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Why the Broncos could go defense-heavy in the upcoming draft

Sam Cowhick Avatar
April 4, 2016


The 2016-17 Denver Broncos will clearly be a different group than the one that took the field in Santa Clara, California Feb. 7, and came home with a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Every season brings player turnover in the NFL but the combination of a Super Bowl-winning roster and a trove of free agents brought swift change to the Broncos personnel but the holdovers may also elicit some concern for the future.

The departures of Brock Osweiler, Malik Jackson and many more will bring just due concern at their position groups but after another look, some aging contracts of returning players on the historically great defense may influence general manager John Elway when the 2016 NFL Draft commences April 28. Cornerback, outside linebacker and both safety positions are an obvious strength for this defense but not for long. Elway will be taking a long look at some draft prospects to ensure this defense is ready for the future.

The Broncos have arguably the best cornerback duo and even trio in the NFL but one of those three may not be long for the orange and blue. Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby and the eight-year veteran Aqib Talib undoubtedly created a short window for opposing quarterbacks to try and complete their throws. Often they went unsuccessful. The physical, enigmatic Talib was a major force throughout the season despite an on-field penalty-induced suspension. His contract and age may mean this is his last season in Denver.

Talib is taking up a whopping 6.47 percent of the team’s cap space in 2016 to the tune of nearly $10 million. His six-year $57 million contract takes him through 2019 but after this season, his dead cap money is not very substantial at just $2 million in 2017, $1 million in 2018 or zero-dollar dead cap money in 2019 according to Spotrac.com. That leaves Roby to take over if Elway would like to save Talib’s massive contract following the 2016-17 season and makes finding a third cornerback in the draft this season all the more important.

This year’s draft class possesses a plethora of talent at cornerback. Although the Broncos need to find a future starter they will most likely not take one with their first pick. The later rounds may hold Talib’s successor.

Two cornerbacks come to mind due to their similar body types and athletic ability to play man-press. Talib’s 6-foot-1, 205-pound body and physical play would have to be replaced and University of Virginia’s Maurice Canady and Rashad Robinson from the Louisiana State University both have the potential to fill that void and should be available later in the draft.

Canady played into his senior year, starting 33 of 44 games played, was also a punt returner and played both inside and outside, often in press coverage. At 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, he fits the mold. He is projected to go in the third round of the draft. The knock on him according to Lance Zierlien of NFL.com is his physicality but that can be fixed with coaching and they influence of his teammates.

Robinson is a bit of a gamble with tremendous upside. His collegiate career was cut short due to several off-field issues. He was dismissed from the Tiger’s program after playing in 20 games with eight starts over two seasons. In fact, he hasn’t played organized football since 2014. However, he did win a starting job on an immensely talented roster as just a freshman before his issues arose. He stands at 6-1 but must put on weight to his 171-pound frame. His athletic ability alone will force a team to take a chance on him. According to the team site, the Broncos had Robinson in for a visit and workout March 28. Roby presented similar questions in 2014 but not to the extent of Robinson.

Much like the cornerback unit, the Broncos outside linebackers possess an elite group possibly unrivaled in the NFL. With DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller as starting edge rushers and Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett behind them, they can get to any quarterback in a hurry but none of them are locked up to long-term deals with Denver.

Miller and Ware, in particular, could be gone after this season. According to Spotrac, both are on one-year deals combining for 14.4 percent of the team’s 2016 cap space at just over $22.2 million dollars. The Broncos convinced Ware to take a small pay cut in order to seemingly play one more year in Denver. They have expressed interest in keeping Miller long-term but were forced to give him the exclusive franchise tag in light of a probable contract set to break records for dollars given to a defensive player.

And just like the cornerback position, the likelihood of the Broncos picking a pass-rusher with their 31st overall pick is slim-to-none but most would have said the same thing last year before the Broncos moved up in the draft to select Ray.

Noah Spence is another talented player who had off-field issues leading to his release from a top-tier college program. Ohio State University signed him but ultimately the Big Ten banned him from the conference in 2014 after failing multiple drug tests, reportedly stemming from a problem with ecstasy. Instead of entering the 2015 draft he transferred to Eastern Kentucky, earned a degree and played well.

At Eastern Kentucky, he showed the talent that got him to Urban Meyer at OSU. He showed “top 15 talent” in 2015, tallying 13.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for a loss and possesses both the strength and talent to come into the NFL and play right away. He is projected to be picked in the early to mid-second round but may fall further due to his past. His body type is that of Ray, at 6-2, 251 pounds.

A truly “under-the-radar” pick would have to be Matt Judon of Grand Valley State. The Division II pass rusher recorded an astonishing and college football leading 20 sacks while also adding 23.5 tackles for a loss in 2015. He dominated and showed a knack for getting to the quarterback with regularity. The only thing him back as a fifth to seventh round pick is the competition he faced in D-II. He has the ability and frame to play in the NFL, as he was the combine’s top performer at his position in the 40, bench press and vertical jump according to NFL.com. The Broncos could easily use one of their many late picks on him due to his sack production.

Lastly, the Broncos not only have an immediate problem with the contracts their starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart but they just saw their two premium backups, Omar Bolden and David Bruton, leave in free agency.

Ward is signed through 2017, making $5.75 million each of the next two seasons. Next year his dead cap money stands at $1.25 million dollars according to Spotrac. Stewart is in the last year of his two-year contract worth $4.25 million and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017. Both players performed marvelously last season despite nursing injuries throughout the season. They both brought a physical, versatile style that meshed well with the elite defense across the board. Both showed a knack for sure, hard tackling and Stewart in particular, did not allow much over the top all year. The Broncos will be looking for both depth in 2016 and someone to take over at either or both spots long term.

The draft holds several talented safeties and due to the position, many of them will be around after the second round. Both safeties from Ohio State are on the board in the coming draft. Strong safety Vonn Bell is near the top of strong safeties in the draft and has played since his freshman season while also winning a national championship in 2014. He is exceptional in coverage but many scouts have said his size and physicality may hinder him. He is slated to go as early as the middle of the second round. His teammate, free safety Tyvis Powell may be around as late as the sixth round.

Powell also played in several big games and showed a knack for making big plays in bowl games. He has come away with interceptions multiple times on big stages like the Fiesta Bowl versus Notre Dame. Such plays have given him a reputation for good hands and his 4.46 40-yard dash time at the combine led safeties. Like Bell, multiple sources say he must become more physical to play at the NFL level but his speed and athleticism will garner a draft pick. He, at least, could provide depth this season for the Broncos and could learn from two of the most physical safeties in the league in the meantime.

Darian Thompson of Boise State could also be a free safety option in the draft. He is a four-year starter and has been described as a “film junkie” by scouts. He is an interception machine and also does not shy away from tackles and that mentality earned him All-American honors the last two seasons of his career as a Bronco. As NFL.com noted, he tallied 19 interceptions while at Boise, tying the record among players in the country. However, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com also noted his 4.69 40-yard dash time at the combine will impact his stock and it also adds to the narrative that Thompson is prone to allowing big plays over the top. Again, he could receive a great deal of coaching from Stewart in that regard if the Broncos were to take a chance on him somewhere in the late third to fourth round.

The Broncos currently have an elite defense with a few small holes due to recent departures but impending departures down the road could make those holes exponentially bigger. The Broncos 2016 NFL Draft may surprise many people but remaining elite is always Elway’s priority.


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