NFL draft makeover: Broncos' offseason needs aren't limited to just quarterback

Eric Edholm
·7 min read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous few Sundays and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Denver Broncos. What does this flagging team need most to compete in 2021?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Come Feb. 7, it will have been five years since the Denver Broncos made the playoffs. After winning the Super Bowl on that date in 2016, the Broncos have not returned to the postseason.

The Super Bowl 50 victory feels even longer ago than that considering the cavalcade of head coaches (three) and starting quarterbacks (nine) the team has trotted out since.

And just Monday there was some major news that could potentially shift the organizational tilt in a dramatic way: John Elway ceded control of the roster and will hire a general manager after a decade of him serving as the franchise’s chief decision maker on personnel matters.

Elway’s method of signing Peyton Manning and building up the Broncos’ defense were strokes of genius, but his inability to mimic that kind of success in the second half of the past decade has the franchise rooted in purgatory. They’re just good enough to avoid the NFL’s basement but bad enough to annually miss the playoffs.

Quarterback is a continued issue. The Broncos will pick ninth overall in the 2021 NFL draft. It’s entirely possible they consider taking one there. We won’t get clarity until Elway’s successor arrives and we enter the new league year, once players can change teams.

However, it’s entirely possible that they find competition for Drew Lock — one of the lowest-rated NFL starters in 2020 — via a veteran. They also could look to the draft for help; picking ninth makes that a little dicier, unless the Broncos are prepared to move up, believe North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Alabama’s Mac Jones are worth taking that high or that a Day 2 or 3 prospect can still provide ample competition.

And there are gaping needs on Vic Fangio’s defense and on the offensive line that can’t go overlooked. So let’s address all of these scenarios, even while admitting that changes to the front office make Denver’s future less predictable.

Early-round prospect

Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

Anyone who follows the Broncos closely knows that Fangio loves corners who can tackle. He’s mentioned that at virtually every one of his stops over the years, but devout Broncos fans have that one fact down pat.

Well, Surtain can tackle. The 6-2, 204-pound corner (with good arm length) also can cover well, even if quicker receivers can give him trouble in space. Overall, though, I believe he’s the best corner in this year’s class — a very cool customer whom I believe would check off a lot of boxes that Fangio seeks in his cover men.

Alabama's Patrick Surtain II might be the best defensive back prospect in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by /Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama's Patrick Surtain II might be the best defensive back prospect in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by /Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, though, has a lot of fans in the scouting world and could be the first one drafted at the position. But at nine, it’s possible the Broncos will have at least one of them to choose from.

Corner might not be as massive a need as I suspected it might be a few months ago. The emergences of Essang Bassey and Michael Ojemudia have solidified the position some, and I’ll be honest: I wasn’t a huge fan of Bassey coming out and wasn’t shocked he went undrafted. (I liked Ojemudia much more.)

So with Bryce Callahan and the two 2020 rookies, they’re in OK shape but certainly could add a premiere talent such as Surtain, especially if the Broncos move on from A.J. Bouye and his fairly unwieldy salary. Having to face Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert four times for the next several years, the Broncos would be wise to build up a surplus of DB talent.

They’d also have to weigh other top defensive prospects such as Penn State LB Micah Parsons and some of the pass rushers (with Von Miller’s future somewhat uncertain) as realistic options.

Mid-round prospect

Washington DT Levi Onwuzurike

Defensive line can’t be ignored as a potential concern. They have five free agents-to-be up front, including Shelby Harris, Jurrell Casey and DeMarcus Walker. Not all of them will come back, we suspect. Even with Dre’Mont Jones, DeShawn Williams, McTelvin Agim and maybe Mike Purcell, some depth and insurance would be nice.

And yet it’s considered a pretty so-so year in the draft at the position. But we believe there still will be some mid-round options to consider. Buyer beware for any team considering one in Round 1, and by the time we get to Day 3 of the draft the limited DT talent might start running out.

In between, however, there might be a few unpolished gems.

Washington DL Levi Onwuzurike opted out in 2020 but has NFL starter potential. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Washington DL Levi Onwuzurike opted out in 2020 but has NFL starter potential. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Denver tentatively picks 71st overall in Round 3, and our early guess is that someone such as Onwuzurike might still be there at that pick, even if we think he could push his way back into the top-50 or 60 discussion. Lots can happen between now and then, and Onwuzurike opting out of this season has limited his buzz this fall a bit.

But he’s lined up all over the place (nose, shade, 3-technique, stand-up rush end, dropping into short zones) and also has been an impact kick blocker on special teams. In this way, he shares some traits with Jones a bit.

Onwuzurike has some great burst off the snap and has some eye-opening quickness upfield, even if he’ll get taken out of some plays because of his leaner frame (6-foot-2, 286 pounds) and occasional penchant for getting too high. But Onwuzurike was great in a rotation in 2019, just as he’d be on the Broncos’ line.

Late-round prospect

Stanford QB Davis Mills

We just couldn’t resist doing this exercise without giving the Broncos a quarterback. Since 2011, when Elway first assumed control of Denver’s drafts, the Broncos have selected six QBs — tied with the New York Jets for more selections at that position over the past decade.

But even if Elway isn’t making the choices anymore, and even if the Broncos find a short-term veteran option via trade or free agency, it might be smart to draft a provisional prospect on Day 3. And wouldn’t it be ironic if someone not named Elway takes the Stanford guy?

Stanford QB Davis Mills only started 11 games in college but has intriguing ability. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Stanford QB Davis Mills only started 11 games in college but has intriguing ability. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

After the top tier (or two, if you believe Trevor Lawrence is in a strata of his own) of quarterbacks in this class, the starts to run pretty dry. Georgia’s JT Daniels and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder have decisions to make about their futures, but Mills already has thrown his hat into the 2021 draft ring. Mills might end up going higher than some realize at this point depending on how it all shakes out.

There’s certainly a “what if?” element to Mills’ time with the Cardinal, and his 11 starts (13 games total) provide a small body of work from which to evaluate. However, had he not gotten hurt earlier in his career, Mills would have had an excellent chance to play ahead of K.J. Costello and helped his cause more.

Mills’ talent is pretty unquestioned. Despite only starting for part of the 2019 season, he earned honorable mention all-Pac 12, and this season he provided some incredible fireworks down the stretch this season. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds with solid athleticism and a good arm, he also checks off enough physical-trait boxes to make him draftable in the early stages of Day 3.

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