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2023 NFL Combine: Five defensive players to watch for the Denver Broncos

The 2023 NFL Combine kicks off on today. Here are five defensive prospects Broncos Country should keep an eye on leading up to this year’s NFL Draft.

San Jose State v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

One of the only silver linings over the past few years for the Denver Broncos is the fact they have been able to field quality defenses.

But after back-to-back seasons of trading their top pass rushers (Von Miller, Bradley Chubb) while being in the midst of schematic change with the hiring of Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator, and a multitude of pending free agents—it’s quite clear the Broncos will have some retooling to do.

I’d expect at least one key free agent acquisition, but prioritizing a few positions in the draft would be a cost-effective way to help revamp the defense.

Here are five prospects who would be great fits for Denver’s defense that Broncos Country should keep an eye on at this year’s NFL Combine and throughout the draft process.

Colby Wooden, DL — Auburn

Even if the Broncos retain Dre’Mont Jones and sign him to a long-term deal, it would be in the Broncos’ best interest to get another talented defensive lineman in the fold and shore up their depth.

One prospect I think doesn’t get the credit he deserves is Auburn’s Colby Wooden. Wooden primarily plays on the outside at defensive end for the Tigers’ defensive alignment, but saw time on the interior as well. Wooden finished this past season at Auburn with 45 tackles, six sacks, and 11.5 tackles for loss. In three seasons as a starter, Wooden notched 152 tackles, 17 sacks, and 30 tackles for loss.

At 6’5 and 285 pounds, Wooden has the size and athleticism teams covet. The prime aspect that pops out on tape when studying Wooden is his quickness of the snap. He is incredibly disruptive and his premier athleticism and length allow him to be a reckoning force on inside stunts. He has a penchant for getting offensive alignment off-balance with his strong bull rush and technical hand usage.

One area for improvement would be playing with better leverage. He needs to do a better job at staying low and not letting the opposition get underneath and wash him out of plays. Additionally, he could stand to widen his arsenal of pass-rushing moves—relying far too often on bull rushes and power moves that won’t always phase well-seasoned veteran pass protectors.

At the end of the day, Wooden has everything you can’t coach. Those types of prospects tend to rise up boards as the draft approaches. He profiles as a versatile defender who can play inside or out in a 3-4 alignment and would be a good fit for Vance Joseph’s attack-style defense.

Most draft boards appear to have Wooden as a Day 3 talent, but his top-tier athleticism and ability to play multiple roles will be highly sought after and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him crack the Top 64 selections.

If he is there in the early third round for the Broncos, he is one of a handful of guys who merit strong consideration with their back-to-back selections.

Keeanu Benton, DL — Wisconsin

D.J. Jones is under contract for two more seasons, but the Broncos would be smart to shore up their depth on the interior defensive lineman and add another player to the fold.

Standing at 6’4 and 317 pounds, Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton is a great fit for Joseph’s odd-front 3-4 defense. In his four-year career with the Badgers, Benton held his own on the interior and amassed 81 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks. That’s solid production for the upcoming pro, but his value to their defense goes far beyond the stat sheet.

An interior defensive lineman manning the nose tackle position must have incredible power, balance and strength at the point of attack. That’s something Benton has in spades and one can’t help but credit his wrestling background as a solid foundation for that.

When you put on the tape, his violence at the line of scrimmage is self-evident. It’s obvious his abilities freed up other defensive linemen and linebackers to make plays in Wisconsin’s defense. That’s the type of hidden production that matters.

He might not be the best athlete or have positional versatility, but his motor and ability give him legitimate three-down starting potential in the NFL. He might be limited as a pass rusher at the next level, but he displayed a lot more disruption in that regard as a senior. At the end of the day, every team needs a big body on the interior that can win consistently and Benton is that guy.

Some folks have Benton slated as a second-round talent, whereas others have him as an early Day 3 guy. In the end, I think Benton ends up somewhere on Day 2 and should be within striking distance for the Broncos when they are on the clock in the third-round. It might not be the most ‘appealing’ pick, but fortifying the inside of their defense and improving their rush defense should be a priority.

Jartavius Martin, DB — Illinois

The Illinois Fighting Illini have an impressive core of draft-eligible prospects this year. I’d give huge credit that to Lovie Smith’s eye for talent in that regard. Quietly rising up draft boards as April approaches, versatile defensive back Jartavius Martin might be the most intriguing of them all.

The Broncos’ secondary is arguably the team’s strongest group with back-end stalwarts Patrick Surtain II, Justin Simmons, and up-and-coming second-year corner Damarri Mathis. However, they could use an insurance policy for K’Wuan Williams and shore up their back-end with a versatile playmaker who can fill multiple roles in their defense.

Martin’s ability to play safety and nickel corner is a significant plus and would give the Broncos another talented defender in their secondary. Martin appeared in 50 games in five years with the Illini, wracking up 225 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7 interceptions. He has a nose for the ball and seemingly made plays all over the field regardless of where he lined up.

Most young defensive backs have concerns with their tackling ability, but that is one of Martin’s best traits. He’s a physical tone-setter in the secondary who has no issues coming up in run support or being aggressive on blitzes. He put on a coverage clinic this year and had 11 passes defended and only allowed opposing quarterbacks to have a 70.2 passer rating when targeted.

Defensive back isn’t a priority need for the Broncos, but adding a player like Martin on Day 3 of the draft with positional versatility makes a lot of sense.

Will McDonald IV, EDGE — Iowa State

Over the past two seasons, the Broncos have jettisoned off their top pass rushers in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb much to the chagrin of fans across Broncos Country.

That being said, they have a handful of players at the position with promising youngsters Baron Browning and Nik Bonitto, but whether or not Randy Gregory lives up to last year’s big free agent deal remains to be seen. Unless Gregory has an incredible 2023 campaign, I think it’s safe to say Denver will move on from him after the season ends.

It’s cliche, but you can never have enough pass rushers. That’s why Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV makes the list.

At 6’4 and 245 pounds, McDonald’s physique and length are evident on film. He is a good athlete and a smooth mover in space and makes it look easy bending around the edge en route to the quarterback. Alas, after posting back-to-back ten plus sack seasons in 2020 and 2021 for the Cyclones, McDonald took a step back in production in 2022 with only 5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.

After watching a few games this season, it does appear that they had him lining up in various spots where he was susceptible to more double teams that may have inhibited his production. Coupled with that, one of the biggest holes in McDonald’s game is lack of functional strength and issues with run defense—though these are things that can get better with conditioning and coaching over time.

McDonald’s draft rankings appear to be all over the board. I’ve seen him merit first-round consideration in several drafts and be ranked as low as a fourth-round selection on multiple draft boards. The truth and end reality likely ends up somewhere in the middle. And if so, that would mean he would be within striking distance for the Broncos.

Whether or not he becomes the sum of all his parts and becomes the dominant pass rushing terror he showed in ‘20 and ‘21 upon entering the NFL is to be determined. But in the early third round, betting on that happening is more than worth the roll of the dice.

Jalen Graham, Hybrid STAR (LB/S) — Purdue

With the NFL being dominated by aerial attacks from rising star quarterbacks, NFL teams have put a premium on finding versatile defenders who can assume multiple roles in their defense. One of those guys who fits the bill in this year’s draft class is Purdue’s Jalen Graham.

In his four-year career with the Boilermakers, Graham racked up 169 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and three interceptions. He’s a cerebral defender who is rarely caught out of position and is quick to get to the ball. Moreover, he showcases sideline-to-sideline athleticism and creates adequate depth in his zone drops and is good in coverage.

One area for improvement is sifting through traffic and taking better angles of pursuit in run support. At 6’3 and 225 pounds, he does have the frame to bulk up and get stronger at the pros. I believe he has upside as a defender who can get starting reps in the league, but at the very worst would be a high-end backup and core special teamer. That in itself has value and he should merit consideration from George Paton and friends as early as the fourth round.