The NFL Draft is a dangerous dance. Every year teams must calculate the value of players and slot them up against each other.
From positional value, to medicals, character concerns, to schematic fits, every team evaluates individual players differently and must decide at what point a player is worth coming off the board and becoming the newest member of its organization.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the draft evaluation game is the dichotomy of the ‘boom-or-bust’ prospect versus the low-floor/high-ceiling player. Load up a draft full of athletic ‘potential’ players, such as the Denver Broncos did in the 2017 draft, and it can lead to heartbreak.
With Garett Bolles far-and-away the best player from the 2017 class, the players selected in the mid-rounds that year represent a barren wasteland of hopes and dreams in Carlos Henderson, Brendan Langley, Jake Butt, and Isaiah McKenzie. That abortion of a draft luckily forced John Elway and the Broncos to re-examine how they evaluate players.
On the other hand, take too many high-floor players with a limited athletic ceiling and you risk winding up with a bunch of mediocre players who never materialize into anything beyond an assortment of JAGs (just a guy).
The Broncos absolutely nailed the 2018 draft in the first two rounds, landing Bradley Chubb and Courtland Sutton, but rounds three and four — despite having four picks at their disposal — have contributed very little on the field in Royce Freeman, Isaac Yiadom, Josey Jewell, and DaeSean Hamilton.
Yes, these players were important in establishing a new culture and character for the Broncos but no one can be in love with Denver’s return on investment in those selections.
So how does a team balance 'boom-or-bust' upside picks with the 'high-floor/instant-impact' picks? Look no further than the Broncos' 2020 draft class where Elway walked that thin line between playing it safe while going for broke.
Broncos selected one of the safest wide receiver prospects in years in the first round in Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy is a good athlete, who wins in a multitude of ways. With ample tape winning against the best competition college football has to offer in the SEC and putting up multiple years of incredible statistical output, he is plug-and-play in essentially any NFL offense.
Furthermore, Jeudy wins in one of the most translatable ways in the NFL: as a route runner. Jeudy may have left Alabama a year early to enter the draft but he left Tuscaloosa with a Ph.D. in route running. While most of his heavy lifting came from the slot, he did play a decent number of snaps on the boundary as well and projects as a versatile inside-outside receiver in OC Pat Shurmur’s 11-personnel-heavy offense.
Jeudy will need to prove he can handle the likely heavy amount of press coming his way if he does indeed play more Z receiver on the boundary in Denver’s offense next year, given he was mostly a slot in college and it is far easier to beat press from the slot (if a team even dares given how much more dangerous it is to press a slot player).
Jeudy may not have the physicality and above-the-rim alpha mentality at the catch point of the 17th overall pick CeeDee Lamb. Nor does Jeudy have the eye-popping speed and surprising hands of former teammate and 12th overall pick Henry Ruggs III.
Both those receivers could be argued to have the higher ceiling than Jeudy, but Jeudy will have an easier transition to the NFL with a much higher floor given how he wins. He is by no means ‘playing it safe’ but in comparison to some other receiver options, he definitely is as safe as any receiver prospect in some time.
How he wins translates, but he is unlikely to ever be an absolutely dominant physical force such as a Julio Jones type, given his slender frame and play style. With the selection of Jeudy, the Broncos came as close as possible to guaranteeing an upgrade at the WR position going forward.
Raising the floor of the Broncos’ entire receiving unit, Elway and the Broncos decided to swing for the fences in round two and take one of the single-most explosive playmakers in the entirety of college football in Penn State’s KJ Hamler.
Listed at just 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, Hamler will be one of the smallest players on the field each and every week he plays. This size docks his grade as a prospect because it opens him up to bigger hits that may result in injuries.
His size also limits where Hamler may align as he probably will be a pure slot player in the NFL to avoid being engulfed by press-coverage on the boundary, and also likely a large reason for his concerning drop rate in college where he tied for the FBS lead in drops in 2019 with 12.
Despite these limitations in Hamler’s game, he has the potential to become one of the most electrifying offensive playmakers in the entire NFL. His acceleration ability to get to his top speed on top of his shiftiness makes him extremely dynamic both after the catch, in manufactured touches, and down the field.
Whether as a slot receiver or as a gadget weapon, Hamler is someone opposing defenses simply cannot ignore because he has the ability to create a chunk-yardage play each time he touches the ball. Hamler has a high bust potential given his size and concerns catching the football, but his upside is impossible to ignore.
In today’s NFL, explosive plays are the name of the game, and Hamler has the ability to not only be one of the more dynamic playmakers in the 2020 draft class but in the entire NFL. He may be boom-or-bust and that always is a concern with a second-round pick, but paired with Jeudy as the Broncos’ first-rounder, the risk becomes far more palatable.
Elway and the Broncos not only implemented this strategy of selecting a very safe and high-floor instant-impact player only to be paired with a boom-or-bust player later on at WR, but he also did so on the interior offensive line in this year’s draft.
With the 83rd pick, the Broncos selected LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry. Standing at just over 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds with 34-1/8-inch arms, he has the length and frame to play all three interior O-line positions.
Cushenberry is smooth in pass protection and stays relatively balanced. A common issue for centers who typically are the smallest offensive linemen, Cushenberry has no problems sinking his hips and dropping his anchor against a nose tackle’s bullrush in a one-on-one situation.
Cushenberry is also extremely intelligent and is a team leader. Earning the number 18 jersey due to his work ethic and leadership for the Tigers, Cushenberry was often seen as the ‘other’ leader on the LSU offense along with QB Joe Burrow.
Cushenberry is by no means a bad athlete, as he does well redirecting and can climb to the second level in run plays if necessary. However, he is never going to confuse anyone for incredibly agile centers such as last year’s first-round pick Garrett Bradbury.
Cushenberry’s range as a blocker is only okay. Furthermore, he sometimes can lean and fall off his blocks, with hit-or-miss hand placement and punch strength.
Overall, Cushenberry may never be an All-Pro center, but it would be a shock if he didn’t end up a decade-long starter in the NFL.
On the other end of the extremely high floor that comes with Cushenberry, the Broncos used the 181st selection on the high-floor\low-ceiling prospect in Fresno State OG Natane Muti. At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Muti is an absolute beast at the point of attack that doesn’t simply wish to block the opposing defender, but destroy him.
It’s not often an offensive lineman has a fun highlight tape, but switch on some film of Muti and you'll be blown away. He is an absolute unit and one of the strongest players ever to come through the NFL Combine after putting up an outstanding 44 reps on the bench press, the 99th percentile for offensive linemen.
If Muti gets his hands on a defender and squares him it, it’s over as he will drive the defender back yard after yard while blasting open run lanes. He takes on power easily with strong hands and anchors like an old oak stump with roots deep in the earth. For being such a power player as well, he has solid flexibility and movement in his lower half.
Muti is still somewhat raw as a football player and can get 'grabby' if he doesn’t win, not trusting his technique and instead, grabbing the opponent’s jersey. He also has very short arms at just under 32 inches, so he likely will only ever be a guard at the next level.
If Muti is this powerhouse of a player, how did he fall all the way to the sixth round? Muti has suffered a multitude of injuries over his career. Suffering a right Achilles injury his freshman year led him to red-shirt, while he suffered a left Achilles injury in 2018, and a Lisfranc injury in 2019. Muti has only played a total of five games over the last two seasons combined.
Despite these massive medical concerns, when Muti was on the field, he was one of the most dominant guards in college football. He would have easily been a top-50 selection if not for the injuries given his unrelenting power and upside, but the medicals are too scary to ignore.
Muti drafted alone, despite his massive upside, would be a major concern given he may not see the field needing a red-shirt year coming off the Lisfranc injury, let alone if he ever sees the field at all. However, after drafting the super safe Cushenberry in round three, Muti is a risk worth taking. Only good things can come from putting these two offensive linemen into the hands of renowned coach Mike Munchak.
A Wise Strategy
One of the benefits of having as many draft picks as the Broncos had this past draft, due to trades and compensatory selections, was that Elway could afford doubling up on a few positions. Pairing instant impact and high floor players in Jeudy and Cushenberry with boom-or-bust players in Hamler and Muti is a phenomenal draft strategy.
Having as many picks as the Broncos did, Elway could afford to take both the plug-and-play players and pair them with some tantalizing projects. Call it ‘hedging your bets’ or call it ‘doubling down’, I call it a brilliant draft strategy by Elway and the Broncos.
Will it pay off? That remains to be seen.
However, don’t let the future results sway your opinion, as the methods were wise and impressive and increased the odds the Broncos walked away with a solid haul in the 2020 draft.