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Did the Broncos have a terribly awesome draft?

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NFL: Combine
Did the Broncos swing for role players in 2022?
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The first NFL Draft of the Russell Wilson era is in the books, and the Denver Broncos drafted nine players while adding a future third. George Paton’s front office proceeded to sign 11 more rookies from the undrafted pool as I write this. The Broncos’ roster looks as though it’ll be equal parts talented and deep, so it seems reasonable to have Super expectations in 2022.

What remains to be seen is how the rookie class will fit into the NFL, as well as how Denver’s roster ultimately stacks up against the rest of the AFC. While the grades are coming in, I thought it worthwhile to take a look at Paton’s whole draft and offer my subjective thoughts. All contract math comes from Over the Cap, and any talk about Average Draft Position (ADP) is a reference to Arif Hasan’s top 300 consensus draft board at the Athletic.

Did the Broncos flunk the draft process?

One of the reasons why I’ve found myself referring to consensus boards over the last couple of seasons is what I like to consider self awareness. The longer I’ve done draft work for Mile High Report, the more it’s become obvious that my own evaluations are as hit or miss as anyone’s. For this reason I’ve found it illuminating to keep an eye on the “wisdom of crowds” as I go about projecting fits into my understanding of the Broncos scheme.

The idea of relative value sometimes leads to what may can be a frustrating and even upsetting conversation for some in Broncos Country. The truth of the matter is by the consensus boards George Paton reached on a ton of picks in this year’s class. Below, I looked further into where this occurred below while also stopping to consider the fact Paton and the Broncos’ front office aren’t drafting in a vacuum. They have 2023 to consider.

After the 2022 season concludes the Broncos will have 41 players under contract and $16,193,815 in cap space. The big contract decisions currently look like they’ll center around Bradley Chubb, Dre’Mont Jones, Dalton Risner, and potentially one of Calvin Anderson, Tom Compton, or Billy Turner. Based on the other expiring contracts it looks like there will be a need for tight ends, safeties, and offensive linemen. Sam Martin will also be a free agent.

Ultimately, the structure of Russell Wilson’s forthcoming extension needs to be considered because it hangs over everything related to the Broncos’ long term cap situation. Prior to his trade from the Seattle Seahawks there were reports Pete Carroll and John Schneider did not intend to meet Wilson’s demands for a “Mahomes’ money.” The fact Wilson only carries a $24 million cap hit provides the Broncos a tremendous advantage this year and possibly next that they won’t have in 2024: An elite quarterback with the 8th ranked cap hit in the league and behind AFC rivals Patrick Mahomes and Ryan Tannehill.

Looking at Paton’s moves in free agency makes it clear he made the most of this year’s cap space while adding veterans to chase for a Super Bowl run. This year’s draft reflects that and the foresight to know that Denver can’t afford to retain all of them in year three, four, etc. of the Wilson era. Paton used this draft to add what should be key role players for the long haul. Sometimes that meant chasing skillsets that weren’t as sought ought by consensus boards.

The Broncos 2022 Draft Class

2 (64) ED Nik Bonitto - ADP: 58

Bonitto has all the traits you look for in a speed rusher, drawing a few comparisons to Haason Reddick in the pre-draft process. The plan appears to be he’ll rotate in as a designated pass rusher this year as he fights for playing time with Baron Browning, Malik Reed and Jonathon Cooper behind Randy Gregory, and Bradley Chubb. He also serves as some insurance against Chubb and Reed’s contracts in 2023.

One area of Bonitto’s game that seems to be a clean fit into the defense Ejiro Evero plans to run in 2022 is his fluidity in space. He dropped in coverage a decent bit in the Sooner’s 3-3-5 and has the twitch, short area quickness, and range to become a net positive in this area in the league.

The big knock on Bonitto is going to be his run defense, as he’s a lighter player who can be engulfed by bigger bodies. It’s a bit of an oversimplification to call Bonitto a weak run defender, but I suspect he’ll have some issues against power running teams like Malik Reed does. His range, motor, and quickness should serve him well against zone runs and he’s a chase down threat.

3 (80) TE Greg Dulcich - ADP: 73

My biggest complaint about this pick is the opportunity cost. Paton elected to trade back from 75 to 80, which gave the Indianapolis Colts the opportunity to draft Central Michigan tackle Bernhard Raimann at 77. Garett Bolles is the last tackle Denver’s drafted and he turns 30 in May. The trade also gave the Baltimore Ravens the opportunity to draft Connecticut defensive lineman Travis Jones. Beyond that, I really like Dulcich. If Justin Outten and the new coaching staff prove themselves capable teachers he should develop into a very good player in the Hackett offense.

A self made man after going from a zero star walk on to Academic All American, Dulcich has a skillset that will bring back some memories of Noah Fant. He’s a good athlete who is built like an H-back at 6’4 243 lbs. and finished the 2021 season with six catches for 30+ yards. He was drafted to add a splash element to the seams of the Nathaniel Hackett offense and offers the versatility to play across the formation.

Like Fant, Dulcich has his issues as a blocker, such as a wide punch. He displays good effort and has the range to be a factor on the second level, but will be overwhelmed by stronger edge rushers and backers at the line of scrimmage. His 33” arms are right at the 50th percentile for NFL tight ends and he lacks the play strength to become a burly inline blocker. With that said, he tries hard and can be coached to become a better positional blocker and the Broncos have Eric Tomlinson, Shaun Beyer, and Andrew Beck to block.

4 (115) CB Damarri Mathis - ADP: 145

Day three is where Denver’s draft class begins to move off from the consensus boards quite a bit. Again, this does not necessarily make the player bad, but opportunity cost should be considered. The Broncos had two picks back to back in the fourth round and passed on players such as CBs Jalyn Armour-Davis, Decobie Durant, and Joshua Williams, DL Neil Farrell Jr., OTs Spencer Burford and Zach Tom.

I thought cornerback the most pressing immediate need on the Broncos roster as they entered the draft. Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, K’Waun Williams, Michael Ojemudia, and Essang Bassey all missed time to injury last season. They could also have a long term need at corner: Williams turns 32 and Darby’s $13 million cap hit could make him a potential cap casualty before the 2023 season.

Mathis is physical, albeit undersized corner who is at his best in off coverage where he can keep eyes on the quarterback. His physicality is both a strength and weakness at this time. He’s a willing tackler who should be able to help out vs. the run and on kick coverage units, but could be a flag magnet as he refines his footwork and feel in coverage.

Ultimately, I trust cornerback coach Christian Parker and Evero have a better feel for Mathis’ fit into the Broncos’ scheme than the consensus boards. Let’s hope my faith is warranted.

4 (116) DL Eyioma Uwazurike - ADP: 171

Defensive line was perhaps the most underrated need on the Broncos’ roster. Paton traded Shelby Harris to the Seahawks as part of the Wilson trade and didn’t necessarily replace him in free agency. Adding D.J. Jones from the San Francisco 49ers gave Evero a very good run defender who can add to the pass rush, but he lacks the length to win consistently against tackles as a five technique.

Enter Uwazurike, who combines prototypical length for a 3-4 defensive end with the mass and play strength to become a very good two gapper. He should compete for playing time this year and could become a very good 5-tech and interior clogger. He’s also blocked two field goals in his career.

With Dre’Mont Jones heading for free agency in 2023 and some question about Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, and DeShawn Williams’ long term outlooks, we’re a year away from some big questions about the defensive line. Uwazurike offers a scarce skillset because he can play up and down the line at 6’6 and 315 lbs. and create some pressure as a pass rusher.

5 (152) DB Delarrin Turner-Yell - ADP: 232

Like the fourth round, opportunity cost is quite notable with Paton’s fifth round picks. Taking Turner-Yell meant passing on DBs Tariq Woolen and Zyon McCollum, as well as OT Matt Waletzko. Woolen and McCollum were two of the most athletic draft prospects ever.

During his post-draft presser Paton called Turner-Yell a very good special teamer, which suggests he’s a pick to provide Dwayne Stukes one of his 8-10 core four guys. What makes this selection puzzling is the Broncos’ safety room is very crowded. P.J. Locke’s logged 690 special teams snaps across the last two seasons and offers promise on defense.

5 (162) PR Montrell Washington - ADP: NA

Day three is about adding intriguing prospects who can carve out a spot on the roster as a role player or developmental starter. During the voluntary minicamp prior to the draft Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne Stukes said he did not watch any member of the Broncos’ field kicks. Now we know why.

Washington’s a diminutive small school returner who led the FCS in all purpose yards in 2021. With Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler comfortably ahead of him on the depth chart, opportunities on offense will be limited. His draft position suggests the Broncos’ front office and coaching staff believe he can justify a roster spot in the Diontae Spencer role as a return specialist who moonlights as a backup receiver when injuries strike.

The Broncos obviously believed what Washington brought as a returner made him a unique talent that justified a draft pick long before anyone believed he’d go. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler considered him the 70th best receiver in this class. The 33rd Team believed he’d go undrafted and Sports Info Solutions didn’t write a scouting report about him. Time will tell who was right about him.

5 (171) OC Luke Wattenberg - ADP: 254

A new coaching staff meant big changes for the offensive line this offseason. Reportedly, the Broncos replaced Mike Munchak with Butch Barry because the Hall of Famer didn’t offer the same expertise coaching outside zone. Scheme fit was clearly a big consideration when Paton signed veteran linemen in free agency, as Ben Braden, Tom Compton, and Billy Turner all left teams that utilized the zone/duo run game Hackett intends to run.

An older prospect at 24-years-old, Wattenberg fits the mold of what’s become a prototypical zone scheme center. He’s savvy with lateral quickness and makes his hay on combo blocks, but joins the Broncos with questions about his play strength and anchor. Right now it looks like he’s bound for the practice squad because the interior line is pretty crowded with Dalton Risner, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz, Lloyd Cushenberry, Netane Muti, and others.

6 (206) DL Matt Henningsen - ADP: 263

There were a few prospects with higher ADP’s than Henningsen that the Broncos passed on, most notably DL Kalia Davis, ED Isaiah Thomas, as well as CBs Tariq Castro-Fields and Derion Kendrick. Still, Henningsen makes sense given the long term situation along the defensive line. The former walk-on and Academic All American tested as an elite athlete during the pre-draft process, and could eventually fit into the line rotation as a three technique who can play snaps as a base 3-4 defensive end.

7 (232) CB Faion Hicks - ADP: NA

Like Mathis, Hicks makes sense for a roster that has short and long term needs at cornerback. Like Mathis, you have to take a bit of a leap of faith on the Broncos’ evaluations to overlook the gap between where he was drafted the what analysts seem to have thought of him. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had Hicks as his 53rd ranked corner in the 2022 class. Paton took him over Penn State tackle Rasheed Walker, who had an ADP of 113.