Broncos' Draft Wishlist: Why Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs Should Take Top Priority at Pick 15
Wide receiver. Wide receiver. Wide receiver.
The Denver Broncos’ offseason is here and with that comes the high volume of speculation and offseason wish lists. With the hiring of new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, bringing his high rate of 11 personnel (3WR sets), shotgun passing, inside zone, and isolation routes, the ‘need’ for better talent at wide receiver has only been magnified.
Moving on from the Shanahan West Coast Offense, with heavy usage of 12 and 21 personnel (lots of RBs and TEs), the under-center offense, and the outside zone, the Broncos’ offseason priorities will shift along with player fits to maximize the new scheme under Shurmur. While the Broncos needed receiver help before, that need has only grown in the new scheme.
Courtland Sutton is a legitimate No. 1 ‘X’ receiver for any team. While he doesn’t create elite separation and still can continue to improve in his route running and catching technique, his overall physical skill-set allows Sutton to dominate in any area of the field.
Deep, over the middle, short and creating yards after catch, Sutton destroys press coverage and has the chance to emerge as a top-10 receiver in the NFL going forward. The Broncos' options outside of Sutton, though, need improvement, even more so in this new scheme.
Luckily for the Broncos, the 2020 draft has a wealth of talented wideouts. With such talents as Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs III, Laviska Shenault Jr., Tee Higgins, and Jalen Reagor finding their way into the first round of many mocks, along with talents like K.J. Hamler, Brandon Aiyuk, Justin Jefferson, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Devin Duvernay, Quartney Davis likely to be available on day two, the Broncos are going to have a chance to land some talent to help better complement Sutton.
The O-Line Needs Pass-Blocking Help
However, moving to a scheme relying on more spread concepts out of 11 personnel means that not only will the receiver talent need to improve, but also the offensive line — specifically the pass blocking department — will need to take steps forward.
The Broncos’ O-line has taken strides over the past few seasons. Under the direction of Sean Kugler and Chris Strausser in 2018 to Mike Munchak and Chris Kuper in 2019, the unit has steadily improved week-to-week.
The unit has been playing especially well in the ground game. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos’ 2018 O-line ranked as the sixth-best run-blocking unit in all of football, while the 2019 version ranked as the 10th-best in the same department.
While the run blocking has been a real boon to the offense, helping Phillip Lindsay (and not so much Royce Freeman, a real indictment on his level of play this past season), the pass blocking has not fared as well, ranking 25th in the NFL in both 2018 and 2019. The O-line did improve once Drew Lock was inserted into the lineup, but there's little doubting the unit still needs work and an influx of talent. Going into more spread-oriented passing concepts going forward, the O-line is going to have to hold up better in pass protection for Lock and the offense to succeed.
So all-in-all, the O-line is very much on the table for the first round in the draft. Of course, talent will have to match the draft selection when Denver is on the clock at pick 15, so while that may not be the best option, but it should be a priority.
Wirfs Would be the Dream
However, what are the potential O-line options for the Broncos and who would fit best into the offense and the current needs of the roster? In a class with some really good tackle talent at the top, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs stands above them all.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, Wirfs is an absolute mountain of a man playing right tackle for the O-line factory that is the University of Iowa. Earning Bruce Feldman’s No. 1 overall spot on his annual ‘College Football Freaks List’, Wirfs’ athleticism-to-size ratio is unparalleled in this class.
This past off-season, Wirfs broke Brandon Scherff’s school record on the power clean, doing four reps of 450 pounds. At only 20 years old, there is still untapped potential and power in his frame.
Wirfs also is likely to blow up the Combine. Having been recorded jumping a 35-inch vertical this past season on top of a 113-inch broad jump, the explosiveness Wirfs possess will likely go unmatched in the upcoming draft class.
Wirfs also has plenty of attributes that point towards a very high floor in the NFL. Along with many of the best linemen in the NFL, he is an accomplished track and field athlete as a former state champion in shot put, as well as being a state-champion wrestler.
Cross-training and accolades in other sports is often a good sign for O-linemen. Not only did Wirfs dominate across multiple sports in high school, he also went on to become the first true freshman in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure as Iowa's head coach to start at tackle.
Considering the long-line of high-quality offensive linemen that came out of Iowa such as Riley Reiff, Brian Bulaga, Robert Gallery, Brandon Scherff, and Marshal Yanda, this is an accomplishment in its own right.
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While Wirfs has not gone up against the list of talent such as the other top tackles in this class like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas or Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, Jr., neither possess the athletic upside nor the positional or schematic versatility of Wirfs. Wills has shown more power on tape and looks further along technically, but he doesn’t possess movement skills nor the pass-blocking upside of Wirfs.
Thomas has the most high-upside tape, but his movement skills and fluidity in pass sets, as well as his ability to climb to the second level as a blocker, are not commensurate with the flashes from Wirfs over his time at Iowa. Both Thomas and Wills look like they would be better fits in a much more gap-heavy scheme and while both had better overall seasons and are likely better on day one, Wirfs’ potential is limitless.
One question commonly asked is this; if Wirfs is this freak of an athlete with monster upside at tackle, then why did Iowa play him at right tackle all of these years instead of on the left where the blindside blocker is typically more valuable? The answer lies in the Hawkeyes’ own personnel.
While Wirfs is an absolute dynamic player that can play right or left tackle, Iowa’s other tackle Alaric Jackson, who somewhat surprisingly is returning to Iowa in 2020, is far more comfortable at left tackle than right. The 2010 USC Trojans had Matt Kalil playing left tackle and Tyron Smith manning the right for the same reason Wirfs played right at Iowa; whereas Wirfs could competently play either tackle spot, Jackson could only play left. Both Trojans in that example would go onto to be top-10 picks in the draft, while the latter (who played RT at USC) has had a more prolific NFL career at left tackle.
So, don’t be afraid of Wirfs being listed as right tackle. He has the ability and technique to do either. Wirfs showed as much during this past college football season as well.
With Jackson going down with a knee sprain early in the season, Wirfs moved to the left side and operated rather flawlessly during his short stint there. He would move back to right tackle upon Jackson’s return, but the small amount of high-quality tape he produced at left tackle should give a bit of relief to those worried about drafting ‘a right tackle’ that high.
Now, if Wirfs was really this freak prospect, how could he be considered for the Broncos at pick 15? The answer is, Wirfs had some inconsistencies in 2019. With struggles against smaller pure speed rushers such as Michigan’s Josh Uche and Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, Wirfs will need to show he can translate that athleticism and size to hang better against the smaller, speed-edge rushers.
Furthermore, there are some questions surrounding Wirfs’ arm length. If Wirfs does measure at least 33.5-inch arms, his overall bulk and athleticism should keep him at tackle, but that will remain a question until the measurements are official at the NFL Combine.
What makes Wirfs a great overall fit for the Broncos, in comparison to other tackles in the class, is just his overall schematic and positional versatility at the next level. Unlike Thomas and Wills, Wirfs has elite movement skills and agility to play in a more zone-heavy scheme, but the natural power and size to play in a gap scheme.
While Wirfs' technique isn’t to the level of the other top tackles at the moment, as he will need to work his balance in run blocking and his footwork and initial pass sets against ‘quick-twitch’ edge rushers. He compares very favorably to Ronnie Stanley coming out of Notre Dame, who has over the course of the past several seasons developed into one of the premier left tackles in all-of-football.
If the Broncos were to wind up selecting Wirfs in the first round, what would make him such a unique fit is the fact that his overall skill-set could work as well at guard as it would at tackle. Much like Laremy Tunsil, who in his first season at Miami played guard, Wirfs could come in year one and play guard at a very high level.
From the power to dig out defensive tackles, the strength to anchor in pass protection, and movement skills to pull or climb to the second level, Wirfs could come in and provide a huge boost to the Broncos' O-line.
Now, this does not make Wirfs a pure guard by any means, but given that the Broncos have all but said that Garett Bolles will be the starting left tackle in 2020, which he has legitimately earned given his play down the stretch, and that Ja’Wuan James will be the starting right tackle given the team's massive financial commitment to him, the Broncos do not have a day-one need at tackle.
However, the Broncos absolutely need depth and talent to provide protection and competition to both starting tackles. With Bolles potentially being a free agent after 2020 (if the team does not exercise the fifth-year option) and the inability to trust James to play a full game without injury let alone a full season, Wirfs can step in and play right or left tackle and the unit won’t miss a beat. Best-case scenario, Wirfs plays his entire rookie season at right guard while Bolles and James play well and stay healthy, but the odds of that, given the past of both players, seem rather unlikely.
Wirfs is still only 20, possesses absolutely massive upside, and has the versatility to play either guard or tackle spot in either a gap- or zone-heavy scheme. He still has areas of his game that need to be cleaned up in the pass and run game both, but with the helpful hand of Munchak, Wirfs has potential that no other offensive lineman in this class possesses.
Wirfs may not be there at pick 15 and given that the Broncos have numerous needs, they probably will not be in the market to trade up for him. However, out of the semi-realistic possibility that he's available when Denver goes on the clock, there is no player that should be higher on the team's board than Wirfs.
Helping Lock and adding players with massive pass-blocking upside to help transition to Shurmur’s scheme should be the team’s highest priority this offseason — without question. Adding Wirfs not only would give the team a lineman with an extremely high floor due to his overall athletic traits and projected versatility, but a chance to land one of the better prospects in the draft.
At this point, Wirfs falling to 15 may be somewhat of a pipedream, but with the draft still 99 days away, it’s okay to fantasize a bit.