The term 'unprecedented' is perhaps the most overused, yet fitting, word over the past year. While 'unprecedented' is used more in the context of the current pandemic we all find ourselves in or whatever is going on in politics (ducks head), it also applies quite fitting to the current state of the Denver Broncos.
John Elway, the face of the organization, is taking a backseat as the Broncos find themselves in a division with Patrick Mahomes and a quarterback coming off the greatest statistical rookie season ever in Justin Herbert while being in midst of the organization’s largest stretch of incompetency since the 1960s. To boot, there's no end in sight to the team’s current ownership situation (or lack thereof).
'Unprecedented' might be overused but goodness does it fit.
Another area where the word truly fits is the Broncos' current slot and direction in the NFL Draft. After a season where many of the top talents entering the 2020 college football season opted out, we are likely to see an extremely wild and unpredictable top of the draft.
Will teams care if a prospect opted out in 2020 due to the pandemic, instead choosing to use the season to prepare for the draft rather than put out more tape and answering questions teams may have about their overall evaluation? That answer will likely differ team-to-team, but there is no doubt it will be a point of conversation for new Broncos' GM George Paton.
Opt-Out Prospects Skewing the View
The top prospects who opted out of the 2020 season include Oregon OT Penei Sewell, Northwestern OL Rashawn Slater, Miami DL Gregory Rousseau, Louisiana State WR Ja’Marr Chase, Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farely, and Penn State LB Micah Parsons. Unfortunately for Denver, a number of these prospects may have been in play at pick No. 9 overall but they've now become far riskier given they have one less year of tape, questions left unanswered, and have taken a year off from football; specifically that of Rousseau, Farely and Parsons.
The Broncos should not be completely scared off from the likes of Rousseau, Farely, and Parsons entirely because the trio has incredible athletic traits and profiles that would make them first-round picks in almost any class.
Rousseau is extremely raw and wiry but has a massive frame and a lot of power. He doesn’t have much bend but with a few years in the league, he could develop into an inside/outside player such as Calais Campbell. Rousseau could also become a Dion Jordon, who flopped after going No. 3 overall.
Parsons has ample tools and is one of the better athletes to play the linebacker position in years. However, he is extremely raw in his reads and processing and has some off-field concerns.
Farley has incredible movement skills for his size and has inside/outside ability, but being a wide receiver converted to corner left too many missed tackles on tape in 2019. All three have tantalizing upside, but also possess lower floors than a typical ‘upper tier’ prospect.
Abundance at Positions Already Stacked in Denver
The players that did play in 2020 that likely fit the range (at this point in time) for the Broncos picking at No. 9 overall are unfortunately playing positions the team really can’t afford to sink first-round capital into. While the likes Alabama WRs Devonta Smith and Jalen Waddle (and aforementioned Chase who opted out last season) fit Denver, where the Broncos currently pick, as well as Florida TE phenom in Kyle Pitts, Paton really isn't in a position to take wide receiver or tight end at No. 9 overall given the exciting youth and previously spent high draft capital at those positions.
I’ve been covering the draft long enough to never talk in absolutes given how unpredictable it can be, but it would be a shock to see Denver take one of those positions in the top-10 this year.
Fringe Top-10 Options
There are a few prospects who stood out this year but do they possess any top-10-level tools? Georgia edge Azeez Ojulari flashed, but he is a bit smaller than ideal for the league. Notre Dame LB/S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was projected to go Denver in Todd McShay’s latest mock, but is he really a good fit for what Vic Fangio has historically asked from his linebackers and safeties?
South Carolina's Jaycee Horn had a really good game against Auburn this year before taking his ball and going home, calling it a season, but the corner is a tad grabby at the top of routes which will likely turn into penalties at the next level and creating doubts about being a good enough athlete to be considered a top-10 pick. There are other cornerbacks, linebackers, edge rushers, and offensive tackles as well but none are likely good enough fits and warranting of a top-10 pick to be all listed by name here.
Outside of the quarterback discussion (and believe me we will discuss quarterback and the draft a-plenty over the next few months), there really is only one prospect that played this year who also feels like a fit for the Broncos at No. 9 overall: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II. Surtain is exceedingly safe for the cornerback position, but he doesn’t possess the athletic upside of cornerbacks drafted in the top-10 in recent seasons.
He isn’t going to run a sub-4.4s 40(-yard dash) nor is he a scheme transcendent athlete. Surtain doesn’t get burnt, though, and he is a good tackler with good instincts.
Perhaps there is something to be said about taking a player with such a high floor in such a weird draft season surrounded by uncertainty, but at the NFL Combine, questions surrounding Surtain’s athletic upside will only grow with testing results. That is… if there is to be a Combine.
Risk of Combine Being Canceled
There have been rumors recently, only fueled further by NFL insider Adam Schefter, that there may not be a Combine this year. Given that there was still a season at all in the midst of a pandemic, the thought of no Combine seems far-fetched, but that certainly could be a reality.
This would amplify the uncertainty of the 2021 draft as teams would miss out on standardized testing, measurements, medical tests, and interviews that all are important boxes to be checked in each individual prospects’ draft profile before sinking valuable picks.
Not only would missing the Combine matter for each team gathering information about prospects, but also we in NFL media would miss out as well. Given the Pro Day circuit is very likely to be limited this season following a year where scouts (both team and media) lost access to on the field of play, that'll affect teams just as much. Scouts bounce ideas off of each other at Pro Day gatherings, as well as communicate and network on the ground level
The media draft coverage cycle has grown to match the league more and more as more reporters cross paths with football employees leading up to the first round. The opportunity to brush elbows with someone working personnel after one too many drinks in downtown Mobile, AL, following a day at the Senior Bowl or Indianapolis working the Combine will be limited, likely leading to teams’ boards and the media’s perception of prospects’ value being as skewed and disparate as ever before.
Sitting here in mid-January with the Broncos hiring a new GM for the first time in a decade means that anyone who claims to know what the pick will be at No. 9 is likely a little full of something. Could the Broncos trade up for a quarterback? Perhaps.
Could Denver trade down and take a corner, tackle, or edge rusher while adding top-100 capital and 2022 picks? Sure. Could the Broncos stand pat and just let the board fall to them at No. 9? Absolutely.
The one thing we know now is that this is going to be an unprecedented draft cycle leading. With instability at ownership, a new GM, a head coach likely on the hot seat entering next season, and a quarterback the team still isn't sure about after 18 games and two years in the league, the Broncos are indeed in unprecedented times.
Nevertheless, the Broncos cannot afford to miss in the 2021 draft. There will be many unknown variables the team will have to parse through, but to close the gap on the other teams in the AFC and bring this once-proud franchise out of a World of Suck, it starts with getting the 2021 draft right.
Here’s to hoping Paton has the right vision and the Broncos nail the draft otherwise these 'unprecedented' times will likely continue for the foreseeable future.