Draft Reflections Part I: Monday Morning GM
Even when a team crushes the draft, as I believe the Broncos did, it's easy find places where they left some value on the table. So, what could the Broncos have done better?
Thinking Orange on the Clock
The exercise is as follows:
Pick a player at each point in the draft that the Broncos made a selection. Either stay with the pick that Elway and co. made, select from among players that have not already been drafted, or arrange a trade. Players can't be taken later than they went in the actual draft.
Trades are allowed only when the Broncos offer strictly better terms on a deal that a team actually accepted during the draft.
For example, this year the Patriots traded the 23rd overall pick to the Chargers and received picks 2.37 and 3.71 in exchange. In this exercise the Broncos would be allowed to offer their first round pick to the Chargers for the exact same compensation (2.37 and 3.71) because sending the 15th overall pick to LA is strictly better than what the Chargers received in real life. No speculating that the Chargers would also throw in a 7th round pick to make up the difference, even if they likely would have. Only strictly better deals.
With those ground rules in place, here is how I would have drafted for the Broncos.
This pick is easy. The Broncos have a need at wide receiver and Jerry Jeudy is an elite, blue-chip prospect. His route running ability is downright filthy, on a level perhaps only Odell Beckham Jr. can claim to match among college players in recent memory. No player is a surefire success, but when Jeudy fell to fifteen the Broncos couldn't have put the pick in quick enough.
I absolutely love that the Broncos doubled down on wide receiver at the top of the draft. The cupboard was essentially bare behind top dog Courtland Sutton. Sutton is awesome, but it would've have been seriously difficult to move the ball through the air given the lack of other legitimate threats. By selecting Jeudy and Hamler, the Broncos turned a weakness to a strength overnight.
Adding viable receivers to the roster was especially important because it allows Fangio and his staff to credibly evaluate Drew Lock. The absolute worst outcome for 2020 is a season that does not teach us anything about Lock, which would have been a likely outcome if the passing game was forced to flow almost entirely though Sutton and Noah Fant. Now, however, the Broncos are in a position to assess their young QB and finish the season with a direction—either build around Lock, or renew the search for a signal caller.
There were other receivers that would have been reasonable picks here. Denzel Mims and Bryan Edwards present similar levels of skill (though I wouldn't be surprised if neither pans out given their landing spots). I'm sticking with Hamler though to emphasize how much I think the Broncos nailed the top two rounds of the draft.
Changing this pick from Michael Ojemudia to Cameron Dantzler is nitpicking. The truth is, I'm thrilled with the Broncos' first three picks. I think taking a cornerback in this spot was an excellent choice, and I trust Vic Fangio's evaluation of Ojemudia. He looks like a strong fit for the complex pattern-matching schemes that Fangio wants to run.
If I were calling the shots, however, I would have taken Cameron Dantzler. Unlike Ojemudia, Dantzler proved his excellence against the best competition in college football. Dantzler has allowed a passer rating of only 43.8 when targeted across his career—that's truly impressive when playing in the SEC against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Georgia. He was literally the only CB to play really well against LSU this year, allowing 13 yds on two receptions and four targets.
Dantzler slipped into the mid-third because this class had tons of high-end CB prospects. Someone had to fall. He also may have gone a bit lower than his talent suggests because of his frame. At 6' 2" 185 lbs, he's a skinny dude. But he plays with a physicality that many stronger corners never display.
While I think Dantzler is the stronger prospect, I also believe in Ojemudia and think the Broncos did well with this pick.
Much like the Ojemudia/Dantzler pick, I think the Broncos had exactly the right idea, here: get a starting center. I happen to think the Wisconsin center Tyler Biadasz is a slightly better prospect than Lloyd Cushenberry, but again, we're splitting hairs. Cushenberry's performance in pass protection concerns me, but there are some mitigating factors that help explain that.
I would have pulled the trigger on Biadasz, but I think that the Broncos brass knocked it out of the park on these first four selections. Even if I might have taken a couple of different players, Elway and co. are selecting high quality prospects at positions that make sense for the roster.
This pick is my first meaningful divergence from what the Broncos did. My reasoning is twofold, and relatively simple: (1) adding depth at ILB is just as important for us as adding depth along the defensive line, and (2) Troy Dye is a better prospect than McTelvin Agim.
There are reasons to believe in Agim. He was highly recruited coming out of high school, showed flashes of excellent play, and spent his career on a team that may not have maximized his talents for a variety of reasons (coaching changes, position changes, and a mediocre system). But ultimately, Agim never flourished in college, and only ever showed occasional glimpses of top-end talent.
Dye, on the other hand, balled out in all four years of his college career. Despite checking in at 6' 4", he plays at the relatively light weight of 225 lbs. The leaner, safety-like build allows him to excel in the pass game. It's an archetype that's becoming popular around the NFL (as exemplified by Isaiah Simmons and Patrick Queen in this draft), and clearly fits Fangio's preferences. Dye is a very similar player to Justin Strnad, but with even better, more consistent tape. He's one of the surest tacklers in the country despite his size, and most analysts had him ranked among the top backers in the country, just behind Simmons, Queen, and Kenneth Murray. Dye also has excellent instincts. Watching him rise up to block a jump pass at the goal line was a thrill.
I don't hate picking Agim in this spot, but I do think it was mistake when there were players like Dye with similar upside and fewer question marks still on the board. Perhaps Elway was targeting Strnad later in the draft and for that reason decided to fill a different position. If that was the thinking, there were still prospects other than Dye that would have made for stronger picks.
As it happened, the San Francisco 49ers traded a 2020 5th round pick and a 2021 3rd round pick to the Washington Redskins for Trent Williams. The 31 year-old future hall of famer is worth that and more. In this scenario, to ensure that Williams becomes a Bronco, I propose upping the Niners' offer to a 2020 4th round pick and 2021 3rd rounder.
As far as this draft goes, that means we would not be able to select TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Okwuegbunam is a solid prospect but he is far from indispensable. If things work out as we hope, he will play a part-time role behind Noah Fant. This was a luxury pick. While it's great to have a second player with a similar skill set to Fant, there are other players on the roster (Jeff Heuerman, Nick Vannett, Troy Fumagalli) that are capable secondary tight ends.
Losing Albert O and a future third round pick is a small price to pay for several years of elite left tackle play. Williams would provide a rock solid answer at one of the most important positions in football—and one that the Broncos have struggled to reliably fill since Ryan Clady left the mile high city five years ago.
Not exploring this trade with the Redskins is one of my few gripes with the way Elway executed the draft. Speaking on the topic, Elway said, “No, we did not talk to them. We had heard what was going on, but we also had heard what the compensation was...I think Tampa was in on it, Cleveland, several other teams were in on it, but where the compensation was, we didn’t feel like it was something that we wanted to get involved in.” (from denverbroncos.com)
When an elite player becomes available, I think it's a mistake not to at least explore the possibility of acquiring him. Even if you think Garrett Bolles is serviceable—and it appears Elway does think that—it's a serious error to not be proactive about looking for ways to upgrade. That's especially true here where the asking price turned out to be more than reasonable.
This is a historically talented and deep wide receiver class. There are high quality options available in every round as talented players go later than they would in a more typical year. My recommendation: take advantage.
James Proche possesses uncommon skill for sixth round draft pick. He pulls off highlight reel acrobatic catches with amazing frequency—a testament to his excellent body control and ball tracking abilities (outside wr, top of the screen).
He's also has a great feel for using space, both in the route and after the catch (slot, top of the screen).
I like Justin Strnad a lot as a prospect and don't have any issue with the Broncos picking him in the fifth round. But having already selected Troy Dye, I would be thrilled to benefit from this class's extraordinary receiver depth and add the super-talented Proche to the roster. Tim Patrick, DaeSean Hamilton, and Juwann Winfree are fine depth, but Proche's ceiling far exceeds what they have to offer.
Let me be clear: I love the Netane Muti pick. He is one of my favorite prospects in the class, and landing him in the sixth round is among the biggest steals of the draft. However, his injury history is very concerning, interior offensive line is a low-impact position, and the Broncos don't have a pressing need at guard. So for the sake of the exercise, I'll have the Broncos take a different player that I believe in.
From PFF: "Stone plays far faster than any testing numbers. The way he sees the game is just different and can’t be coached. That’s why he earned playing time as a true freshman at Iowa and has the highest coverage grade of any safety over the past two seasons."
Stone can also fly up from his deep safety spot and be a force in run support.
The Broncos quietly have a serious need at safety behind locked in starters Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. I'm confident that we'll be able to work out a long term deal with Simmons, but at 32 Jackson is old enough where you have to start thinking about a replacement plan. After losing Will Parks, our depth chart reads: Trey Marshall, Kahani Smith, PJ Locke III, and Douglas Coleman III. Marshall is intriguing but I would feel a lot better about the Broncos' options if they added a player like Stone.
J.J. Taylor is a small back (5' 5" 185 lbs) with natural receiving chops. Incumbent RB Royce Freeman is a fine third string option, but ultimately has replacement level talent. Taylor is so much more dynamic (worth the click) with the ball in his hands.
Melvin Gordon and Phil Lindsay are both functional in the pass game, but Taylor truly excels in that area. He'd add an Austin Ekeler/James White-style element to the offense that would be so much more valuable than anything Tyrie Cleveland can offer.
Derrek Tuszka was an inspired pick at the end of the draft. He checks all the boxes you could hope for in a 7th round pick: his athleticism, production, and tape are all excellent. Of course, the competition he faced in the FCS does not provide a true test of his skills, but he has earned the opportunity to give it a go against NFL athletes.
The Picks at a Glance
The picks that I most would have liked to see changed occurred in the middle rounds. While McTelvin Agim, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Justin Strnad are solid prospects, there was an opportunity to get even more bang for the buck with these middle picks. The next post will explore several options for how the Broncos might have done that. My selections here highlight what I find to be the most exciting course of action, with the key changes being: landing hall of fame caliber tackle Trent Williams, upgrading Justin Strnad to Troy Dye, and taking further advantage of this crazy receiver class by selecting James Proche.
The Broncos did a solid job adding undrafted free agents. Cornerback Essang Bassey is an excellent pickup that could have been a day three selection. Though not as exciting as J.J. Taylor, running back LeVante Bellamy is a nice addition, and Zimari Manning is an intriguing receiver.
I recognize that there are 32 teams competing for these players, but here are some of the names that I would have been excited to see in Dove Valley.
Hunter Bryant—TE/WR, Washington (Detroit Lions)
Lining up at tight end in college hurt Bryant's stock, because at 6' 2" 240 lbs he doesn't quite have the size the play the position in the NFL. He is best suited for a big slot role, similar to how the Saints used Marques Colston (slot, bottom of the screen).
Most analysts had Bryant in the top five at tight end (overall, not just of those that went undrafted). PFF had him number one, writing, "Bryant has movement skills that you simply can't teach for a man that big; he looks like a wide receiver out there and has produced like one, as well."
Cheyenne O'Grady—TE, Arkansas (Unsigned)
There is no doubt that O'Grady has enough talent to be drafted. Even without quality coaching he looked borderline unstoppable at times as a Razorback.
Unfortunately, off-field issues led to him being dismissed from the team midway through the 2019 season. Hopefully he gets a shot in the NFL and is in a good enough place mentally to take advantage, because his talent is undeniable.
Calvin Throckmorton—OL, Oregon (New Orleans Saints)
Throckmorton posted a sterling 89.5 pass blocking grade in 2019 after allowing pressure on only 1.8% of his snaps. He struggled at the combine, but his experience at multiple positions—and excellent performance at all of them—should have gotten him drafted.
Traveon Beck—CB, California (Unsigned)
In 2018 Beck led the PAC-12 with a 45.6 passer rating when targeted. He followed that up with an equally dominant 2019 in which he allowed a passer rating of only 9.6 when targeted in the slot (slot CB, top of the screen).
Despite clearly being one of the best nickelbacks in the country, it looks like Beck will not get a chance to play in the NFL.
Teams are likely overlooking him because of his size; he tips the scales at only 165 lbs. But passing on one of the nation's most talented DBs because he doesn't fit a prototype is silly. I understand (but disagree with) not drafting him, but get the guy into camp as a UDFA. He's performed well enough that it's worth seeing if he can put on 15 lbs, and if his lights out play will carry over onto an NFL field.
Anthony Gordon—QB, Washington St. (Seattle Seahawks)
NFL teams tend to overvalue physical QB traits like size and arm strength, and undervalue mental and skill based traits like processing speed, decision-making, and the ability to get the ball where it needs to go. Gordon put 69.4% of his passes on target, good for second in the nation behind only first overall pick Joe Burrow. That sort of performance should have seen him drafted.
To Be Continued...
Thinking about how a draft could have played out is one of the great joys of football fandom. Stay tuned for the next post where I'll dive deeper on alternative draft strategies and give my final assessment of the Broncos 2020 draft.