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Insider Hints Broncos Could Target Alabama RB Najee Harris in Round 1

Would George Paton use a precious first-round pick on a running back? One Denver insider hinted at just that.

The Denver Broncos hold the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Given the rumors coming out of Dove Valley currently, if the Broncos can find a suitable trade partner to move down from pick 9 overall, the team is going to jump at the opportunity.

Further influenced by the quarterback market in the 2021 draft (Todd McShay just recently had four signal-callers coming off the board in the first four picks), if the Broncos want to find a trade partner willing to surrender an impressive haul of draft picks, the team had better hope a QB of value is on the table when its on the clock. 

KOARadio insider Benjamin Allbright recently teased, “I’m not so sure they (the Broncos) are picking at nine.”

Despite what seems rather obvious, there are rumors swirling that if the Broncos do trade back, a running back might be high on their list of priorities. Recently on Broncos Country Tonight, Allbright said the following:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they (the Broncos) didn’t go running back early… Minnesota took Dalvin Cook early, a big investment when Paton was there. The Broncos are big fans of Najee Harris out of Alabama, if Denver trades back... I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe they flirted around, looking at Harris in the back half of the first round.”

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From a team-building perspective, trading down to draft a running back would not be smart. While the Broncos do not really know what is in the cards long-term for the team at running back with Paton somewhat balking at questions surrounding Melvin Gordon’s future as well as rumors swirling around whether Phillip Lindsay will garner second-round restricted free-agent tender, the Broncos could definitely look to draft running back relatively early.

However, in the top-50, given where Denver is at from a contention standpoint, seems exceedingly foolish. The Broncos aren't an improved running back situation away from contending and while Najee Harris, Javontae Williams, and Travis Etienne are talented, would they really upgrade from what Denver already has on the roster?

If so, the difference would be negligible. If you want to improve your running game, follow the Mike Shanahan model and invest in the offensive line. Running backs are a dime a dozen and have a short shelf life. In the pass-happy era of today’s football, an early investment in running back goes against most analytics.

While the phrase 'running backs don’t matter' refrain is obvious hyperbole, in an era of football where the use of analytics has never been more prevalent and the teams on the cutting edge using analytics to drive decisions tend to have a strong competitive advantage, taking a running back in the first round as opposed to a corner, tackle, or edge rusher on a team that is not a single running back away from contention would be a short-sighted move.

However, trading back from pick 9 could set the Broncos up to be flexible in multiple ways with the roster for the next few seasons, but that gain in value would come toppling down if it led to Denver taking such a devalued short shelf-life position such as running back with the team’s first pick.

Trading down from pick 9 does make some sense. It completely depends on how picks 1-8 come to pass and whether someone too talented to not select is there at pick 9 (in this writer’s opinion, I would have a hard time not taking Penei Sewell, Kyle Pitts, or Caleb Farley). 

Accumulating more picks gives the Broncos’ front office more darts to throw in what will be an odd offseason without the NFL Combine, no player visits, and other COVID-impacted differences. More roles of the die in another unprecedented offseason isn’t a terrible strategy.

Trading back could allow the Broncos to really fortify the depth of their roster. Tired of poor special teams play year-after-year? A heap of Day 3 picks can be a possible solution, adding more draftable talent to the bottom of the depth chart. 

Concerned about the depth in the trenches and the secondary? Again, adding more picks and attacking backend roster questions with volume is not a bad idea. It’s a strategy that has been employed by Paton’s former employer the Minnesota Vikings under GM Rick Speilman, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the Broncos GM mimic his former boss.

Another possible benefit and the elephant in the room? Finances. The Broncos are in a weird situation currently without an owner in place. While CEO Joe Ellis can say the team’s ownership situation has not, does not, and will not impact the budget and how the Broncos can address their team needs, the lack of ownership at all, let alone ownership with deep pockets, has to be considered. 

Trading down and turning pick 9 into more selections that become young, cheap, cost-controlled players to fill out the roster is a money ball move, but perhaps one the Broncos are more interested in making given their current financial limitations with no ownership in place on top of coming off of a year with limited gameday revenue.

Trading down from pick 9 and accumulating more 2021 draft capital (and hopefully some 2022 capital as well) might be the way to go given how the board falls, but what matters after that is what the Broncos do with the picks they acquire. Sure, the then-Oakland Raiders had three first-round picks in 2019 to really build a core for their team, but with those picks, the team selected an edge rusher whose best trait is run defense and setting the edge, a box safety in an era where the defenses of one single-high safety and one box safety are fading away in favor of Vic Fangio’s two-deep safety defense, and outside of punters, kickers, long snappers, and fullbacks, the most easily replaceable most devalued position in football, the running back.

The Broncos can certainly be like the early 2000s New England Patriots who annually traded back, added Day 2 picks and future draft capital, and continually churned young talent into their roster via the draft and resource allocation. However, if Denver does trade down to add more draft capital, the additional lottery tickets are only half the battle. Draft picks are only ever as good as the players they end up becoming.

In a draft class with a number of talented edge rushers, offensive tackles, and cornerbacks likely to come off the board between picks 15-to-40, the Broncos would be wise to target those 'high-value' positions in that range after a trade down from nine. 

All rookie contracts besides quarterback are slotted and the same regardless of the position, so filling out a roster with relatively cheap, cost-controlled, first-round picks at the most valuable positions is just smart team building.

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