What Will The Broncos Do In The First Round?

The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most mock drafts have the Broncos selecting an offensive tackle in the first round. But could all the meetings they've recently held with OT prospects be a smoke screen? MHH Lead Analyst Chad Jensen examines.

The common consensus among most in the drafnik community is that the Denver Broncos are going to select an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft this coming Thursday, April 30th. Mock draft after mock draft has either an offensive tackle or center packing their bags for the Mile High City.

It is for this very reason that perhaps we should expect the Broncos to go a different direction in round one. General Manger John Elway said in his pre-draft press conference last Wednesday that the Broncos are “wide open” to everything. Of course the front office has a plan, but Elway would be in dereliction of duty to disclose that to the media and tip his hand to the other 31 NFL teams.

There’s also the widely held theory that player visits usually mean that the investigating team is hoping for a closer look, to confirm or disprove the doubts they have on the prospect, whether it be talent, or technique questions, or more commonly, health concerns.

But in defense of those who espouse the offensive tackle at pick No. 28 theory, the Broncos have either met with or worked out every top tackle in the class, with the exception Oregon’s Jake Fisher and Miami (FL)’s Ereck Flowers.

Most recently, the Broncos have visited with Florida’s D.J. Humphries and Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi, so from the outside looking in, it certainly seems like the Broncos are strongly considering going tackle in the first, especially since almost all of the prospects they’ve met with have high-round grades.

Even Elway himself opined last Wednesday on the remarkable tackle depth at the top of the draft, saying, “There are a lot of good tackles in the draft. I think that is one area of the draft that it does have some depth, especially at the top. There is a possibility for that.”

Of course there’s a possibility for that, but is there a probability? That is the question. The media have been pounding the table over the Broncos apparent lack of options at right tackle, but they omit the fact that Chris Clark, who played left tackle at a high level in 2013 in place of the injured Ryan Clady, is still on the roster.

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Not to mention the fact that last year’s third round pick, Michael Schofield, is waiting in the wings to prove to this new coaching staff what he can do. The Broncos drafted Schofield with the intention of him becoming their starting right tackle of the future. It was a preemptive move, knowing that Orlando Franklin would be gone via free agency in 2015.

Of course, Franklin played left guard for the Broncos in 2014, but had three productive seasons at right tackle before the switch. Moving him inside was an ill-advised move and one that had a domino effect across the entire offensive line, leading to a unit under duress all season and a lack of cohesion and chemistry.

But Franklin was kicked inside because of the faith the team had in Clark. Clark repaid that faith by performing poorly early in the season, and he was subsequently benched (prematurely) for the vastly inexperienced Paul Cornick, who eventually gave way to Louis Vasquez—an All-Pro right guard asked to step outside and contend with speedy edge rushers.

Is there any wonder the Broncos running game struggled to find purchase in 2014? Were it not for the otherworldly C.J. Anderson, it would have been one of the most underperforming offensive line units in the history of the franchise.

Peyton Manning was under fire down the stretch because of poor personnel decisions made by John Fox early in the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the big issues Elway had with Fox—leading to his eventual dismissal. Now, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison are in Denver-two coaches whose shared history is replete with exceptional offensive line production.

Interestingly, Kubiak has been glowing in his words for the Broncos depth at right tackle, speaking from the annual owner’s meetings in Tempe, AZ.

”We think a lot of the young guys, we really do,” he said. "My history with [Offensive Coordinator] Rick Dennison—Rick and [Offensive Line Coach] Clancy [Barone] have worked together. I feel good about our ability to develop these young guys. That’s our job as coaches. We have a lot of confidence these guys have done this before. I talked to [T] Chris Clark. I said, ‘Chris, we’re going to let last year go and we’re going to start over.’ He’s done some good things. I think it’s a fresh start for everybody.”

Kubiak didn’t stop there. He went on to compliment Schofield, pointing out that the former Michigan Wolverine has some “flexibility” and that competition will be fierce at left guard, center and right tackle.

”We like the [T Michael] Schofield kid too, so we’ll see,” Kubiak said. “We think he’s got some flexibility. Those three older guys [Clady, Vasquez and Ramirez] will continue to go but after that it will just be very competitive.”

Last Wednesday, Elway echoed Kubiak’s words, landing on that same word—competition—and talked about the team’s aspirations for the second-year player.

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“Obviously there is a lot of competition there,” Elway said, “but that’s what we drafted Michael for, with the idea that he has position flex because he’s also played guard. It’s been good for Michael to get that first year under his belt. He’s bulked up quite a bit. He’s gotten stronger and I think he’s looking forward to competing this year.”

One doesn’t even have to read between the lines of Elway and Kubiak’s words to divine that the Broncos have faith in Clark and Schofield. Does that mean that they won’t draft an offensive tackle at pick No. 28? Not necessarily. But they are obviously a lot more confident in the options on-roster than many fans and media are.

Elway said in his pre-draft presser that the team expects to find "immediate starters" in this draft. About the only place the team doesn't have a rock-solid projected starter for 2015 is at nose guard, left guard, and right tackle. You could argue free safety, but Darian Stewart fills that hole, as would Bradley Roby if the team indeed plans to move him, which likely means that the first round pick will be one of those previously mentioned positions.

I’ve already expounded on why I have my doubts that the Broncos first round pick will be an offensive lineman, which leads me to the defensive side of the ball—specifically, defensive line—either nose guard or defensive end, or better yet, a player who could play either position. There are a few prospects with a first round grade who fit what the Broncos are trying to do in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.

At 6-foot-7, 292 pounds, Oregon’s Arik Armstead is an option. He has the size and versatility to play inside at nose guard or at defensive end. However, according to the Scout.com Mock Draft Muncher, Armstead’s average draft position is 20, making it unlikely that he slips to the Broncos at No. 28.

I must concur with drafniks who construct the very mocks the "Muncher" factors in. In fact, I’d be surprised if Armstead slips past the San Francisco 49ers at pick No. 16, as they need an heir apparent to the retired Justin Smith.

Another option would be Texas defensive tackle Malcolm Brown. Brown projects as an excellent one-gapping nose guard in Phillips’ unique, attacking version of the 3-4 defense. At 6-foot-2, 309 pounds, he has the size/speed combo to penetrate and wreak havoc in the opposing backfield.

His average draft position, according to the Mock Draft Muncher, is 21.77, again possibly putting him out of reach for the Broncos, unless they wanted to trade up to get him. Detroit (No. 23) needs help on their interior D-line, with the departure of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Arizona picks next, and they need a true nose guard, just like Brown. However, other roster needs might preclude them from selecting him.

Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman could be an option. At 6-foot-4, 336 pounds, he might be a little heavy for the Broncos predilections, though. Phillips craves speed and athleticism over behemoth space-eaters. But with an average draft position of 28.68, Goldman is at least an option.

Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips is an option. The Broncos even brought the 6-foot-5, 329-pound monster in for a visit. But his injury jacket is extensive and it’s likely the reason they brought him in—for a med-check to probably rule him out at No. 28.

But what about Sylvester Williams, you say? After all, he was drafted in the first round just two years ago and is finally out of Terrance Knighton’s shadow. It is the hope of the Broncos and the fanbase that Williams is ready to turn the corner and that he can shine under the coaching of defensive line coach Bill Kollar and the scheming of Phillips.

However, I don’t think the team is going to count on Williams turning the ship around. They’re going to hedge their bet, at some point in the draft, and select a nose guard. And the top of the draft might offer them the best opportunity to do so.

Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson currently project as the starters at defensive end, with Antonio Smith and Vance Walker rotating in behind them. This is not a position of need per se, but one player who might be too good to pass up on and who likely won’t be there when their selection rotates back at pick No. 59, is Mississippi State’s Preston Smith.

It’s no secret that MHH has been pounding the table for Smith, and it bears mentioning that the Broncos brought him in for a visit. I suppose it could be argued that we even have a man-crush on him. But there’s a reason why.

At 6-foot-5, 271 pounds, Smith has the versatility to play any position in a 3-4 front seven. And according to the Mock Draft Muncher, his average draft position is 45.94, confirming that he likely won’t be there at No. 59, but also suggesting there might be better talent ahead of him.

The scouting community is relatively bi-polar on Smith. He’s seen as either a sure-fire first round prospect, and rookie difference-maker, or a second-to-third rounder. Obviously, MHH sees him as the former. He wouldn’t necessarily solve the Broncos problems at nose guard, but he would add young depth behind Wolfe and Jackson, and offer the team a solid foundation for when both starters hit unrestricted free agency following 2015.

As for an edge rusher, the Broncos are relatively set at this position, but if a top prospect plummeted in the first round, I could see the team taking advantage of it. Perhaps Missouri's Shane Ray or Nebraska's Randy Gregory—two low-floor, high-ceiling prospects. Gregory comes with off-the-field concerns, hence the possibility of him falling.

The other name that keeps popping up for the Broncos across a wide variety of mock drafts is Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams. Williams is an intriguing prospect and one whom Peyton Manning could likely turn into a perennial Pro Bowler, but if Elway is telling the truth and he’s looking for “immediate starters”, especially in the first, then Williams doesn’t make much sense.

The Broncos signed Owen Daniels and re-signed Virgil Green to fill out the roster at tight end. They also signed James Casey to a one-year deal—a guy who can play anywhere at tight end, as well as line up as full back. Daniels and Green will compete for the starting position at tight end, but it likely won’t matter who officially winds up on top of the depth chart, with how many two-tight end sets Gary Kubiak likes to utilize.

The argument for Williams is that he’s a rare talent whom teams would rue, should they choose not to take him in the draft. The fact that Owen Daniels is entering his tenth season also lends credence to the possibility of drafting Williams at No. 28, but Daniels also signed a three-year deal, which means he’ll be around for a while, as did Green.

The Broncos don’t have a sure-fire starter at left guard, but between free agent signee Shelley Smith and the young guns mentioned by Kubiak—Ben Garland and possibly Michael Schofield, the team has options. And it’s rare to see a guard drafted in the first round. Guys like Duke’s Laken Tomlinson, who in fairness might not be a scheme fit, and Hobart’s Ali Marpet, could be had in the second or third round.

As for drafting a center, one of the trendier mocks to the Broncos at pick No. 28 is Florida State’s Cameron Erving. However, the team has a young developmental center in the zone blocking scheme mold in Matt Paradis, whom the team is reportedly high on, as mentioned by Kubiak at the owner's meetings.

They also recently traded away a 2016 fourth round pick, in exchange for center Gino Gradkowski and a 2016 fifth round pick. Gradkowski has starting experience, as well as time in Kubiak’s system last season in Baltimore. To further suggest the Broncos won’t go center in the first round, I present Manuel Ramirez.

Ramirez is the center on-roster Manning is most familiar with and was mentioned by Kubiak in his presser at the NFL owner’s meetings as being one of the “three older guys” on the offensive line, whom Kubiak has penciled in as starting. With Ramirez, it could be left guard, but more likely, it’s center.

The Broncos definitely need to add a center in this draft, just in case Paradis doesn’t pan out, but if they’re looking for an immediate starter and one who doesn’t fill a role already held by an above average starter, then they probably won’t go that direction in the first round, which rules out Erving.

At the end of the day, we don’t have a crystal ball. We cannot with absolute surety guarantee which player or even which position the Broncos will select in the opening round of the NFL Draft. But if I’m a betting man, I don’t think it’ll be offensive line. My gut tells me it’ll be defense.

Chad Jensen is the Publisher and Lead Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+.

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