Coming off of a 5-11 campaign and four-straight losing seasons, the Denver Broncos find themselves in unknown territory; in the land of the irrelevants. Not surprisingly, Denver’s drop from the list of perennial contenders correlates with the team’s recent list of cringe-worthy quarterback decisions.
However, the culprits for the sad state of affairs at Broncos HQ go well beyond that of the signal-caller. In fact, the Broncos' offseason plan of attack could be modeled off of Paton's last NFL stop.
Before we get to that, let's go back in time.
Current Struggles Linked to Previous Poor Draft Classes
One of the largest contributors to the Broncos’ struggles as of late is the result of poor drafts and development of players from the 2013-17 seasons. Out of 38 draft selections, the only players of note still on the Broncos’ roster from those drafts are 2017 first-round pick Garett Bolles and 2016 third-rounder Justin Simmons (Will Parks is also of note, but is currently a free agent).
Some of the players Denver drafted that are no longer Broncos have gone on to find relative success elsewhere, but for the most part, a big reason for the team's current state is tied to the lack of success drafting, developing, and retaining its younger players. One could argue over the last few drafts, the Broncos have drafted better, but the reward of those classes is still in its fledgling stages.
Fortifying Offensive & Defensive Trenches
With new GM George Paton in the front office, just how will the Broncos’ philosophy shift when it comes to team building? Of course, Paton likes to state his mantra of “draft and develop” but saying that is the team’s plan is one thing; executing that idea is another thing entirely.
In his introductory press conference back in January, Paton stated he would like to invest in the trenches for the Broncos, saying in regards to the offensive and defensive lines, "I just think that’s the core of the team. I think you’re going to be in every game if you have a really strong defensive line and a really strong offensive line.”
Could the Broncos look to add an offensive tackle to compete with the frequently absent Ja’Wuan James, an interior defensive lineman to fortify the middle of the defense like Shelby Harris walks, or perhaps even an edge rusher regardless of the outcome of the Von Miller situation?
The return on investment may not be substantial in 2021, but over the duration of a cost-controlled rookie contract, Denver could certainly create a surplus by further investing in the trenches. Given how Paton's former employer, the Minnesota Vikings, invested in the trenches on Day 1 and 2 the draft, a pick for either line could and should be on the table.
Running Backs Matter to Minnesota
Another area of note many are pointing out as hypotheses abound on how Paton may look to invest draft capital is the running back position. Of note under direction of Vikings GM Rick Spielman, Minnesota utilized four Day 2 picks on a running back in Jerick McKinnon (2016 third-rounder), Dalvin Cook (2017 second-rounder), and Alexander Mattison (2019 third-rounder).
Given the uncertain future of Philip Lindsay, as well as all three of the team's running backs not on their current contracts in Denver beyond 2021, the position is an impending need. It makes some sense if Denver trades down from pick No. 9 overall to accumulate more selections, a running back, especially scheme fits such as Alabama’s Najee Harris and North Carolina’s Javontae Williams in the late first to early second round range.
Running back may be an incredibly devalued position in today’s NFL due to its extremely short shelf-life and abundance in free agency but it's still been a premium-round focus of Paton's former team.
The Biggest Need: Cornerback & Secondary
When looking over the Broncos’ current roster needs, the recent draft history of Paton’s former employer, as well as current trends in how the game of football is played in the NFL, an obvious trend emerges; a heavy investment and draft allocation has been used on the secondary.
The Broncos have an overwhelmingly obvious need in the secondary heading into the 2021 offseason. Long gone are the days of the No Fly Zone and while that unit will likely never be replicated, the Broncos are likely to heavily invest in the defensive backfield this offseason.
According to 9NEWS' Mike Klis, Paton will target a cornerback.
“For sure he’s going to get a cornerback," Klis said. I’m not sure if he will get the top-end cornerback or not but they need two, at least two. I think one will come in the draft, high in either the first or second round. I think one will come in free agency.”
Current Cornerback Status
The Broncos do currently roster two cornerbacks of note in Bryce Callahan and Michael Ojemuida. Callan was incredible in 2020 when on the field but has a history marred by injuries. Callahan can be great but he simply struggles to play the entire season.
Callahan is also entering the last year on his contract in Denver in 2021 and will turn the dreaded 30 years of age this upcoming season. He might not be in Denver’s long-term plans.
The same cannot be said about Ojemudia, who was benched last season due to tackling concerns, only to retake a starting position as a boundary corner later in the year after Denver’s defensive back unit suffered injuries and bad play from other guys. Ojemudia improved, but as a mid-Round 3 pick, he could and should face competition to be one of Denver’s starting three corners in 2021.
Even if Callahan is healthy and plays like he did last year and Ojemudia improves and secures a boundary corner position, Denver needs further help at cornerback both in the immediate and long-term.
Vikings' Premium Draft Capital Usage on DBs
Considering the draft history of the Vikings, the likelihood of the Broncos addressing cornerback and defensive back this offseason early and often is only amplified. While many point to Paton’s words about investing in the offensive and defensive trenches, as well as the Vikings propensity to cut against the grain of the 'running backs don’t matter' ethos, Minnesota may have been ahead of the curve in analytics when it comes to the utilization of draft assets on the secondary.
Over Spielman’s career as the Vikings' GM from 2012 to the present day, Minnesota has spent a disproportionate amount of their premium draft capital (Rounds 1-3 of the draft) on defensive backs.
Over the 2012-20 drafts, the Vikings used 8-of-26 total picks in Rounds 1, 2, and 3 on defensive backs.
- 2020: (1.31) Jeff Gladney, (3.89) Cameron Dantzler
- 2018: (1,30) Mike Hughes
- 2016: (2.54) Mackenzie Alexander
- 2015: (1.11) Trae Waynes
- 2013: (1.25) Xavier Rhodes
- 2012: (1.29) Harrison Smith, (3.66) Josh Robinson
That comes out to 30.77% of the Vikings’ Day 1 and 2 draft picks, jumping to 31.59% for Round 1 and 2 picks with six DBs selected out of 19 total selections. This is a fairly high frequency of spending high draft capital at DB, only further emphasized by the fact that most teams’ active rosters are 20% DBs (typically around 10 total on a given team’s 53-man roster).
The Vikings under Spielman spent a disproportionate volume of draft picks on DBs in comparison to the other 31 NFL teams. It should not be at all surprising to see Paton deploy a similar strategy building the Broncos’ roster.
Analytics: Invest in Coverage 'Surplus' in Back Seven & Secondary
The trends favoring a higher volume of draft resources utilized on DBs and back-seven coverage players is one that many analytical studies suggest as a favorable team-building strategy as well. Last year, Pro Football Focus conducted an analysis to determine what was more valuable in a defense’s ability to perform as a top unit.
The study revealed that the depth of a defense, specifically in the back seven, is the strongest indicator for defensive success.
This research, along with that showing how much coverage matters to team success, implies that resources need to be invested heavily into secondary players and linebackers who can cover, and as much horizontally as vertically. The difficulty in predicting coverage season-to-season and game-to-game just enhances this call to action, since a lot of coverage players are needed to increase the probability that a team’s fourth- and fifth-best coverage player is good enough to win with. That means that the team lucky enough to draft Jeffrey Okudah is simply not done building their secondary, as additional numbers need to be thrown at safety and linebackers as well as more cornerbacks who can compliment him on the back end.
Further driving the theory of depth in the secondary being such an important factor for defensive success is the fact that offenses dictate where the ball goes. Such as how good teams and offenses were able to target and pick on whichever cornerback was opposite of first-ballot Hall-of-Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, given it is the offense who can isolate matchups and choose whom they target (or don’t target) having depth across the secondary is necessary to challenge the more cerebral quarterbacks in the NFL.
The years of the Broncos getting tossed by Peyton Manning in the playoffs, whose Colts teams dominated Denver's defenses by choosing one coverage weakness and consistently exploiting the matchup, should come to mind as an example for those in Broncos Country.
Investing in Secondary Cultivates Success
The recent success of the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses, as pointed out by PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner on a recent podcast, also presents strong evidence for heavily investing in the secondary. When asked on the 2-for-1 Draft Podcast about the best strategy for the Detroit Lions going forward, Renner advised the following.
Load up on as many picks as possible and throw picks at that secondary… cornerbacks, I think there is a reason why the Ravens are the only team to have had top three defenses each of these past two years. It’s because they have the second highest-paid cornerback in the NFL playing against slot receivers. It’s the reason why the Bucs were able to shut down the Saints, Packers, and Chiefs. They have the deepest cornerback room and five guys in the secondary that are plus starters. That’s how you get back to competing… They (the Ravens) made Tavon Young the highest paid slot corner and then they paid Marlon Humphrey and then they traded for Marcus Peters when they had a secondary that was set already.
Slowing Down AFC West's High-Octane Offenses
If the ample reasons listed above weren’t enough, Paton will likely have to assess the state of the AFC West in general in order to revamp the Broncos and calibrate the roster to contend in the division. Having to play six games each season against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr, the Broncos might have no choice but to toss copious draft resources at the secondary.
The passing offenses in the AFC West are talented, deep, and deadly and the Broncos do not have near the talent on defense, specifically at cornerback, to have hopes of slowing them down.
All Signs Point Towards Denver Investing Hard in Secondary
Cornerback is an obvious need for the Broncos, but given the draft history of Paton’s past employer, utilizing premium draft picks on defensive backs, analytics pointing at the value of having quality depth in the back seven, as well as the current arms race of AFC West offenses, don't be surprised to see Denver invest heavily in the secondary and back seven.
Perhaps Paton won't go so far as to mimic ex-GM John Elway’s 2020 draft class, going cornerback Rounds 1 and 2 as Denver did with wide receiver last year, but it shouldn’t be off the table either.
If it wasn’t obvious before, historical trends, analytics, and divisional circumstances make the secondary a need even more pressing. It's a likely course of action for Denver under Paton’s first year as the team’s GM.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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