Broncos Draft Preview 2017, Part 1: Offensive Roster and Needs Analysis

This year more than ever the Thin Air community has fleshed out numerous possibilities regarding the Broncos’ approach to the 2017 NFL Draft. I’ve shared quite a few opinions myself in the daily threads so you may have already read, in a more abbreviated form, much of what I will write in this year’s Draft Preview. Still, I’m excited as usual to share it with you all. As in years past we’ll start with a deep dive into the roster to identify and characterize the Broncos’ needs.


Note: For those of you who’ve read my previews before, I’m repeating these definitions verbatim. Feel free to skip ahead to the positional breakdown.

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.

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.

Positional Breakdown:

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.

Note: The prospect rankings included in this installment (Part 1) and tomorrow’s (Part 2) are a composite of several draft analysts’ positional rankings, and do not necessarily reflect my personal rankings. When I stack the final boards, beginning in Wednedsay’s post (Part 3), you may see the prospects prioritized differently.


Quarterbacks (QB):

Projected Starter: Paxton Lynch

Depth: Trevor Siemian

Other: None

Trevor Siemian is a smart, mature and composed young QB with a good grasp of what it takes to be mentally prepared to play QB in the NFL. He has good command of the huddle, and he protects the football well. He started 14 games last year and did a good job of doing what was asked of him by the coaching staff, assuming the coaching staff asked him to go three-and-out on 56% of the offense’s possessions. Listening to former coach Gary Kubiak’s consistent praise of the young QB would suggest that was the case. The Broncos’ offense struggled all year long due in large part to poor offensive line play and a running game that was stuck in the mud. Any QB would find it difficult to thrive in that environment, and Siemian was no different in that regard. So in that context it’s understandable why many fans defend his performance. To me, though, a good QB will find ways to move the ball in spite of other shortcomings on offense, and that was something Siemian did far too rarely. He was too conservative with the football, and his inaccuracy was a consistent problem. The end result was an offense that ranked 27th in the league in yardage and 22nd in points scored, and was the reason the Broncos’ championship-caliber defense was denied the opportunity to win back-to-back titles.

2016 1st round pick Paxton Lynch spent most of his rookie season watching from the sideline, as expected. When he did find his way onto the field the results were less than stellar. His best work came in a relief effort at Tampa Bay when he was called upon to replace an injured Trevor Siemian against the Bucs. During the second half of that game Lynch flashed some of the athleticism and play-making ability that raised evaluators’ eyebrows last offseason. His starts, against Atlanta and Jacksonville, were far less impressive. The buzz around Dove Valley is that Lynch was unprepared and did not have a firm grasp of the playbook. His mental struggles seemed to be due to three primary factors:

  1. The college system at Memphis was nothing like a pro offense, and there was never a doubt it would take time for Lynch to adjust.
  2. The classic West Coast Offense (WCO) employed by Gary Kubiak was complex, wordy and rigid.
  3. Lynch did not put in the requisite effort to be a successful NFL QB.

The first of these factors is something that is beyond the control of either Lynch or the Broncos, and will simply require patience from both parties. The second may have already been solved when the Broncos replaced Kubiak and his offensive staff with Vance Joseph, Mike McCoy et al. McCoy is known for his schematic flexibility, having once designed offenses for Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning in back-to-back seasons. He also had a fair amount of offensive success in San Diego, scheming around a struggling offensive line in the Whale’s Vagina much like he may have to do in Denver. The third factor in Lynch’s mental struggles is firmly on his shoulders, and it is the one that causes the most concern for me. Will Lynch truly dedicate himself to his craft? Does he have the acumen to master the mental side of the game? Is he mature enough to understand what it takes? Or will he continue to take an improvisational playground approach, relying on his athleticism to rise above the chaos? These are legitimate questions that need to be answered, but none of us have seen enough from Lynch yet to know what those answers are.

Bottom Line: The Broncos need better production at QB if they want to be a serious playoff contender in 2017. Which of its two youngsters shows the necessary improvement really doesn’t matter, as long as at least one of them does. They both have traits that can give fans good reason for optimism, but they also both require significant improvement to be successful NFL starters. My money is on Lynch to eventually surpass Siemian due to his superior physical traits and the new offensive staff’s intention to mold an offensive scheme that will take advantage of what he does best. It certainly wouldn’t shock me, though, if Siemian holds onto the job for another year, especially if he’s able to play more aggressively. Even if he does learn to push the ball downfield more he’ll need to make big strides toward improving his accuracy, as he ranked just 25th in the league in completion percentage (59.5) despite opting for safe throws the vast majority of the time.

Need Level: Depth*

*While QB fits the description of Depth Need, I don’t believe the Broncos will look to the draft to fill it. Adding a third inexperienced QB to the roster does not seem to provide much value. The more likely approach will be to add a veteran QB with at least some starting experience to provide insurance against injury and/or poor play from Siemian and Lynch.


Running Backs (RB):

Projected Starter:  C.J. Anderson

Depth: Devontae Booker

Other: Kapri Bibbs, Juwan Thompson, Bernard Pierce

I’ll admit it. I was wrong. I thought bringing Gary Kubiak and the Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) back to Denver was the recipe for regaining the ability to move the ball on the ground. When it didn’t work out that way in 2015 I thought it was mostly because of Peyton Manning’s physical limitations, both in throwing the football and holding the backside end on boot action during run plays. I was wrong about that, too. Having a young, reasonably mobile QB did nothing to fix the problems. Like the QBs, the RBs were victims of poor offensive line play and an inflexible scheme.

C.J. Anderson got off to another slow start, but he seemed to be running with some life before falling victim to another injury, this time a meniscus tear in his knee that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Devontae Booker, widely regarded to be a tremendous value as a 4th round draft pick last spring, looked good in relief duty early only to hit the wall when called upon as a primary back. He looked bad at times, unable to manufacture any yardage behind Denver’s suspect offensive line.

Anderson once again comes into the season with the same expectations as always, accompanied by an asterisk now approaching the size of Roger Maris’. IF HE CAN STAY HEALTHY, Anderson can be a top 10 RB in the league. Staying healthy is appearing less and less likely, though, and we may ultimately have to resign ourselves to the fact that he simply can’t maintain a heavy workload. Booker has the ability to produce in the rotation, but like Anderson he may be better in smaller doses. It would be nice to see him make a significant jump in his second year, demonstrating that he can be effective as a primary ball carrier if called upon. Kapri Bibbs had some flashes last year, but mostly he looks like no more than a depth guy. As for Juwan Thompson and Bernard Pierce, it seems unrealistic at this point to expect much from either.

Look for the Broncos to add RB depth in the draft on Day 3, unless an irresistible talent drops into their laps on Day 1 or Day 2. This position could have easily been characterized as an Upgrade Need, but I believe Anderson and Booker have enough talent to anchor the RB corps, and that even a Day 3 addition could make this position group into a strength in 2017. Adding a player earlier in the draft is definitely possible, and such a player could push to become the starter in 2017. This year’s crop of RBs is deep and talented, so it’s a very good year to be in the market.

Need Level: Depth

Top RB Prospects

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position Draft Profile
1 Leonard Fournette 6004 240 LSU Top 15 Scouting Report
3 Christian McCaffrey*# 5112 202 Stanford Top 20 Scouting Report
2 Dalvin Cook* 5103 210 Florida State 1-2 Scouting Report
4 Alvin Kamara* 5102 214 Tennessee 2-3 Scouting Report
5 Joe Mixon# 6006 228 Oklahoma 2-3 Scouting Report
6 Samaje Perine* 5105 233 Oklahoma 3-5 Scouting Report
7 Kareem Hunt* 5104 216 Toledo 3-5 Scouting Report
8 D’Onta Foreman* 6000 233 Texas 3-5 Scouting Report
9 Marlon Mack*# 5113 213 South Florida 4-5 Scouting Report
10 Wayne Gallman 6004 215 Clemson 4-6 Scouting Report
11 Jeremy McNichols 5085 214 Boise State 4-6 Scouting Report
12 James Conner 6014 233 Pittsburgh 4-6 Scouting Report
13 Matthew Dayes 5085 205 NC State 5-7 Scouting Report
14 Donnel “DJ” Pumphrey 5084 176 San Diego State 5-7 Scouting Report
15 Jamaal Williams 6003 212 BYU 5-7 Scouting Report
16 Brian Hill* 6010 219 Wyoming 7-Und Scouting Report
17 Corey Clement 5101 220 Wisconsin 7-Und Scouting Report
18 T.J. Logan 5094 196 North Carolina 7-Und Scouting Report
19 Joe Williams 5110 210 Utah 7-Und Scouting Report

*Prospect met with Broncos
#Prospect visited Broncos’ facility


Fullbacks (FB):

Projected Starter:  Andy Janovich

Depth: Juwan Thompson

Other: None

At first glance one might assume that the departure of Gary Kubiak would mean moving away from the use of a FB, and that may prove to be true. However, new Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy used FB Derek Watt on 13% of the Chargers’ offensive snaps last season, and he may have similar (or larger) plans for Andy Janovich. The FB position may prove to be a good measure of just how flexible McCoy is with his offensive scheme. Janovich looks to be a talented offensive player; will McCoy find a way to keep him involved in the offense? Whatever the case, whether we’ll see the position utilized or deprioritized, the Broncos have no need to add another player at the position.

Need Level: None


Wide Receivers (WR):

Projected Starters: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders

Depth: Jordan Taylor, Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer

Other: Kalif Raymond, Marlon Brown, Mekale McKay, Hunter Sharp

Despite the underwhelming performance of the offense as a whole in 2016, the team is still very good at WR. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are as good as it gets as a starting tandem, and Jordan Taylor has proved to be a pleasant undrafted surprise. The size of Thomas and Taylor and the quickness of Sanders are nicely complementary. In the wake of Sanders’ extension, the Broncos have their rock-solid one-two punch locked up through the 2019 season. While the terms of Thomas’ deal may necessitate his release or a renegotiation prior to that season (his cap number is $17.533M in 2019), the team is set outside the numbers through at least 2018.

Looking inside, though, there is a large need in the slot, especially if Mike McCoy truly intends to run more three and four WR sets along with an increased use of the shotgun. Yes, the team has WRs who have lined up in the slot, but to me a true slot WR has tremendous short area quickness and runs precise routes, generating separation from a defender almost immediately after the snap. I remain puzzled by the lack of use of Sanders inside because he fits this description quite nicely, but assuming the team continues to view him as an outside WR only the departure of the mediocre Jordan Norwood leaves only Kalif Raymond as a true slot man. Raymond thus far appears to be only a marginal talent, and to expect him to contribute much in the slot on offense is probably unrealistic. Bennie Fowler has played inside but after seeing a respectable amount of playing time in 2015 he failed to flash in 2016. His season began with an elbow injury, and when it came to a close he had just 11 receptions. Fowler seems to be a bit of a ‘tweener, lacking the quickness to excel in the slot and the size to play outside. He has shown some ability, though, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him back on the 53-man roster in a depth role.

Cody Latimer now has just 16 catches through 3 seasons as a pro, and has earned the dreaded title of “bust.” He has shown a little bit of a knack for special teams, particularly on punt coverage, but after moving up in the second round to draft him in 2014 the Broncos clearly had higher expectations for him on offense. Barring a shocking turnaround in production, Latimer may find himself without a job in September. Marlon Brown is an interesting case, with very good size but also a history of injury. The Broncos’ decision to carry EIGHT(!) WRs at one point last season, rather than expose a player like Brown to the waiver wire, seems to indicate a belief in his potential, but the roster is crowded with outside WRs Thomas, Sanders and Taylor, so Brown will need to stay healthy and play well to make the team. McKay and Sharp are long shots.

Need Level: Primary (Slot only)

Top Slot WR Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position Draft Profile
1 John Ross III* 5106 188 Washington 1 Scouting Report
2 Curtis Samuel 5105 196 Ohio State 2-3 Scouting Report
3 Chris Godwin 6010 209 Penn State 2-3 Scouting Report
4 Cooper Kupp 6015 204 Eastern Washington 2-3 Scouting Report
5 Carlos Henderson 5110 199 Louisiana Tech 3-4 Scouting Report
6 ArDarius Stewart 5111 204 Alabama 3-4 Scouting Report
7 Taywan Taylor 5110 203 Western Kentucky 3-4 Scouting Report
8 Shelton Gibson 5106 191 West Virginia 4-6 Scouting Report
9 Dede Westbrook 5117 178 Oklahoma 5-7 Scouting Report
10 KD Cannon 5110 182 Baylor 5-7 Scouting Report
11 Ryan Switzer* 5084 181 North Carolina 7 Scouting Report
12 Isaiah McKenzie 5074 173 Georgia 7 Scouting Report
13 Stacy Coley 5117 195 Miami Und Scouting Report
14 Travis Rudolph 5116 189 Florida State Und Scouting Report
15 Artavis Scott* 5101 193 Clemson Und Scouting Report


Tight Ends (TE):

Projected Starter: Virgil Green

Depth: A.J. Derby, Jeff Heuerman

Other: Henry Krieger-Coble, Steven Scheu, Austin Taylor

Broncos’ fans who, like me, were optimistic about the reemergence of the TE position in the WCO last season found themselves very disappointed. Before the season started, there was much chatter about Virgil Green finally emerging as a threat in the passing game, and the return of Jeff Heuerman from a knee injury was going to give them another dual threat at the position. In theory, with both of them on the field the Broncos could get their running game going, and give Siemian some reliable options in the middle of the field. As it turns out almost none of that happened, and the Broncos ended up trading a draft pick for A.J. Derby midseason. Derby, who saw a reasonable amount of playing time, turned out to be not much more impactful than any of the TEs who were already on the roster. All three players return in 2017, but if you have tempered your expectations regarding their potential offensive contributions, you are not alone. Green’s relatively large cap number ($3.3M) and lack of demonstrated superiority over the rest of the TEs could put him in jeopardy of being cut if the Broncos are able to add more talent at the position.

After the top three TEs only Henry Krieger-Coble appears to have much of a shot to make the active roster this season. HKC is a talented undrafted youngster out of Iowa who needs to add strength to compete at this level. He has flashed some route running ability and functional hands, and may end up becoming a contributor for the Broncos. Like most undrafted players, though, he has a long row to hoe to make the jump. Scheu and Taylor round out the group, and aren’t likely to make it out of camp.

The TE class in this year’s draft is one of the most exciting in at least a decade. There is talent present throughout the draft, and the Broncos could very likely add one on Day 2 or early on Day 3 who would represent an immediate upgrade at the position. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see at least one TE drafted by the Broncos next week.

Need Level: Upgrade

Top TE Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position Draft Profile
1 O.J. Howard* 6056 251 Alabama Top 15 Scouting Report
2 David Njoku* 6040 246 Miami 1 Scouting Report
3 Evan Engram* 6033 234 Mississippi 1-2 Scouting Report
4 Adam Shaheen 6064 278 Ashland 2-3 Scouting Report
5 Gerald Everett* 6030 239 South Alabama 2-3 Scouting Report
6 Jake Butt 6054 246 Michigan 3-5 Scouting Report
7 Jordan Leggett* 6054 258 Clemson 3-5 Scouting Report
8 Bucky Hodges* 6060 257 Virginia Tech 3-5 Scouting Report
9 George Kittle 6036 247 Iowa 3-5 Scouting Report
10 Jonnu Smith 6025 248 Florida International 4-6 Scouting Report
11 Cole Hikutini 6046 247 Louisville 4-6 Scouting Report
12 Jeremy Sprinkle 6047 252 Arkansas 4-6 Scouting Report
13 Michael Roberts 6046 270 Toledo 5-7 Scouting Report
14 Eric Saubert 6046 253 Drake 5-7 Scouting Report
15 Cethan Carter 603 241 Nebraska 7 Scouting Report
16 Billy Brown 6036 255 Shepherd 7 Scouting Report
17 Jacob Hollister 604 239 Wyoming 7 None
18 Ricky Seals-Jones 605 243 Texas A&M 7 Scouting Report


Tackles (T):

Projected Starters: LT God Help Us All, RT Menelik Watson

Depth: Donald Stephenson, Michael Schofield, Ty Sambrailo

Other: Justin Murray

Tackle remains a big need for the Broncos, as it has for each of the last three seasons. For all of John Elway’s impressive accomplishments as a GM, he has consistently demonstrated a blind spot for needs on the offensive line, particularly outside at T. There currently is not a worthy starting LT on the roster, and it’s yet to be seen if there’s an NFL caliber starter on the right side either. Last year I talked myself into believing Donald Stephenson was the guy for the job at RT, despite his having graded horribly year after year in Kansas City. This year I’m won’t be so naïve. Due to his contract structure (he will be paid $4M if he’s on the team on opening day) he will have to play well for the first time ever to make the team, which seems unlikely at this point. Watson is the favorite to start at RT, so Stephenson’s best shot might be at LT, where he has some experience from his KC days. If the Broncos are able to add a serviceable rookie in the draft, though, Stephenson will either become a highly compensated backup or be cut.

Michael Schofield was a bad tackle in 2015, but last year he showed that he’s not quite as bad at playing guard. He still couldn’t push the pile an inch in the running game, but at least he wasn’t consistently getting torched by the pass rush. His familiarity at both T and G now may prove to be his saving grace, as he could have value as a backup G/T allowing the Broncos to dress fewer OL on game day. However, he’s not likely to be good enough to start at either position. Ty Sambrailo has never demonstrated the ability to be an NFL offensive lineman, and is likely battling for a roster spot. Justin Murray rounds out the depth chart.

Need Level: Primary

Top Tackle Prospects:

Rank Name Height Weight School Projected Draft Position Draft Profile
1 Garrett Bolles*# 6050 297 Utah 1 Scouting Report
2 Ryan Ramczyk* 6055 310 Wisconsin 1 Scouting Report
3 Cam Robinson# 6062 322 Alabama 1-2 Scouting Report
4 Taylor Moton 6052 319 Western Michigan 2-3 Scouting Report
5 Roderick Johnson 6066 298 Florida State 2-3 Scouting Report
6 Antonio Garcia 6062 302 Troy 2-3 Scouting Report
7 Will Holden 6074 311 Vanderbilt 3-5 Scouting Report
8 David Sharpe 6062 343 Florida 3-5 Scouting Report
9 Zach Banner* 6083 353 USC 3-5 Scouting Report
10 Adam Bisnowaty 6055 304 Pittsburgh 4-6 Scouting Report
11 Chad Wheeler# 6070 306 USC 4-6 Scouting Report
12 Jessamen Dunker 6042 318 Tennessee State 4-6 Scouting Report
13 Jermaine Eluemunor 6037 332 Texas A&M 4-6 Scouting Report
14 Julie’n Davenport* 6066 318 Bucknell 4-6 Scouting Report
15 J.J. Dielman 6047 309 Utah 5-7 Scouting Report
16 Erik Magnuson 604 303 Michigan 5-7 Scouting Report
17 Conor McDermott# 6081 307 UCLA 5-7 Scouting Report
18 Aviante Collins 6041 295 TCU 5-7 Scouting Report
19 Collin Buchanan 6046 316 Miami (OH) 5-7 Scouting Report
20 Sam Tevi# 6053 311 Utah Und Scouting Report


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

Projected Starters: LG Ronald Leary, C Matt Paradis, RG Max Garcia

Depth: Michael Schofield, Billy Turner, Connor McGovern

Other: James Ferentz, Dillon Day

Matt Paradis has been a great find for the Broncos. A 6th round pick out of Boise State, Paradis has blossomed into one of the best centers in the NFL. Offseason surgery on both hips is concerning, however, as is the conversion away from the ZBS as the primary blocking scheme for Denver. If he’s healthy I think he’ll prove to be effective in the new staff’s hybrid blocking scheme. If he misses time, look for Max Garcia to see some reps at center. Speaking of Garcia, he’s been somewhat up and down in his two years in Denver. He showed promise as a rotational player in 2015, but struggled at times (along with the rest of the OL) in 2016. He’s a better fit for man and gap schemes in the running game, though, so I expect to see some improvement in his performance in 2017. Free agent acquisition Ronald Leary is a mauler inside, and should go a long way to shore up the inside of the OL. Don’t be surprised to see most short yardage runs follow directly behind Leary as the season unfolds.

Billy Turner came in later in the season last year and saw some playing time at RG. He performed okay, but didn’t prove to be much of an upgrade over Schofield. Connor McGovern was well thought of going into the draft, but did not show enough last year to see the field. He has potential but will need to improve significantly to find himself in the discussion for playing time. Schofield was already discussed among the tackles, and could provide reasonable depth and good versatility at guard as well. Ferentz is reliable but undersized, and Day spent most of last season on the practice squad.

The Broncos seem pretty set inside, but they have met with several interior prospects prior to the draft which could indicate an interest in adding another player to the mix.

Need Level: None

Like last year, I’ll be listing each position in the comments for readers to weigh in. Give an up vote for each position you feel represents a need for Denver. After a couple of days I’ll tally up the votes and list the needs as prioritized by the readers/commenters.

Tomorrow in this draft preview (Part 2) I’ll break down the current roster and needs for the defense. Until then, Go Broncos!