The Denver Broncos wrapped up a furious Day 2 of the NFL draft on Friday night, which saw the team orchestrate three different trades and bring home three unique players.
After giving the Patrick Surtain II pick a solid B, I'm grading each of the Broncos' Day 2 draft picks. How'd GM George Paton grade out?
Round 2 | Pick 35 (via ATL): Javonte Williams | RB | North Carolina
Taking a page out of the playbook of his former team, Paton made a slight move up the NFL draft board to select Williams in Round 2. Paton sent picks 40 and 114 to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for picks 35 and 219, sniping the Miami Dolphins of their likely target at pick 36.
Standing at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Williams has a prototype bell-cow body type for the Broncos’ inside zone and man-centric blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. After watching Phillip Lindsay continually run into a brick wall last season, the Broncos targeted a completely different type of running back in Williams.
Averaging an incredible 7.3 yards per carry in 2020, Williams was a ball of destruction for the Tar Heels offense along with co-running back Michael Carter. Williams runs with reckless abandon and looks to dish out pain to any would-be tacklers. He will need to show an improved ability to run between the tackles and display better vision, but when it’s blocked for him, and that head of steam is built up, his incredible balance through contact shows out.
Williams’ contact balance isn’t just a cliche as he broke over 25% of tackle attempts last season, the best rate in college football. He also isn’t just a powerful runner but also shows excellent ability as a pass blocker and is a solid pass-catcher. While he won’t confuse anyone for Christian McCaffrey as a receiver, Williams' ability to contribute as a pass-catcher will give Denver flexibility when he is on the field.
One of the biggest benefits of Williams? The Broncos are going to get a back with ample tread left on the tires. With just 416 touches in his college career (compared to Clemson's Travis Etienne's 788 touches and Alabama's Najee Harris' 718 touches) and just 21 years old, the Broncos are getting a back who should be able to come in and carry the load with Melvin Gordon.
The only reason this pick isn’t graded higher comes down to Paton's decision to trade up for a devalued position such as running back. Denver did well picking the last running back off of the consensus tier-one list of prospects (along with Etienne and Harris), however, just on principle alone, especially with Oklahoma State's mauling offensive tackle Teven Jenkins still on the board, the grade gets dinged slightly. Still, Williams is a good player and a good get for Denver.
Round 3 | Pick 98 (via NO): Quinn Meinerz | IOL | Wisconsin-Whitewater
If there was one position it seemed the Broncos didn’t need to walk out of the 2021 draft with, it had to be the interior offensive line. Some may point to wide receiver but with DaeSean Hamilton rumored to be traded soon as well as Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton entering the last year on their respective contracts, one could still make an argument for the position in the draft.
However, the draft is not about filling immediate needs; it’s about finding players that your team projects as potential long-term starters for the squad’s scheme, culture, and long-term plans. Given that the draft pick 'hit rate' drops precipitously the further down the board one gets, teams shouldn’t limit themselves to immediate needs.
Enter Meinerz. Arguably no player made a bigger jump up draft boards thanks to the Senior Bowl. Considered a borderline undraftable player prior to the Senior Bowl, Meinerz displayed guard and center versatility down in Mobile and captured the attention of NFL decision-makers and the hearts of draft fans across the NFL.
With a big personality, an obvious joy for the game of football, and rocking a crop-top jersey in practice and interviews (and letting that offensive line belly hang out) Meinerz wasn’t just a good story. He not only held his own but did well at center and guard against Senior Bowl defensive tackles.
Meinerz will have a massive jump in competition from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater to the NFL level, meaning he may not make much of an immediate impact in the NFL. Still, given Dalton Risner’s up-and-down sophomore season, Lloyd Cushenberry’s struggles as a 16-game rookie starter at center, and Graham Glasgow’s injuries in 2020, Meinerz definitely has a path to playing time next season. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s outperformed and surprised.
Meinerz isn’t just a feel-good story, he’s a unit as well. At just under 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, he tested excellently across almost all metrics at his Pro Day, especially in his jumps and his 40-yard dash and splits. He obviously has put in the work to get to this point, but he also has the size and natural athleticism to earn being a top-100 pick in the draft.
The Broncos may not have needed interior offensive line in this draft, but if Meinerz develops into an NFL starter, it will have been a great pick by the Broncos. Again, though, this writer was hoping for an offensive tackle.
Round 3 | Pick 105 (via NO): Baron Browning | LB | Ohio State
Broncos Country has been calling for the team to make a move at linebacker for what feels like ages. Browning is a far cry from the D3 Meinerz, as je arrived at Ohio State with ample hype as a five-star recruit and the No. 1 outside linebacker recruit in his class. While Browning never truly got it all together at Ohio State, the athletic upside was obvious anytime one put on the tape.
Playing a variety of linebacker roles for the Buckeyes, the size and movement skills for Browning jump off the tape. He is a fluid mover with ample length in space and closes space as well as any linebacker not-named Micah Parsons in this class.
Browning will have to improve his discipline and vision at the next level and his processing is a work in progress. Still, he was asked to play different roles for Ohio State for a reason and his coaches have spoken highly of him.
Another Senior Bowl standout, Browning displayed surprising movement skills and fluidity in the one-on-one coverage drills in Mobile and also opened some eyes as an edge rusher in many reps. It’s one of the reasons that he may have fallen in the draft and is still such an intriguing player. Just where his final position will be in the NFL remains to be determined.
Given that the mental side of the game for Browning is very much a work-in-progress, he should not be expected to compete at MIKE early on, but he definitely has a shot at WILL in this defense. He also has a strong chance to end up at SAM as a possible Von Miller replacement with his long arms for the position at 33-1/2 inches and eye-popping testing numbers across the board at Ohio State’s pro day.
With impending needs at off-ball linebacker (times two with Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson set to hit free agency in 2022) as well as at edge rusher (Miller might be playing his last season in Denver), the Broncos have 2021 to figure out where Browning fits best for this team in the years to come. Either way, given his size and athleticism, Browning could quickly become a difference-maker in Year 1 for the Broncos on special teams.
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