First-Round Draft Record of Broncos' GM John Elway has More Hits than Misses

Chad Jensen

John Elway is entering his 10th NFL Draft since arriving as the Denver Broncos' top football executive back in 2011. The Broncos have achieved some phenomenal things since Elway joined the front office, though much of the bloom has faded from that rose in the wake of three consecutive losing seasons. 

However, there's reason for optimism in the Mile High City. In the wake of the Vic Fangio hire and Drew Lock's emergence, Elway believes the Broncos have 'bounced off the bottom' and are tracking in the right direction. 

With the NFL Draft only two weeks away, all eyes in Broncos Country are on Elway and how the team might maneuver. Holding the No. 15 overall pick, Elway will have a chance to come away with another blue-chip player if he plays his cards right. 

With the first round of the draft scheduled to kick off on April 23, what better time than now to reflect back on the nine players since 2011 that Elway has made the Broncos' first draft pick of the class? I'd say let's take a look at Elway's nine first-round picks, but the Broncos' first selection in 2012 wasn't in the first round, but I'm going to count him here. 

2011, Pick 2: Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M

As a shiny new NFL executive, Elway was put under the gun in 2011 with the Broncos holding the No. 2 overall pick — the highest selection the team had ever had in the draft. Failure wasn't an option. Elway had to get it right. 

History will judge Elway favorably for his decision, as Miller has gone on to create a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career. With 106 career sacks, Miller holds the Broncos' all-time record while having earned eight Pro Bowl selections and seven All-Pro nods (three first-team). 

The Broncos don't bring home the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50 were it not for Miller's transcendent performance, both in that championship game and against Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the AFC playoff gauntlet, respectively. 

Named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2010s, Miller has been a home-run pick for Elway and started the Broncos' football czar off on the right foot in the draft. 

Verdict: Hit

2012, Pick 36: Derek Wolfe, DL, Cincinnati

Wolfe is the unicorn of this group because despite not going in the first round, he was Elway's first pick in the 2012 draft after the Broncos traded back and out of day one. However, Wolfe provided the impact of a bona-fide first-rounder. 

Although he never would garner the type of individual accolades and attention of many of his Super Bowl 50 teammates, Wolfe was a big-time impact player for the Broncos and started all 108 games he appeared in. 

After eight seasons in Denver, Wolfe recently departed on a one-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens. But he is unquestionably one of Elway's biggest draft-day success stories, leaving the Broncos with one Super Bowl ring and 33 career sacks. 

Verdict: Hit

2013, Pick 28: Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina

This is where Elway's first-round success rates begin to diverge. It's not as if Williams was some kind of bust. Far from it. 

He started on two Super Bowl teams and played out the duration of his rookie deal, although the Broncos did not pick up his fifth-year option. Perhaps one of the reasons for Williams' relatively short-lived impact was his age. Despite getting drafted two years after Miller, for example, Williams is about six months older than the Super Bowl 50 MVP. 

While I can understand anyone who categorizes Williams as a first-round bust, I simply can't go there. He was a mainstay on the Broncos' D-line and a key cog upfront on an all-time defense. 

Verdict: Hit

2014, Pick 31: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

Drafted just two months after the Broncos' shellacking at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Roby landed in the Mile High City with relatively low expectations despite his draft pedigree. The reason for it was the presence of two stud cornerbacks in Chris Harris, Jr. and Aqib Talib, both of whom would go on to garner multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods as Broncos. 

Not Roby, though, who became the team's No. 3 corner until his fifth year. The Broncos did pick up his fifth-year option, hoping that he would shine as Talib's replacement in the starting lineup in 2018. But it didn't happen. 

Still, like Williams, it's difficult to categorize Roby as anything other than a modest draft success for Elway because the kid had some sizable contributions to Broncos canon, including an interception of Tom Brady that sealed the 2015 AFC Championship game for Denver and some serious playing time in Super Bowl 50. Roby was a part of that all-time unit and should be revered for it. 

Verdict: Hit

2015, Pick 23: Shane Ray, LB, Missouri

The Broncos tried to preempt the future loss of DeMarcus Ware by trading up to take Ray, who had plummeted from top-10 consideration due to a run-in with police not long before draft day. 

Ray was a dominant speed rusher at Mizzou and Elway had visions of he and Miller devastating QBs in the Orange and Blue in 2017 and beyond, but it didn't shake out that way, mostly because of a serious wrist injury Ray sustained. Ray showed signs of being a hit in his first two years, contributing to Super Bowl 50 as a rookie rotational pass rusher and posting eight sacks in year two in place of an increasingly injured Ware. 

But that injury, combined with perhaps a new coaching regime (Vance Joseph), led to a swift downward spiral for Ray. The Broncos chose to decline his fifth-year option, and after a 2018 season consumed by injury, Elway let him walk. He left Denver with 14 career sacks and hasn't posted another QB takedown in the league since. 

It's fair to call Ray a first-round bust but it wasn't necessarily due to Elway 'missing' in the draft as much as it was simply the bad luck of the injury bug. 

Verdict: Bust 

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2016, Pick 26: Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis

And now we land on Elway's first consensus swing-and-miss in round one. With Peyton Manning retiring and Brock Osweiler defecting to Houston, Elway had to try and maneuver to land a QB in the 2016 draft class, but sitting at pick 32 as defending World Champions, it would be easier said than done. 

After Jared Goff and Carson Wentz went No. 1 and 2 overall, respectively, Elway traded up to pick 26 to take Lynch. While you can't fault Elway for not landing Goff or Wentz, you can point the blame at him taking Lynch over a QB like Dak Prescott, who would later get drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth round. 

The 6-foot-7 Lynch had all the measurables NFL teams covet. The missing component? He lacked every requisite trait between the ears. Lynch will be remembered most for two things in Denver; one, his failure to vanquish Trevor Siemian in back-to-back open competitions for the starting job and two, for openly weeping on the sideline in the Black Hole of all places. 

The Broncos cut bait with Lynch on the doorstep of the 2018 season. He survived three training camps before Elway faced the fact that Lynch was one of the biggest first-round busts in Broncos history. 

Verdict: Bust

2017, Pick 20: Garett Bolles, OT, Utah

When the Broncos chose not to pick up the option on Russell Okung's contract following his one year as the starting left tackle, everyone knew that Elway would be looking to go OT early in the 2017 draft. Bolles was an obvious choice for Elway, and not just because he was a big trenchman accustomed to playing at altitude in the Rockies. 

Let's not forget, Bolles blew up the NFL Combine with his testing and that, in tandem with the Utah ties and his bully mentality on the field, called to Elway. The Broncos made Bolles the first OT off the board. 

What would ensue were three consecutive seasons with Bolles among the NFL's leaders in penalties. His name has become so synonymous with holding fouls that some fans refer to him as 'Garett Holds'. However, the jury is still out on whether Bolles goes down as a bust or a hit. 

He has started all 48 games he's appeared in for the Broncos and in that sense, has been able to contribute consistently. But those penalties and lapses in discipline have really cost the Broncos. Fortunately, with Mike Munchak in Denver, Elway and company are hopeful that the worst is behind Bolles and there's empirical evidence to support that line of thinking. He was one of the highest-graded OTs in the NFL from Week 9 on last season. 

It'll be interesting to see whether Elway picks up Bolles' fifth-year option after the draft. The book isn't written on Bolles yet, so when it comes to the 'hit or bust' question, I'm scribbling in 'push'. If he only plays four years in Denver but started every single game, is he a bust? I'll let you ponder that question on your own time. 

Verdict: Push

2018, Pick 5: Bradley Chubb, LB, N.C. State

The Broncos took who many draftniks believed was the top defensive prospect in the 2018 class when he inexplicably fell to them at pick No. 5. Most draftniks expected Elway to take a QB, considering the depth of talent in the class, but he couldn't look the Chubb gift-horse in the mouth. 

Out of the gates, Chubb was a resounding success. He set the Broncos' all-time rookie sack record and became one of a very small and elite group of pass rushers to post 12 or more sacks as a rookie. Although he didn't earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (Derwin James) or a Pro Bowl nod, the Broncos believed they'd found another foundational player in Chubb. 

Then the injury bug struck. Chubb suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 of last season and had to go on injured reserve. All signs point to him being good to go by the time the 2020 NFL season rolls around and I fully expect him to pick up where he left off. While he's only got two NFL seasons under his belt, I feel confident in proclaiming Chubb a 'hit' for Elway, and I hope I'm not wrong when looking back on this in retrospect years from now. 

Verdict: Hit

2019, Pick 20: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa

The Broncos traded back from pick 10 to 20 and still managed to land one of the prospects under consideration at 10 while picking up the ammunition to trade up and grab Drew Lock in the second round. 

Fant's rookie campaign was inconsistent, as it traditionally is for most tight ends. But he still set franchise rookie receiving records (receptions and yards) for a TE, finishing with 40 catches for 562 yards and three touchdowns. 

It's too early to definitively say whether Fant represents a 'hit or a miss' but based on what we've seen from his one-year sample size, I'm absolutely confident, similarly to Chubb, that he'll end up being a categorical success for this club. 

Verdict: Hit

Bottom Line

When it comes to his first picks in each draft, Elway has more often than not made the right decisions on day one. He missed badly on Lynch and saw the injury bug derail Ray's momentum, while Williams and Roby played out their rookie contracts and contributed to a World Championship. 

Miller and Wolfe were both home-run picks to start off Elway's front-office career and the last two first-rounders on Elway's resume suggest he's managed to get his groove back as a draft artist. However, if the Broncos are going to complete this rebuild and fully turn the ship around in 2020 with Lock at the helm, it's going to take one more deep and impactful draft class to put the finishing touches on it. 

That starts with pick 15 in the draft. . 

Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen and @MileHighHuddle.

Comments (13)
No. 1-8
Denver_guy
Denver_guy

The homer is strong in this one. Don’t and Williams were both busts. You don’t draft a guy in the first to be a back up and then not extend him

broncofan55555
broncofan55555

Have to disagree here to a degree in calling them "busts." Lynch is a true bust. I would say that Von, Wolfe, Chubb, and Fant could be classified as hits. The jury is still out on Bolles if he can turn things around this year he might get extended as LTs are hard to find and he does have durability. Elway has gotten some decent production out of Ray, Roby, Williams, and Bolles. So, while they were not true "hits," to call any of them busts would be extreme in my estimation. So, out of nine guys, four might be considered hits and four at least helpful to the cause. Considering how many first rounders are busts or so-so guys, I would say that Elway has done very well in round 1. Later rounds are another thing entirely. He also has had some HUGE misses, one of the most painful being trading up to grab Jake Butt and letting the Niners have Kittle on the very next pick. Had he gotten that pick right, it would be interesting to see how that would have changed Bronco history. OUCH!!!!

Luke  Patterson
Luke Patterson

Nice Work Chad!!!! The biggest sore on this list for me is Bolles. I still consider him a bust, and refuse to feed into the narrative that he improved in the second half of the season. There's no way he provides QB Drew Lock the blindside protection that he needs in the AFC West.

Brew77
Brew77

Thank God Elway finally learned how to listen to his scouts and learned how to draft guys. The past 2 drafts he has killed it but as you can see from this list the middle of this list is pretty bad. If you really want to open eyes you should list his second and third round picks most are beyond atrocious. I don’t believe a single one even came close to a second contract and most just bounced around the league a couple of more years and then were gone.

Denverkewl
Denverkewl

I think if you were Elway discussing this with an owner, you say two other things: How many pics lined up with playoff wine and/or Championships and How does he compare to the success rate of other GMS at the same range of Draft position. But even that is skewed by team needs. We aren't interviewing Mel Kiper for how well he assessed last years class to keep his job...how draftniks evaluate players means nothing relative to scheme fit. There are just too many variables to boil it down this way because we aren't comparing it to anything. You don't know if this is top or bottom GM performance - especially when what 50% of the pics overall wash out - even in the first round?? So, what if this best any comparable GM could do? Let us remember Dallas wanted Lynch too and might have snagged him...that's two NFL organizations making the very same assessment/projection. So what does that say...if pundits could do better they'd be running teams.

BleedOrange
BleedOrange

I'm gonna have to agree with @Denverkewl and @Chad Jensen here. Elway has done pretty well in the draft overall. The Steelers and Patriots have GMs who are considered to be two of the best in the league. Look back over their drafts over the same time frame. You'll see just as many whiffs and average contributors as Elway's. It's easy to second guess the picks after a few seasons in the league. A lot of people, including myself thought Yiadom and Hamilton were going to far exceed their draft grade, but they haven't. Elway certainly isn't without flaw, but he isn't anywhere near as bad of a GM as so many people make him out to be.

smilinassassin
smilinassassin

What I see is typically reflected in most of these drafts is they seem to get better the earlier Denver is picking. The 2012 draft is the biggest outlier and really an impressive draft by any team’s standard. Some might say “no duh of course drafting earlier gives you better picks” but we see teams screw this up all the time. They are the ones drafting early every year. So good on Elway for being able to cash in on league parity!

CUBuffinTX
CUBuffinTX

I just heard Bill Polian say this less than an hour ago. 40% of picks in the first round dont work out, and 60% of all players drafted don't work out. Now compare those numbers to what Elway has done and say he cant draft. Polian also said that trading up in round 1 is usually not advisable. "It works much less then it hits."


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