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Vance Joseph’s quotes a week back were quite telling, as the head coach explained how the Broncos trend of taking inside linebackers in the low rounds might be over this year.
Joseph wasn’t just blowing smoke, either, as the Broncos have already started visiting with several prospects in the class. With plenty of draft capital in the first five rounds and a loaded group of off-ball linebackers, Denver’s options are endless.
Here are several names to keep in mind as the draft quickly approaches.
Darkhorse top-five options
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
Edmunds is incredibly talented, possessing big-time size and sideline-to-sideline range. He can attack the line of scrimmage and is amazingly only 19-years old. It goes without saying that his ceiling is amongst the highest of any prospect in this draft, at any position.
Edmunds played in a loaded defense and was the top performer for the Hokies, showing significant improvements as the year progressed. He’s big enough—at 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds—to play outside in the Broncos 3-4 defense, but his selling point is the athleticism to play inside. He promises to be a 10-year starter who can cover tight ends and be a hammer against the run.
Edmunds is far from the front-runner to be the Broncos first selection, but you better believe his talent is significant enough that they’ll have to at least consider him.
Roquan Smith, WLB, Georgia
Smith is likely going in the top 10, and while he’s even more of a dark horse option for Denver at the fifth pick, his athleticism and range make him a worthy consideration.
Smith is a bit of a one-year wonder. He’s undersized, and at 20 years of age, is still fairly raw—his instincts especially need to improve. Roquan’s size shows up when he has to take on blockers, where he can get swallowed up if he doesn’t react quickly enough.
That said, he’s a natural cover linebacker who can fly with anyone you match him up with. His ability to chase after backs or screens sideline-to-sideline is out of this world, as he simply seems to transport from one place to another with the way he can move.
There’re enough deficiencies in his game to where he’d be a reach for our rankings at fifth overall, but he’s a name you should know, as it’s not outside of the realm of possibilities that he’d be taken by Denver if things fall the right way. Of course, if the Broncos were to trade down, he becomes a much more realistic target in the top 15 or bottom half of the top 10.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
With the Los Angeles Rams trading out of the first round, Vander Esch’s natural landing spot in round one isn’t there anymore. The Boise State Bronco dropping to pick 40 still seems like an outside shot after his spectacular combine, but we’re saying there’s a chance.
He, too, is a one-year wonder and plays smaller than his size would suggest. However, Vander Esch is a late bloomer who is insanely athletic and has been compared to Brian Urlacher.
As an inside backer, he has great sideline-to-sideline speed, promising instincts and is a really solid tackler. More intriguing is that he’s flashed the ability to attack the line of scrimmage and be a tackle-for-loss machine, if he can do that consistently, he’ll end up being one of the best pros in this draft class, though there’s a good amount of projection with him.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson came into the season with lots of hype, as he was one of the best freshmen in the country and was really good as a sophomore too. In a new scheme and with the microscope on him, he faltered, with his instincts really being exposed.
However, his athleticism is undeniable, and as far as Denver’s concerned, Jefferson’s movement skills are really what’s appealing.
Given that Todd Davis is back and Su’a Cravens is in play as a third-down backer, Jefferson could be developed and turned into a high-end, three-down starter in time. There is a lot to like with his strength to plug gaps against the run, his size, and sideline-to-sideline athleticism, he just needs to get more consistent and read plays quicker.
Fred Warner, OLB, Brigham Young
Warner is a really intriguing athlete and prospect who plays with an aggressive attitude, so it should come as no surprise then that the Broncos have already met privately with him.
Warner showed off some nice athleticism at the combine, is competent in coverage, and has decent size. He plays with good aggression attacking downhill and can be a factor making plays beyond the line of scrimmage. To boot, he’s a senior with good maturity and leadership ability, who has shown nice instincts.
Warner’s even been talked about as safety, which should tell you his utility in sub packages and coverage. The second round isn’t out of his reach, though pick 40 would be too rich for him in Denver, the early in the third round would be a much better value.
Mike McCray, OLB, Michigan
McCray was one of only two holdovers from Michigan’s massive exodus to the NFL last season and was a low-key standout at the Senior Bowl.
McCray is one of the biggest guys on this list at 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds and plays a bit differently from the majority of the cover-athletes in this class, as shown by his 17 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2017. He’s more of a factor attacking the line of scrimmage, plugging gaps against the run and setting the tone roaming the line.
He isn’t a special athlete, which was confirmed by his testing results in Indianapolis, which is just fine. He can, however, be a physical ILB who can intimidate receivers running shallow crossers in underneath zone coverage, just don’t expect him to chase after running backs 20 yards downfield. Given his different profile, he might be less appealing in Denver, but fills a different kind of need.
Matthew Thomas, OLB, Florida State
Thomas is such an intriguing player, who ranks much higher on our board after a ridiculous combine showing. However, few see it like I do, which is just fine.
The big knocks on Thomas are that he had a turbulent career at FSU, dealing with family issues, there are also times where his effort isn’t as good as it could be. Despite that, Thomas flies to the ball and plays with bad intentions when attacking downhill where he made lots of plays against elite collegiate competition. He has good size and is a phenomenal athlete, who shows promising instincts.
He was misused at FSU and still led the team in tackles two years in a row. As a cover backer in Denver, he could play all three downs and be a factor on special teams too. He’d be a steal in round three or beyond if he lasts that long.
Jerome Baker, WLB, Ohio State
Baker is another player the Broncos have met with privately, and he perfectly fits what the team is looking for. On tape, you need to have an appreciation for what Baker does, as he won’t jump out to you with spectacular big plays. The Buckeye is a prototypical weakside linebacker who is undersized, can move smoothly and do lots of things in coverage.
A trio of Brandon Marshall, Cravens, and Baker would be really intriguing, as they’d present plenty of cover skills and versatility. He just needs to be more physical and quicker to read and react to the ball, allowing his athleticism to beat blockers.
Dorian O’Daniel, LB, Clemson
If Baker is an acquired taste on film, O’Daniel’s the exact opposite, as his ability to fly downhill and destroy opposing backfields is exhilarating. He’s a really interesting fit, as he was used in a unique role at Clemson, put in the slot a bunch while being asked to primarily blitz and attack the run. He’s fantastic running down the ball and closing on plays where he was extremely productive.
In coverage, he lacks fluidity but can do some things as long as he’s not asked to move across the formation to run down quicker receivers. O’Daniel’s big limitation is that he’s only 215 pounds, which you wouldn’t expect when he plays like he’s a 250 pounder with aggression.
Given he’s the size of a safety, he also isn’t the greatest athlete but his instincts are terrific, and he’s a dynamic tackler who wraps up and won’t let anyone escape. The Tigers’ playmaker is also a stud special teamer. He’s an outside-the-box fit for the Denver ‘D’, but would be a really nice pickup in the later rounds—his production speaks for itself.
Shaquem Griffin, LB, UCF
Griffin was a favorite of ours at the Senior Bowl and showed outstanding versatility for the Golden Knights last season, playing anywhere from the edge to safety. In the NFL, he seems like a natural weakside backer with plenty of cover skills, great instincts, and a huge heart.
His athleticism was proven beyond doubt at the combine where he was insane, even putting up 20 bench reps despite having just one hand—matching, among others, the highly touted and much bigger Vander Esch.
We had a chance to speak to Griffin in Mobile, and his attitude and leadership are contagious. He’s a special kid with a diverse skill set that fits what Denver’s looking for. He’d go much higher if he just had two hands, which clearly didn’t affect him in college.