Broncos Should Check the Market on Trading Up to Secure one of Draft's Big-3 WRs
The Denver Broncos' 2020 roster is starting to come into focus. After a flurry of free agency action where GM John Elway made some rather splashy trades and some solid signings, the Broncos' roster appears to be revamped and revitalized to make a playoff push for the first time since they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy back in 2015.
There is no such thing as a perfect roster. Even looking back at the Kansas City Chiefs last year, who had a less-than-stellar offensive line and far from a star-studded defense, the team was able to overcome roster deficiencies due to amplifying their best players in Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce under a great scheme and head coach in Andy Reid. A franchise quarterback and likely Hall-of-Fame head coach can help negate some weaknesses.
On paper, the Broncos still have a few areas that will leave more than a few people uncomfortable heading into the NFL Draft. Namely, cornerback, linebacker and offensive tackle.
While the Broncos certainly could find upgrades in the draft at all three positions, the biggest remaining hole on this roster heading into 2020 is undoubtedly that of the wide receiver opposite Courtland Sutton.
Biggest Remaining Hole
Looking over the current projected roster for the upcoming season, there is no singular greater need than the WR position opposite Sutton. While Sutton is emerging as one of the best young WRs in the entire NFL, he simply cannot get it done alone.
Without the threat of an adequate WR on the field in tandem to Sutton, opposing teams can and will (and did do once Emmanuel Sanders was traded) because, simply put, they do not respect the threat of the Broncos’ other receiving targets. Not to mention the space that could be created for the galloping stallion that is Noah Fant if Denver could find another WR worthy of being schemed against by opposing defenses.
The Broncos’ WR need is further amplified due to their scheme change. Moving on from the 12- and 21-personnel heavy offense of Rich Scangarello, the Broncos are now bringing in Pat Shurmur and his love for 11 personnel and spacing — which means 3WR sets. The Broncos' need for better weaponry at WR to help Drew Lock and uncover Sutton is only amplified by the scheme change.
Patrick & Hamilton are Better Depth, Not Starters
Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton have their utility in an NFL offense, but neither have come close to showing anything consistently that warrants anything beyond being a WR3 in today’s NFL. Patrick has dealt with a number of injuries that have limited his impact and growth on the field. He is big and runs fast in a straight line but profiles best as the X to spell Sutton when he needs a breather.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has flashed competency in spurts in a limited role, but does he profile beyond a WR3 with slot ability? Coming out of Penn State as an advanced route-runner who could create space more due to his technical prowess than to his athleticism, Hamilton simply lacks the juice to produce yards after the catch or stress defenses vertically with speed.
He does separate well underneath and over the middle, which would be fine, if he also wasn’t hampered with some drop issues. Patrick and Hamilton undoubtedly present value, but depending on either to play a majority of reps as the WR2 would spell a long season of teams doing everything they can to stop Sutton with little worry about who plays opposite him.
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Only Sutton Provided Explosive WR Plays
According to Warren Sharp Statistics, the 2019 Broncos possessed the 7th-worst passing offense in the NFL in the number of explosive pass plays produced (passes of 15-plus yards) with just 46 such plays last season. Obviously, in today's NFL, creating explosive plays is huge in competing, specifically in the AFC with multiple explosive offenses to match up against such as the Chiefs.
Why would the Broncos target a WR early (and potentially often) in the draft? Despite drawing a significant chunk of attention and coverage from opposing defenses, Sutton accounted for 18 of the Broncos' (46) explosive pass plays in 2019. The Broncos' current No. 2 and 3 WRs in Hamilton and Patrick had a total of seven explosive pass plays combined.
The Blue-Chip 3
It seems like everyone and their dog at this point understands that the Broncos have their eyes, hearts, and minds set on taking a WR with the 15th pick. Based on what I've heard, the Broncos are most infatuated with Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs III.
Despite his limited statistical output at Alabama, Ruggs offers a tantalizing combination of ball skills, quickness, and above all else, speed. Opposite Sutton, Ruggs would draw attention and safety and not only create explosive plays for himself, but also others by creating space. Essentially, picture the Will Fuller effect on the 2019 Houston Texans’ offense (with much better durability and hands).
Ruggs is still improving as a route runner but the massive steps he took from 2018 to 2019 should give teams optimism that the 21-year-old still is just scratching the surface. In a league where speed is coming evermore at a premium and teams are wanting to replicate what Hill brings the Chiefs, Ruggs could easily be the first receiver off the board.
Ruggs is as valuable not touching the ball as he is receiving targets due to the threat to score on any play that he poses from anywhere on the field (1-in-4 of his college receptions went for a TD).
If not Ruggs, the Broncos would be very happy and fortunate to land either his teammate at Alabama in Jerry Jeudy or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, which make up the Blue-Chip 3. While neither fit like a glove to the Broncos' needs quite like Ruggs does, both would offer massive upside and different fits for the offense.
Jeudy is a route-runner extraordinaire who can win with speed or nuance and athletic enough to stretch a defense horizontally or vertically and win after the catch. While he played a majority of his reps from the slot, which inherently offers less value than a receiver who plays and wins on the boundary due to average depth of target, he could easily slide in as a Z and slot receiver on day one and offer a massive upgrade.
There are some questions about Jeudy’s physicality in contested catches which could be a concern at the NFL level on top of inconsistent hands, but he likely has the highest floor of any receiver in this class and will contribute day one.
While not possessing the route proficiency and vertical ability of Jeudy nor the blazing unmatched speed and explosive upside of Ruggs, Lamb is a special receiver in his own right. Possessing some of the best ball skills of any receiver in this class, Lamb is one of those rare ‘if he’s covered, he’s open’ receivers who can sky and win at the catch point no matter the throw.
Lamb also improved his strength from 2018 to 2019 and saw a massive leap in his ability to win after the catch. While not the jitterbug that Jeudy is after the catch or the run right past guys that Ruggs is, Lamb is a combination of balance and power and can easily slide off weak tacklers.
Any of these three could be any draftnik’s best WR in this class and the Broncos would be fortunate to land any one of them. In the end, it is like asking someone what their favorite ice cream is — it depends on preference.
Picking 15 Overall
Unfortunately for the Broncos, it does seem more likely by the day that none of the Blue-Chip 3 will be available at 15 when Denver is scheduled to be on the clock. Rumors are emerging that with the Jaguars picking at No. 9, the Jets picking at 11, the Raiders picking at 12, and the 49ers picking at 13, all have their eyes on WR, which comes on top of the buzz that teams are targeting San Francisco at 13 and the Buccaneers at 14 to trade up and jump Denver for a WR.
The Broncos have made it abundantly clear they're in the market for a round-one WR which might have the unfortunate collateral effect of ensuring they don’t get one at 15.
What would that mean? The Broncos have a few options. Either Denver can trade up and ensure they land one of the top-3 WRs (or even land their receiver of choice out of the three), or stand pat and see how the board falls, or trade down with the hopes of landing one of the good receivers not named Ruggs, Jeudy, or Lamb.
Trading up is always a risky proposition in the NFL. A majority of the data suggests that unless a team is moving up for a QB, the best practice is to stand pat and let the board fall to them. This isn’t always the case as sometimes moving up for a team’s WR of choice can land them a Julio Jones. But for every Julio trade-up, there is a Sammy Watkins cautionary tale as well. It adds risk and depletes a team’s chances to land starters beyond day one by trading later picks.
The Broncos are playing with some house money. After some wheeling and dealing, the Broncos are in possession of five top-100 picks. Also given the current construction of the roster on the brink of playoff contention, it would be easy to see Elway talking himself into making a move to secure his WR of choice if the price is worth it.
I would not trade the second-round pick, but with three third-rounders to play with, trading up is in the cards. The Cardinals at No. 8, the Jaguars at No. 9, the Browns at 10, and the Jets at 11 all make some sense as trade partners for the Broncos. The cost? To be determined but our Bob Morris has done the research to project what it would likely cost.
If Not the Blue-Chip 3, Then Who?
If all three of the blue-chip receivers are gone by 15 and Denver can’t trade up, they very well just simply stand pat and take the best player on their board. Whether that be one of the big-four offensive tackles in Tristan Wirfs, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, or Andrew Thomas, one of the great interior defensive linemen in Derrick Brown or Javon Kinlaw, or perhaps a wildcard pick like the boom-or-bust CB CJ Henderson, then so be it.
Not getting one of the Blue-Chip 3 WRs would be disappointing, but it would not be the end of the world. This is a deep WR class and there will be options after the top-3.
The next tier would include Baylor’s Denzel Mims, LSU’s Justin Jefferson, TCU’s Jalen Reagor and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk. All would be a reach in my book at pick 15, but none likely make it to the Broncos' second-round pick. However, all could be options in a trade-down from 15 or a trade-up from pick 46 for Elway and the Broncos.
Day 2 is interesting and littered with talent as well. Obviously, not viewed as the same level of prospect as those that will go before them, as many of these players offer limitations or risks, but these prospects present upside nonetheless.
Penn State's K.J. Hamler is fast but absolutely diminutive. He likely will have to be as much a gadget weapon as a receiver to succeed, but offers dynamic ability from the slot. However, his route running needs much refinement and he is a complete projection when it comes to beating press-coverage.
Colorado's Laviska Shenault is extremely raw in his routes and has a laundry list of injury concerns that could see him slide out of Day 2 entirely. Michigan's Donovan Peoples-Jones tested well but never lived up to his recruiting hype at Michigan.
Clemson's Tee Higgins is a big receiver who struggles to separate and overlaps Sutton’s skill-set, while doing nothing better than Courtland. That said, all would likely offer an upgrade to Hamilton or Patrick in 2020, just not to the extent of Ruggs, Jeudy, or Lamb.
Conclusion? Broncos Should Check Market for a Trade-Up
In an ever-increasing era of passing the football, the value of WR in the NFL is at an all-time high. With the proliferation of 3WR sets (or more) across the league, teams scheming to help cover offensive line imperfections with more spread concepts and more mobile quarterbacks, finding WRs that not only can get open but create for themselves after the catch or for others by threatening defenses and demanding coverage attention are not a luxury — they are a requisite to keep up in today’s league.
If the Broncos are to give Lock the best chance to succeed in 2020 and fully unlock the upside of Sutton and Fant, Hamilton and Patrick are simply unacceptable as WR2.
If the Broncos cannot put themselves in a position to walk away with one of Ruggs, Lamb, or Jeudy, it won't be the end of the world. There are options to be had later that Denver could maneuver around and land.
Furthermore, while the 2020 class is talented, the 2021 class has its own share of treasures Denver could land next year if it can’t walk away with its preferred WR talent in 2020.
The Broncos aren't 'Blue-Chip 3 or bust' in round one, but man, the 2020 season would be a heck of a lot more exciting if Elway were to rope in one of them. All that being said, if Elway felt the same and traded up to guarantee one of them, I'd hardly be surprised.