFootballTalk

The source told the Times that “Snyder has no restrictions on what he can and can’t do in overseeing the franchise.” For example, the source says Snyder was “heavily involved” in the discussions that culminated in the trade for quarterback Carson Wentz.

Noah Fant: The way Broncos used me was a little frustrating - ProFootballTalk

“Yeah, I mean, I agree, man. I feel like when I came into the league, that’s what I was drafted to do, right? Get down the field, make those explosive plays, and kind of be that pass catching tight end,” Fant said. “And over my time in Denver, I felt like that narrative kind of got muddled down a little bit. It was more of a focus of me catching flat balls or whatever it may be, and then trying to be a shifty guy and elusive guy and try to break as many tackles possible to get my yards. I view myself as a downfield threat, getting open space, then I can make things happen. It was a little frustrating being used in the short field.”