And so concludes the 2020 NFL Draft. Despite the faulty practice of ‘grading’ a draft immediately after it’s completion, it seems like John Elway and the Denver Broncos are walking out of this week’s draft as one of the most improved teams in the NFL.
Yes, drafting a player is only half the battle, whereas that player’s development and the coaching staff putting that player in a position to succeed is just as important as ‘who’ a team selects, but it all starts with the name on the notecard being turned in to the commissioner — or at least sent via an instant message or something in this year’s case.
Elway and the Broncos could have gone a multitude of directions in the draft this weekend. Given the erratic play of 2017 left tackle Garett Bolles and the talent at the top of this year’s draft class at tackle, perhaps Elway could have fortified the line and given O-line Coach Mike Munchak a blue-chip prospect to handle the blindside.
Or perhaps Elway, given the recent identity of the Broncos and their extremely strong defense, could have zigged while the NFL zagged once again; spurning the need for offense and amplifying a strength and head coach Vic Fangio and the defense. Whether that be by selecting a cornerback, linebacker, or safety, Denver could have used a top two-round selection on the defense for the first time since Bradley Chubb was selected.
While there were many directions the Broncos could have gone in the draft, Elway and the front office decided to lean on the coaching and development expertise of Munchak on the O-line and Fangio on the defense and instead through asset after asset on offensive weapons.
Elway chose to build the nest around second-year quarterback Drew Lock.
If there were any questions entering this offseason about how the Broncos viewed Lock as a quarterback worth building around, those concerns were quashed at the conclusion of the draft.
Yes, the Broncos already had a solid young core of offensive weapons that Elway had procured over the past few seasons. With 2018 second-rounder Courtland Sutton and 2019 first-rounder Noah Fant, the Broncos had one of the better young WR/TE duos in the NFL to help give Lock some weaponry and make his job easier.
Outside of Fant and Sutton, though, the Broncos’ pass weapons fell flat. While DaeSean Hamilton produced some over the last few weeks and Tim Patrick had a few splash plays when healthy and able to take the field, neither really were players that could help create for those around them. Instead of standing pat, Elway decided to enter the arms race that has become the AFC West.
To kick off this proliferation, the Broncos used the No. 15 overall selection on Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy. As one of the most decorated receivers in the storied Alabama football program, Jeudy showed incredible route running nuance of a 10-year NFL vet with the ability to win at the snap, in the top of his route stems, and after the catch.
Jeudy wins primarily from the slot and Z positions. It will be a bit of a projection for him to beat press on the boundary, as it is significantly harder to release on the boundary given the sideline is essentially an extra defender and unlike in the slot, the receiver does not have a two-way go to help them beat press. Jeudy will likely need to get stronger to beat press consistently but his nuance and technique should offer some optimism.
After the selection of Jeudy, Fangio put it best as to why a receiver like Jeudy was so important for the Broncos offense.
"Anytime you can add another receiving threat it has a trickle-down effect for everybody," Fangio said. "It has a trickle-down effect to the different coverages that you will be facing with two good receivers. It has a trickle-down effect that it may help your running game. If teams are playing coverages to stop two different receivers... anytime you can add somebody that will not only play his position well but can affect the way defenses play you and other people can feed off of that, that is good."
Elway didn’t stop with the first round, though, building the nest around Lock, but doubled and tripled down throughout the rest of the draft.
Despite the cries for OT or DB in round two, Elway shocked the NFL world by selecting another offensive weapon in Penn State’s KJ Hamler. Despite his tiny frame at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Hamler is one of the most electric weapons to enter the draft in some time.
He did not run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine due to a hamstring injury he suffered while training, but there was buzz that Hamler could challenge Henry Ruggs'. With Hamler’s camp reporting he had run a 4.26-second 40 in tandem with how often he simply ran away from defenders while in college, he really may have given Ruggs a run for his money as the fastest player in the draft.
Hamler is smaller than Ruggs, and has not shown the ability to play the boundary like Ruggs did at Alabama, but Hamler may, in fact, be a more dynamic athlete. Displaying incredible start-and-stop ability in space and nuance to differ his stride and pace, only to explode and cut an angle, Hamler is what one could call ‘instant offense’. He has had an issue with drops, which is a very valid concern, but when he gets the ball in his hands, everyone on the opposing team will collectively hold their breath.
Three's a Charm
Elway wasn’t done adding receivers yet, though. Despite the addition of Jeudy and Hamler, the Broncos were one of three teams (along with the Las Vegas Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles) to select three WRs in the 2020 draft. Using the 252nd pick, the Broncos went back to the well to add Tyrie Cleveland out of Florida.
Long, fast, and a straight-line vertical threat, Cleveland will likely be competing with Patrick for a roster spot this season in the Darius Slayton role in the Pat Shurmur offense. Further, Cleveland is a standout special teams gunner.
A Familiar TE Faster than Fant
Speaking of running fast in a straight line, the Broncos decided it would be a good idea to team up Lock with his former college teammate Albert Okwuegbunam. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound TE turned heads at the Combine this year after running an incredible 4.49-second 40.
Much like DK Metcalf coming out of the 2019 draft, Albert O. is huge and runs extremely fast in a straight line, but turns like a battleship and lacks route nuance. Furthermore, while he is big, he has a ways to go as an inline blocker as a TE. Still, being that big and that fast in a straight line, he has an easy plug-and-play role running routes up the seam and being another mismatch.
A Possible Explanation for no OT
Despite not addressing OT in the draft, the Broncos did not completely ignore the O-line. Drafting one of the safest interior lineman in the draft in Lloyd Cushenberry III along with the boom-or-bust pick of Netane Muti from Fresno State, the Broncos balanced safety and instant impact along with a lottery ticket on the interior O-line.
Yes, the Broncos tackle situation is less-than-ideal given the roller coaster level of play from Bolles and the complete unknown that is Ja’Wuan James’ knee. In an ideal world, the Broncos would have added another high-end OT to the roster.
Alas, the board did not fall that way for Denver and with enough other holes on the roster, the Broncos stood back and decided to refortify the roster elsewhere. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect roster’, but OT is a valid concern.
With that said, perhaps OT is an area the Broncos can manage to get by with under Lock. After only taking five sacks in the final five games of the season, the Broncos’ O-line made a miraculous turnaround after the athletic Lock was inserted into the lineup.
This should not have been unexpected given the absolute statue that was Joe Flacco in the pocket. Blocking for a QB with mobility and play-making ability made all the difference.
The OTs are still an issue to be certain, but in college, it wasn’t so much edge pressure that impacted Lock's play as it was the interior pressure. With pressure in his face, Lock would tend to lose his footwork technique fading back in the pocket and throwing off his back foot, with the internal clock in his head speeding up and his accuracy going haywire. With a rusher from the edge, he could move up and climb away from, but pass rush up the gut hampered Lock’s entire process.
Perhaps the Broncos saw the same thing from Lock at Missouri and decided the best bet to help Lock stay on schedule and play with good technique was to make sure he didn’t sense interior pressure. Not only do the Broncos have second-year LG Dalton Risner, who played quite well last season despite a tail off at the end of the year due to injury, but Denver went out and signed the best available free-agent interior OL in Graham Glasgow.
The interior O-line would likely have been fine starting Patrick Morris between Risner and Glasgow, but the Broncos added the long and stout Cushenberry to likely man the starting center slot. With incredible length and an anchor, two things atypical for many centers, on top of leadership and intelligence, rolling with Risner, Cushenberry, and Glasgow should give Munchak and the Broncos one of the best interior O-lines this team has had in (maybe) decades.
Furthermore, while there may be some edge rusher pressure, the stability and steadiness of the interior should help Lock and his tendency to struggle with inside pressure.
Two-Headed Rushing Attack
And forget talking about the WRs and O-line for a second, but adding Melvin Gordon to Phillip Lindsay as a one-two running back punch for Lock? The Broncos’ offense is as versatile as any and can beat opposing defenses in a multitude of ways.
The Broncos don’t have to simply rely on their offensive strengths given the bevy of weapons they have but instead can pick on opponents’ weaknesses. An indicator of a well-oiled and well-balanced machine the likes Denver has not seen since Peyton Manning played in the Mile High City.
The Takeaway: Elway's All-In on Lock
All-in-all, Elway did about as good of a job as possible given the limitations every team has in the draft with the finite resources and gamesmanship that is the draft every year. Adding a plethora of passing weapons while also solidifying the O-line to the level the Broncos have this draft cycle can only say one thing; it’s Lock time in Denver.
The tackle position may end up an Achilles heel for the Broncos’ offense but in reality, the team strengthened other areas enough to the point where the onus falls on Lock. Elway has built the nest around his young QB and empowered him with weapons and protection.
Now, it is up to Lock to prove that the flashes over the final five games last season were more than a mirage. The offense is now locked and loaded. If Lock can indeed be ‘the guy’, the Broncos may have closed the gap on the Kansas City Chiefs.
The arms race in the AFC West is well underway, but with a new and improved arsenal, there will be no excuses for Lock going forward. Elway and the Broncos used the draft to empower Lock and give him the means to succeed.
With arm talent, moxie, athleticism, and play-making ability and given the means to succeed, it would be foolish to bet against Lock and the young Broncos offense. This is going to be fun.