After a disappointing defense of their title in 2016, the Denver Broncos can’t afford a letdown during the 2017 NFL Draft if they’re planning a return to the playoffs.
Last offseason, the Denver Broncos underwent a barrage of changes following their Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. Those changes eventually did them in, leading to a third-place finish in the AFC West and an early vacation.
Luckily for Denver, this offseason offers the team another opportunity to return to “contender” status. Free agency will be big for this franchise, but the 2017 NFL Draft will also be a perfect time for them to upgrade positions of need and stockpile talent for the future.
At this moment, the Broncos own six picks to work with when April 27 rolls around. They may also add a few more when compensatory picks go out, which means they’ll have plenty of ammunition to make improvements this offseason.
So how will they spend their current picks? No one knows for sure, but that won’t stop us from speculating.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a seven-round mock draft for the Broncos as we head into the offseason. Remember that this is more a commentary on possible needs and prospect stock than an actual prediction of what could happen on draft day.
Note: The Broncos traded their fifth-round pick to the New England Patriots for A.J. Derby. They traded their sixth-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers as part of the deal for Vernon Davis. They received a sixth-round pick from the Tennessee Titans as part of a deal for two 2016 draft picks.
Right now, there’s no bigger need for the Broncos than offensive tackle. I don’t believe Russell Okung is a long-term answer on the blindside, Ty Sambrailo has given Denver mixed results, and Donald Stephenson is also running out of time as an effective starter. Put simply, more upside is needed at the position.
It just so happens one of the 2017 draft class’ top blockers is expected to slide come draft day. Yes, I’m talking about Cam Robinson, who was once considered a Top-5 talent.
Now that’s not to say Robinson doesn’t still have the talent to be a star in the NFL. However, he did struggle a bit more than expected in 2016, which means there are going to be a lot of critics after scouts take a deeper dive into his film.
Realistically, that could be a blessing in disguise for the Broncos. They need someone who can step in and start from Day 1, and Robinson has the potential to be that guy. Even if they stick with Okung and Stephenson as the starters, Robinson can easily slide inside until they’re ready for him to take over at tackle.
Depending on how the next few months go, Robinson could come off the board much sooner than No. 20. In this situation, though, I’m cutting the Broncos some slack and assuming some fluctuation in the former Crimson Tide star’s stock lands him neatly in Denver’s lap.
There are plenty of varying opinions about where Christian McCaffrey could go during April’s draft. While I believe he has first-round talent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come off the board on Day 2 due to his recent injuries and the amount of talent in the 2017 running back class.
If that’s the case, a upper-echelon team like the Broncos could benefit from his fall. If he is still on the board when Denver is on the clock in the second round, I think McCaffrey would be an excellent fit there. The franchise already has history with his family, having watched his father Ed shine for all of those years as an underrated wide receiver.
No matter where he ends up, you better believe McCaffrey will make a big impact. On offense, he’s a dynamic weapon who can hurt defenses on the ground and through the air. Not only does he possess the vision and patience needed to rack up big yards, but he’s got sneaky power and excellent speed and acceleration to pull away from defenders.
His abilities as a receiver also make him a dangerous option out of the backfield. And then there are his talents as a return man, which often result in great field position or points.
Especially with the Broncos’ need for a reliable runner to complement the often-injured C.J. Anderson, McCaffrey seems like a great fit. He can serve as a versatile change-of-pace back with the potential to assume the starting role. Especially in the second round, John Elway couldn’t ask for more.
Not only did Michigan suffer a tough loss in the Orange Bowl, but they also watched Jake Butt suffer a torn ACL that put a severe damper on his draft stock. Once considered a first-round talent, the former Wolverine will now be hoping to rehab quickly and hear his name called in the middle rounds.
If he checks out during medical evaluations, Butt could be an option for the Broncos in the third round seeing as they need help at tight end. Virgil Green failed to capitalize this season, and the rest of the names on the roster are all potential and minimal production. While a rookie isn’t exactly an experienced option either, Butt has proven he can be a dynamic difference-maker when healthy.
Over the last two seasons, Butt has hauled in 97 passes for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns in Michigan’s run-heavy offense. On top of his productivity as a pass catcher, he’s shown an above-average ability to hold up as a blocker. That’s one area the Broncos desperately need to improve in, and Butt can provide said improvement.
Again, this will come down to how his knee looks during the pre-draft process. If everything appears to be on schedule, though, I’d venture a guess that Denver would think long and hard about drafting him on Day 2.
I know—another guy whose injuries have dealt a serious blow to his draft stock. At the same time, we could look at Eddie Vanderdoes as a serious steal in the fourth round seeing as many saw him as a first-round talent prior to his 2015 ACL tear.
Right now, the Broncos need reinforcements along the interior of the defensive line. Sylvester Williams is expected to hit the open market this offseason, and Denver is unlikely to re-sign him. Vance Walker and Billy Winn are also set to be free agents, meaning more big bodies are needed to help anchor this defensive front.
Enter someone such as Vanderdoes, who has all of the physical tools you could want in a defensive tackle. Not only does he possess the power to hold up against the run, but he’s an impressive athlete for his size. I’d imagine he won’t have too much trouble getting after quarterbacks in the NFL.
Obviously the injury history is concerning. Still, the talent is there for Vanderdoes to be a huge asset at the next level. If he stays healthy, he’d be one of the biggest steals of the 2017 NFL Draft as a fourth-round pick.
Even with the addition of Robinson, the Broncos need more help along the front five. They simply can’t continue to settle for mediocrity if they want to get their offense back on track in 2017. Hence, the addition of Greg Pyke in the sixth round. Sure, it’s not a flashy pick and it likely won’t yield immediate results, but it’s part of the process of upgrading depth along the offensive line and giving Denver more options moving forward.
The Georgia product is far from an elite prospect. Despite having the physical tools, he’s had his struggles during his days in Athens. He was benched during the 2015 campaign, and had some ugly outings in 2016. Still, there’s some significant potential in the former Bulldog to develop into a decent NFL contributor.
Much of his career was spent playing right tackle, but Pyke is expected to move inside at the next level. With the Broncos’ needs along the interior, he seems like a solid late-round addition with the potential to grow into a starting role over time. That is, if his pass blocking skills can improve with some coaching.
One way or another, the Broncos must get better up front this offseason. Pyke is no solve-all, but drafting him here would be a step in the right direction.
With a couple of edge defenders, including DeMarcus Ware, scheduled to hit the open market, the Broncos could use an influx of young talent at defensive end/outside linebacker. I wouldn’t be surprised if they attempted to address the issue during free agency, but the potential is there for them to add a late-round flier as well.
That’s exactly what Noble Nwachukwu would be. The West Virginia product certainly isn’t a big name and may not even get drafted, but I believe he’d be a worthwhile option for the Broncos near the end of the draft.
During his days with the Mountaineers, Nwachukwu did a great job of getting after opposing quarterbacks. While injuries limited his effectiveness this past season, he still finished his college career with 15.5 sacks—including 8.5 as a junior. He started for West Virginia for three seasons, and proved to be a valuable presence as a pass rusher.
It’s the seventh round, so don’t expect any home runs. Instead, look for value and upside. That’s exactly what Denver’s defense would be getting here. Nwachukwu has the tools to be serve well in a pass-rushing specialist role, similar to the way Shaq Barrett has for the past two seasons.