Broncos Draft Preview, 2016: Part 1 – Offensive Roster and Needs Analysis

It’s that time of year again, Broncos’ fans! The draft is on the horizon (April 28-30), and while there has already been ample discussion in the comment threads here at Thin Air, I’m excited to share with you several installments of my own draft preview. Please pardon the redundancy as Nick has already shared his thoughts on the Broncos’ needs, but I think you’ll find this to be a little deeper look. And while there will be similarities between the analyses, there are bound to be some interesting differences as well.

As always we’ll begin by breaking down the current state of the Broncos’ roster and discussing the various needs for the team as it heads into the 2016 NFL draft.


Like last year I’ll give a brief overview of my three categories of needs, followed by a position-by-position breakdown of the Broncos’ current roster.

After several years of dissecting the NFL draft I’ve developed a method of distinguishing between various needs in an effort to describe what the team’s front office is thinking as they stack their draft board. I split needs into three categories, and they are as follows:

  1. Primary Needs
  2. Depth Needs
  3. Upgrade Needs

Primary Needs are positions where immediate help is needed, and it is almost certain that the team will address them early in the draft.

Depth Needs are positions where the team has serviceable starters in place but very little behind them.  While it is likely that players will be added at these positions during the offseason, they probably won’t be big-name or big-money additions. Players added for depth could eventually become starters, but in the short term the team will simply look to add capable bodies to a position to bolster overall rotational strength and provide injury insurance. Depth Needs can generally be filled by drafting players in the middle to late rounds or by simply signing average free agents. A team wouldn’t typically attempt to fill Depth Needs early in the draft unless, of course, that depth need is at quarterback where a player’s draft position is elevated due to the premium placed on the position. In Denver’s case they’ve constructed such a strong roster that they can afford to make picks for depth earlier in the draft because most of their starting lineup is already in place, but many teams do not have that luxury.

Upgrade Needs are positions the team would happily improve if a highly-rated, high-upside player falls into their lap on draft day. They’re not as urgent as Primary Needs, but if presented with the opportunity to upgrade over a current starter the team would be forced to consider adding a player at the position. These are positions where the team might select the “best player available,” even though that player doesn’t fill a Primary Need. Like Depth Needs, Upgrade Needs are positions that currently have serviceable starters in place. However, Upgrade Needs differ from Depth Needs in that the team is not looking simply to add another player at this position to improve depth, but rather to make a potential improvement to the starting lineup.

And speaking of Best Player Available (BPA), it is my contention that such an approach to the draft is, in practice, a myth. It sounds good in theory, and many writers, fans and executives alike claim it is the best way to approach a draft pick. In reality, though, needs tend to trump overall talent. A more accurate way to describe the approach would be to say that a team will take the best player available at a position of need.

So let’s start by breaking down the Broncos’ roster on the offensive side of the ball. Once we’ve taken a good hard look at what they have, we can determine where they need to improve.


Quarterbacks (QB):

Projected Starter: Mark Sanchez

Depth: Trevor Siemian

Other: None

It’s been four years since the Broncos had this much uncertainty surrounding the QB position, and just like four years ago they are using a multipronged approach to address the need. In 2012 they signed Peyton Manning in free agency, and then followed up that move by taking Brock Osweiler in the second round of the draft. The selection of Osweiler was panned by many fans as a wasted pick, but at the time there were legitimate questions as to whether Manning would be able to fully recover from four neck surgeries, and the investment of a second round pick in a QB made perfect sense. It served dual purposes: 1. Insurance for Manning in case he failed to recover or was reinjured; and 2. A potential long term option for the post-Manning era.

Following the departure of both Manning (retirement) and Osweiler (free agency) in 2016 the team has already added veteran Mark Sanchez to the mix, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll stop there. There’s been a lot of talk of acquiring Colin Kaepernick via trade, and even some mention of adding Brian Hoyer or Josh McCown if their respective teams cut them loose. Ideally the Broncos would acquire a veteran QB that can fill the need for the both the short and long term, but none of the options available provide that luxury. The 28-year-old Kaepernick is the most likely to fit that bill, but frankly he’s surrounded by as many question marks as the rest of them. So while it’s possible the best option for the next season or two is one of the veteran players already mentioned, the reality is none of them provide any certainty for the long term. For that reason I believe the Broncos will add a QB in the draft whether they bring in another veteran at the position or not.

Need Level: Primary

Top QB Prospects:

*Height listed in feet/inch/inch/8ths format (FII8)

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Carson Wentz 6052 237 North Dakota State Top 5
2 Jared Goff 6040 215 California Top 10
3 Paxton Lynch 6065 244 Memphis 1-2
4 Connor Cook 6040 217 Michigan State 2-3
5 Christian Hackenberg 6043 223 Penn State 3-5
6 Dak Prescott 6022 226 Mississippi State 3-5
7 Brandon Allen 6013 217 Arkansas 5-7
8 Cardale Jones 6050 253 Ohio State 5-7
9 Jacoby Brissett 6036 231 North Carolina State 5-7
10 Kevin Hogan 6032 218 Stanford Und
11 Brandon Doughty 6026 213 Western Kentucky Und
12 Jeff Driskel 6040 234 Louisiana Tech Und


Running Backs (RB):

Projected Starter:  C.J. Anderson

Depth: Juwan Thompson

Other: Kapri Bibbs, Cyrus Gray

Gary Kubiak brought with him high hopes for the running game when he was hired last offseason, but the production never lived up to expectations. There were several reasons for that including poor offensive line play, injuries, and an ineffective passing game that allowed defenses to focus more on shutting down the run. So now we look ahead to 2016 with the same high hopes, and once again the favorite to excel in the backfield is C.J. Anderson. The first half of 2015 was marred by an ankle injury for Anderson, but once he got healthy and the offense committed more fully to Kubiak’s offense Anderson’s production took off. Despite his obvious success the staff limited Anderson’s touches by splitting his work almost evenly with Ronnie Hillman. Hillman wasn’t nearly as effective as Anderson, but it’s likely they were trying to protect against further injury for Anderson. As the season progressed into the playoffs the Broncos’ coaches showed their true feelings about their backfield personnel, culminating with 23 carries for Anderson compared to just 5 for Hillman in Super Bowl 50. Anderson was signed to a long term deal this spring, but Hillman remains unsigned. Beyond Anderson there are no locks on the roster, so it’s likely the team will look to the draft to add depth to its RB rotation.

Need Level: Depth

Top RB Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Ezekiel Elliott 5116 225 Ohio State Top 15
2 Derrick Henry 6025 247 Alabama 2
3 Alex Collins 5100 217 Arkansas 2-3
4 Kenneth Dixon 5101 215 Louisiana Tech 2-3
5 Paul Perkins 5103 208 UCLA 3-5
6 Devontae Booker 5106 219 Utah 3-5
7 C.J. Prosise 6004 220 Notre Dame 3-5
8 Jordan Howard 5117 230 Indiana 4-6
9 Kenyan Drake 6005 210 Alabama 4-6
10 Tyler Ervin 5097 192 San Jose State 4-6
11 Kelvin Taylor 5102 207 Florida 5-7
12 Jonathan Willams 5106 220 Arkansas 5-7
13 Josh Ferguson 5094 198 Illinois 7
14 Daniel Lasco 6002 209 California 7
15 Keith Marshall 5113 219 Georgia Und


Fullbacks (FB):

Projected Starter:  TBA

Depth: Manasseh Garner

Other: Virgil Green

Despite beginning the 2015 season with a switch to Gary Kubiak’s Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) and FB James Casey on the roster, early offensive struggles led to Casey’s release and a shift away from employing a FB in the offense. I think Kubiak’s preference would be to bring back the FB, and the addition of Manasseh Garner seems to support that theory. If that’s the case I expect the Broncos to add another FB to the mix with a late round pick in the draft. If the draft comes and goes with no such addition, either a veteran free agent or an undrafted rookie free agent could be added as well. This is one position where good players can be found on day 3, so even though I’ve called it a Primary Need the team will not address it early in the draft.

Need Level: Primary

Top FB Prospects: 

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Dan Vitale 6007 239 Northwestern 6
2 Glenn Gronkowski 6021 239 Kansas State 7
3 Derek Watt 6017 234 Wisconsin 7
4 Soma Vainuku 5114 246 USC Und
5 Andy Janovich 6010 238 Nebraska Und
6 Quayvon Hicks 6007 259 Georgia Und


Wide Receivers (WR):

Projected Starters: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders

Depth: Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer, Jordan Norwood

Other: Jordan Taylor, DeVier Posey

There’s not much of a need to see here, particularly in the short term. Thomas and Sanders are still as good as any 1-2 in the league, and Bennie Fowler and Jordan Norwood were effective in 2015 as well. Fowler was a very pleasant surprise, overachieving as an undrafted WR and leapfrogging 2014 second round pick Cody Latimer on his way up the depth chart. It remains to be seen whether Fowler’s ascent was due to his own improvement or simply because of Latimer’s failure to step up. Norwood’s return gives the team an option in the slot for 2016. Kubiak’s offense uses less 3 and 4-WR sets than what we’ve seen with Peyton Manning in recent years, so snap counts are generally a little lower for WRs outside of the top two on the depth chart. Latimer has been slow to develop despite his obvious physical talent, but it’s not too late for him to turn the corner. It often takes a couple of seasons for young players to get up to speed in the NFL, and if Latimer can catch up mentally he could have a big impact in 2016 and beyond. With Emmanuel Sanders’s contract expiring at the end of 2016 the Broncos must figure out what they have with Fowler and Latimer. If either looks like a solid contributor this year the Broncos will have an in-house option to replace Sanders if he departs following the season. If neither looks to be a potential starter for 2017 WR becomes a need for the team going into next offseason.

Need Level: None (for now)


Tight Ends (TE):

Projected Starter: Virgil Green

Depth: Jeff Heuerman

Other: Richard Gordon, Nick Kasa

Getting Jeff Heuerman back from a knee injury greatly helps offset the departure of Owen Daniels. Daniels was the team’s best TE in 2015, but his chronic knee issues, advancing age and relatively large cap number make him a little easier to replace, particularly in terms of value. Green and Heuerman should be able to pick up the slack and more than make up for any lost production. Still, adding a legitimate third option has to be on Kubiak’s mind, both to add injury protection and also to allow them the option of multiple TE sets. Last season’s acquisition of Vernon Davis at the trade deadline was an effort to bring the 3-TE set into play on offense, but there was just one little problem: Davis quit playing football two years ago. Oh he still plays dress up on Sundays and cashes some very large checks, but he hasn’t actually played football in quite some time. This year we will hopefully get to see that plan come to fruition with Green, Heuerman and a rookie draft pick.

Need Level: Depth

Top TE Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Hunter Henry 6050 250 Arkansas 1-2
2 Jerell Adams 6051 247 South Carolina 2-3
3 Austin Hooper 6036 254 Stanford 2-3
4 Nick Vannett 6060 257 Ohio State 2-3
5 Ben Braunecker 6033 250 Harvard 3-5
6 Bryce Williams 6056 257 East Carolina 3-5
7 Tyler Higbee 6056 249 Western Kentucky 4-6
8 Devon Cajuste 6036 234 Stanford 4-6
9 Thomas Duarte 6022 231 UCLA 5-7
10 David Morgan II 6041 262 Texas-San Antonio 7
11 Henry Krieger Coble 6030 248 Iowa 7
12 David Grinnage 6052 248 North Carolina State Und


Tackles (T):

Projected Starters: LT Russell Okung, RT Donald Stephenson

Depth: Michael Schofield

Other: Kyle Roberts, Cameron Jefferson, Darian Weems

Last year in this draft preview I made the statement that I’ve never seen a more obvious need at a position for the Broncos than offensive tackle. That led me to the faulty conclusion that the Broncos were certain to take a T in the first round. They instead traded up and drafted a backup pass rusher with that first round pick. They did take a T in the second round, Ty Sambrailo, but after struggling at LT in his first three games and then missing the rest of the season with a shoulder injury Sambrailo has already been moved inside to G. We’ll see if he can play any better there, but between the failure to draft a functional T last year and Ryan Clady’s imminent departure, the Broncos headed into the 2016 offseason with an even bigger need a the T position. They added veterans Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in free agency, so they now appear to have their starters in place. They’ll need to add depth behind them, though, because right now they have only Michael Schofield who struggled terribly for most of the season in 2015. Further complicating the situation is the uncertainty of Okung’s contract. By all accounts it’s a great deal for the Broncos in 2016, but he may not be with the team beyond this year so they could easily be looking at a need for a starting LT in 2017.

Need Level: Depth

Top Tackle Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Laremy Tunsil 6050 310 Ole Miss Top 5
2 Ronnie Stanley 6056 312 Notre Dame Top 10
3 Jack Conklin 6056 308 Michigan State Top 15
4 Taylor Decker 6070 310 Ohio State 1
5 Jason Spriggs 6055 301 Indiana 1-2
6 Germain Ifedi 6056 324 Texas A&M 1-2
7 Shon Coleman 6054 307 Auburn 2-3
8 Jerald Hawkins 6055 305 LSU 3-5
9 Le’Raven Clark 6052 316 Texas Tech 3-5
10 Kyle Murphy 6063 305 Stanford 4-6
11 Willie Beavers 6045 321 Western Michigan 4-6
12 Dominique Robertson 6045 324 West Georgia 5-7
13 John Theus 6064 313 Georgia 5-7
14 Joe Haeg 6060 304 North Dakota State Und
15 Caleb Benenoch 6054 311 UCLA Und


Interior Offensive Line (Guard and Centers; G, C):

Projected Starters: LG Ty Sambrailo, C Matt Paradis, RG Max Garcia

Depth: James Ferentz, Sam Brenner

Other: Robert Myers, Jr., Dillon Day

While Sambrailo would probably be the favorite to start at LG if the season began today, I don’t see him as a lock. He played a handful of games at G in 2012 for the CSU Rams, but it’s been a while and he has yet to show that he can compete at the professional level. Garcia played extensively at both G positions as a rookie and looked good, so it’s likely he will start at either LG or RG in 2016. I have him listed at RG right now based on the conclusion that Sambrailo would play exclusively LG if he can make the conversion successfully. Paradis struggled early in 2015 but progressed through the season to become a serviceable starting C.

Overall, the Broncos need help on the inside. I think they will draft someone to play G, possibly with an early selection (Day 1 or Day 2), and the rookie may end up in the starting lineup sooner than later. If they can’t find someone who will at least compete for a starting G job in the draft, I expect they’ll go back to free agency to find one. Even if Sambrailo wins the starting job there is still a need for depth behind him. Further, while Paradis is serviceable, it wouldn’t be impossible to find an upgrade at C as well. As it stands, though, I think Paradis is likely to keep his job for 2016.

Need Level: Primary

Top Interior Offensive Line Prospects:

Rank Name Pos Height Weight School Projected Draft Position
1 Ryan Kelly C/G 6040 311 Alabama 1-2
2 Germain Ifedi T/G 6056 324 Texas A&M 1-2
3 Jason Spriggs T/G 6055 301 Indiana 1-2
4 Cody Whitehair G 6036 301 Kansas State 2-3
5 Nick Martin C/G 6041 299 Notre Dame 2-3
6 Joshua Garnett G 6043 312 Stanford 2-3
7 Christian Westerman G 6031 298 Arizona State 3-5
8 Max Tuerk C/G 6050 298 USC 3-5
9 Vadal Alexander G 6052 326 LSU 3-5
10 Sebastian Tretola G 6041 314 Arkansas 3-5
11 Connor McGovern G 6042 306 Missouri 4-6
12 Isaac Seumalo C/G 6037 303 Oregon State 4-6
13 Graham Glascow C/G 6057 307 Michigan 4-6
14 Jack Allen C/G 6012 294 Michigan State 5-7
15 Spencer Drango G 6055 315 Baylor 5-7
16 Willie Beavers T/G 6045 321 Western Michigan 5-7


Finally, in an effort to make the Draft Preview more interactive I’m going to give you, the Thin Air community, a chance to chime in. I’ll be listing each position in the comments, and you can weigh in by up-voting the positions that you think are the team’s biggest offensive needs. After a couple of days I’ll tally up the votes and list the needs as prioritized by the readers/commenters.

In part 2 of this draft preview, I’ll break down the current roster and needs for the defense and special teams. Until then, Go Broncos!