Denver Broncos Draft Big Board: Prospects 21-30

Draft analyst Nick Kendell reveals prospects 21-30 on his big board for the 2017 NFL Draft that would fit with the Broncos.

With previously having established prospects 1-10 and 11-20 that fit the 2017 Denver Broncos, the next list of players are ones who either are valuable players that just do not fit the team's current roster needs, or are guys who are better targets if Denver does trade down in the first or trade up in the second. The board will still not feature any quarterbacks in the top-30 because, from the sounds of it, GM John Elway and the new coaching staff are fully committed to doing everything and anything possible to give the signal-callers already on the roster every chance to succeed. Looking at Denver’s roster right now, the obvious spots that need talent and depth are the offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker corps.

However, Elway still has free agency to work his magic to address roster needs and let the Broncos go into April with as close to a ‘best player available’ philosophy as possible. There is a long ways to go between now and Draft Day, so these players' stock will undoubtedly rise and fall depending on the Combine, and Pro Days, but for now these slots are about as close as possible to where they should be on newly-hired Head Coach Vance Joseph and John Elway’s NFL Draft Big Board.

21. Derek Barnett, Edge Rusher, Tennessee Volunteers

While many are not sure whether to call this the year of the edge rusher, or year of the cornerback, this draft is shaping up to be one of the better draft classes in the last few years overall. Unfortunately for Denver, it is a rather weak class at offensive line.

Instead of reaching at that position, Denver would be wise taking talent as it falls this April. Coming in at 21 on the big board is Tennessee DE Derek Barnett. If Denver switches to the 4-3, then expect Barnett to make a sharp rise up the big board (along with other players of similar skill-set).

At 6-foot-3 260 pounds, Barnett just looks like a prototypical NFL 4-3 DE.  For his size, Barnett has a very solid get-off at the snap, showing both decent burst and savvy snap anticipation. His anticipation can lead him to some trouble sometimes as he can be drawn offside’s if fooled by an opponent’s hard count.

One thing that also shows regularly on Barnett's film is his ability to ‘bend’ around the tackle. It’s something Broncos fans have become accustomed to watching Von Miller in Denver, but not many show the ability to do it at Barnett’s size in the NFL consistently, let alone at the college level.

Barnett also shows a good motor and conditioning, staying on the field all three downs and not giving up if a play gets past him. It seems like every game, Barnett will run to the opposite end of the line or over ten yards down the field to make a tackle in pursuit.

Barnett also is athletic enough to drop into coverage when asked to do so. While he won’t fool anyone for a great off-ball coverage linebacker, having the ability to play in man or zone in the 3-4 only adds versatility for the defense and confusion for opposing offenses.

One thing to note when watching Barnett is that he does end up on the ground a fair amount when rushing the passer. This could be due to lack of secondary moves after initially getting beat by an opposing lineman and points to an issue with balance.

Barnett will also not be confused with speed rushers like Tim Williams or Takkarist McKinley either, as he doesn’t have elite burst. If Barnett has a good combine, he very well could rise into the top-10 selections this April.

22. Mike Williams, Wide Receiver, Clemson Tigers

If you watched the College National Championship Game this past Monday, then Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams should be firmly on your radar. After making on contested catch after another, Williams cemented himself as the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in this class.

At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Williams has more than enough size to be a No. 1 option for many teams’ passing attack. Along with being tall, Williams appears to have an excellent frame and wingspan, which he regularly uses to ‘box out’ defensive backs and come down with 50:50 balls at a high rate.

While Deshaun Watson will get most of the hype from the awesome performance against Alabama, the way Williams was able to make plays on back shoulder throws was highly impressive, given the physicality needed to come down with those throws. While not a burner, Williams uses his physicality and size to go up and play ‘above the rim’ and make plays similar to Tampa's Mike Evans. While Williams is a decent route runner, more work will be needed in the pros, as he does not appear to have elite speed or quickness. One thing of note that is an underrated aspect of being a complete wide receiver is Williams’ willingness to block down the field.

On multiple occasions this physicality on run plays sprung Watson or Wayne Gallman further down the field then they would have without Williams’ down-the-field bocking. While Williams does make some spectacular jump-ball type of plays, he does have a tendency to drop some easy passes.

He also doesn’t appear to have many elite traits in terms of agility or explosion, as he relies on his aggression and size advantage to win most of his matchups. Furthermore, it should be noted that Clemson went to the CFC last year, as well, with Williams essentially missing the entire season.

While many have Williams going top-10 in this class, his lack of elite traits, along with Denver’s lack of need for a No. 1 WR, makes Williams drop to 22 on the big board.

23. Takkarist McKinley, Edge Rusher, UCLA Bruins

Since the Duke of Denver returned to his throne in Dove Valley, Elway has done a phenomenal job building a championship-caliber roster. He is unquestionably one of the best GMs in finding talent in free agency and getting players to sign team-friendly contracts.

With that said, Elway’s performance during the draft has been rather lukewarm. While he has done a great job finding talent late in the draft, or panning for gems in the undrafted pool, his day-two selections have left a lot to be desired.

Elway has, however, done a good job sticking to his roster-building blueprint of using his round-one selection on an ‘impact’ position. There are four ‘impact’ positions on an NFL roster and they all revolve around helping or stopping the passing game — quarterback, offensive tackle, pass rusher (mostly edge rusher but I would argue interior pass rush is just as important), and cornerback.

While Denver appears to be very deep at corner and pass rusher, Elway would be wise to still look for talent to add at the position, especially given the talent in this class. One of the many great edge rushers in this class is 6-foot-2, 260-poune edge rusher Takkarist McKinely.

McKinley is a freak athlete that will shock people in the underwear Olympics in Indianapolis and will rise up draft boards as we get closer to Draft Day. As a former track star, it is easy to see the incredible athlete that McKinley is on tape from a snap-to-snap basis.

To combine with that great speed is an impressively long body with long arms. Despite his length, McKinley plays with consistently low pad level on the edge and uses solid hand technique against tackles.

Even though it appears McKinley uses proper hand technique, it is rather obvious he lacks much speed-to-power, as his initial contact with lineman does not often blow them back, despite the speed he arrives with at contact. While McKinley is a good athlete and shows good technique, he has a long ways to go to become an NFL three-down player.

First, Takkarist McKinley needs to add to his pass rush repertoire and refine his moves. He also needs to add strength to his body, as he does not display the ability to keep the edge or bull-rush at this point.

Despite his lack of strength currently, McKinley does play with fire and a motor that runs red hot, regularly chasing down ball carriers and fighting through blockers if at first stopped. Ironically, the player that some compared him to earlier this year was none other then the man he would likely replace on the roster, DeMarcus Ware.

While McKinley does not have the power or technique that Ware had entering the league, there is obviously excitement to his game and drafting McKinley would add another dangerous pass rush weapon to an already lethal arsenal.

24. David Njoku, Tight End, Miami Hurricanes

Denver struggled on offense this year in almost every facet. Whether it be the run game, the pass game, the play calling, the execution, or the talent level, the unit needs to be reevaluated and shot in the arm to get on track for the 2017 NFL Season.

Outside of Matt Paradis, Emmanuel Sanders, and Demaryius Thomas, there just aren’t many players on that side of the ball that opposing teams would point at and say “that guy is good and is going to be a problem for us.”

At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, redshirt sophomore David Njoku could be a huge weapon that Denver’s offense has sorely missed in the middle of the field, since Julius Thomas took his talents and injuries to Jacksonville. While Njoku did not receive many ‘starts’ as TE1 on the depth chart for Miami over the last two years, whether it be due to coaching staff loyalty to older players at the position or trying to bring him on slowly, by the end of this season there was little doubt that Njoku was not only the most talented player at tight end for Miami, but the most talented player on the entire offense.

While he doesn’t block like well-known tight end draft talents Jake Butt and O.J. Howard do, Njoku has upside as a blocker. He is currently extremely raw, displaying poor hand placement and understanding of leverage, but has long arms and shows good power when used inline.

He also displays the willingness and mental attitude to be a decent blocker. While he likely will never be elite in that regard, just having the tools and mental upside to be an inline tight end adds value to Njoku. He has a ways to go as a blocker, but there is potential.

What makes Njoku special though is his ‘jump out of the gym’ level of athleticism. A former high school high jump champion (at 6 -oot-11. WOW!!!) Njoku consistently displays he is on a different athletic tier than his teammates and his piers.

His ability to make yards after the catch is better than most wide receivers, let alone tight ends. His speed, power, leaping, and frame make him an absolute matchup nightmare for opponents to scheme against. Njoku doesn’t look incredibly smooth in and out of his breaks right now when running routes, but given he is still growing into his body and how young he is, he should be expected to improve on this over time.

Njoku also does not appear overly ‘sudden’ which could affect his ability to get open when running underneath routes, but given his size and athleticism he still will be able to make plays in the middle of the field. He fits the classic "too big to be covered by safeties and too athletic to be covered by linebackers" refrain.

If Elway and the new coaching staff are serious about improving the offense, they should consider Njoku. While he may not be worth a selection at 20, if he falls out of the first round Denver should be pounding the phones to move up and select this mismatch nightmare.

25. Sidney Jones, Cornerback, Washington Huskies

The 2017 NFL Draft class is a fantastic class for a number of positions: tight end, running back, edge rushr, and safety. However, the position that most feel is the deepest is cornerback. And, as stated earlier in the article, cornerback is one of the positions Denver’s front office places at a premium.

The No Fly Zone does not ‘need’ to add another talent round one this year, given that the Broncos will have Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr, and Bradley Roby all on the roster next year and the young unknown of Lorenzo Doss. Despite the talent already at cornerback on the roster, if a skilled player falls within range of the Broncos’ selection, Elway and company should consider jumping on a cornerback.

Also worthy to consider, Talib and his off-field antics, coupled with injury issues this past season and Roby’s drop in play and impending contract negotiations, make corner a more pressing need than it would appear on the surface.  At 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, Sidney Jones is currently one of the many cornerbacks in the running to be the first selected this April and likely the first Washington Husky taken from a very talented defense.

One thing to like about Jones right away is how often the Huskies used him with little to no safety help. While not often asked to play bump-and-run in these scenarios, Jones displays intelligence in route recognition and plus-athleticism to play off-man effectively and consistently.

This often can be a problem for many corners if they play too aggressively, leading them to give up big plays when fooled on double moves, but Jones picks his spots and shows enough burst to not let that happen.

Jones also has a very long frame and arm length, which he uses well to play the ball and get around receivers without causing enough contact to warrant pass interference calls. Jones does not display fluidity in his hips always, coming off a bit stiff when flipping them and running with receivers. This indicates that playing press man-to-man coverage may not be where he is best suited. Also, despite being tall and having long arms, Jones does not have a very strong frame and could stand to add more muscle. This is apparent when he is asked to handle bigger wide receivers or play bump and run coverage.

Despite his need to add muscle, Jones is solid in run support, sometimes crashing down the sideline and delivering surprisingly big hits, although not consistently. If Denver played a system like Seattle, with more off-ball coverage calls, Jones would be higher on this board.

For now, he is guy who likely won’t be a Bronco, barring some sort trade or unsuspecting drastic change in Jones’ draft stock.

26. John Ross III, Wide Receiver/Returner, Washington Huskies

Denver does not need a big outside-the-hash-marks wide receiver early in the draft. With the speed and down field ability of Emmanuel Sanders, and the big, physical (at times), and explosive play ability of Demaryius Thomas, Denver is doing pretty solid at wide receiver one and two.

Also considering the large contracts that Elway has given to Thomas and Sanders over the past few years, with a decent chunk of guaranteed money, wide receiver is about as low of a need for Denver as any position on the depth chart. Even though Denver does not need another wide receiver early in the draft (they should add one at some point,  just probably not round one), Elway should consider adding the dynamic receiving threat out of the University of Washington, John Ross III.

Ross is likely one of, if not the single most explosive wide receivers in college football this past season. At 5-foot-11, 190, Ross is much more a John Brown type receiver than a Julio Jones. That might be a good thing though for Denver, as they desperately need a slot receiver who is a treat with the ball in their hands and can pressure secondaries deep and in the middle of the field.

Head Coach Chris Petersen and the Huskies did a great job moving Ross around on offense, playing outside and inside as receiver. Ross also shows up regularly as a blocker, which is both surprising and important for a player of his size if he is going to be on the field regularly in the NFL.

Ross does a great job in his routes, as he is sudden in and out of breaks and has amazing separation speed. He also displays the ability to adjust and track the ball in the air as well as any deep threat wide receiver in college football this season.

While Ross is definitely a dynamic threat, he does have a tendency to be a ‘body catcher’ instead of high pointing the ball and using his hands to control passes and then bring them into his frame. Also Ross has shown to have issues against physical corners who jam him at the line of scrimmage and will need to get better at beating press coverage at the next level.

Ross also does have an injury history, having suffered a torn meniscus in 2014, which was then re-aggravated in 2015. One area that adds tremendous value to Ross though, compared to other first round caliber wide receivers, is that the is an excellent returner.

In both kickoffs and punts, Ross is a exciting player with the ball in his hands displaying the balance, vision, and burst to be a huge threat on special teams. Ross would not be my favorite pick at selection 20, but is a name to watch and consider going forward.

27. Gareon Conley, Cornerback, Ohio State Buckeyes

Another cornerback? Yes, absolutely. Denver doesn’t need a corner by any means, but there is just too much talent not to have them on the big board. There are about five or six cornerbacks right now that are all vying to be the top guy taken this April, and Conley has about as good of a shot as any of them.

Conley is also the third member of the Ohio State secondary to have a slot on the top-30 on the big board. While the eventual National Champion Clemson did slaughter Ohio State, the secondary of the Buckeyes needs to be looked at in a much larger scope than a single game that snowballed on them.

Conley does not get the hype that many of the other high profile corners in this class do, but he deserves to be known. He has more than adequate size to be an effective outside corner, standing at 6-foot-0, 195 pounds, but also displays the athleticism to be used in slot as well.

Conley is extremely smooth in his ability to cover corners, showing speed, quickness, and fluidity in his hips and back pedal. Conley also makes consistent plays on the ball, notching 4 interceptions and 8 passes broken up in 13 games this season.

Conley also shows the physicality necessary to translate in to the pros, often being used in press man-to-man coverage that the Buckeyes love to use and offering adequate run support, accumulating 26 total tackles this season. Conley can stand to get stronger and more aggressive in his run support at the next level.

He isn’t often caught out of position and shows enough route recognition and aggressiveness to be a constant threat at taking the ball from the offense. While Conley does not appear to be the same level athlete as his teammates in the secondary at Ohio State, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker, his combination of IQ, technique, agility, and size make him a likely first round selection in the draft and would give Denver a corner they could groom into a future stud in the No Fly Zone.

28. Jabrill Peppers, Linebacker/Safety, Michigan Wolverines

Over the years, and especially apparent since the departure of Danny Trevathan last offseason, the spectacular Broncos defense has had its fair share of woes covering tight ends and running backs in the pass game. If Denver is going to retake their rightful place as kings of the AFC West, a division which has solid to great tight end talent, they will need to come up with a plan on how to better guard non-wide receivers in the pass game.

A player who could help add speed, aggression, and talent and could theoretically be a plus in covering those type of players would be Michigan’s 6-foot-1, 210-pound tweener safety/linebacker, Jabrill Peppers. How is it possible that a Heisman finalist and very well known NCAA defensive player is this low on the Denver Bronco Big Board?

There are a multitude of reasons for Jabrill Peppers being this far down the big board. If the year was 1992 and Denver needed a strong safety with good in-the-box skills, Peppers might be top-5 or 10 on this board. Sadly for him, gone are the days of a strong safety just needing to be strong in run support.

In today’s game, if a strong safety is going to be selected early round one, they need to be able to not only provide strong ability against the run, but also be great in space, be able to play deep zone, be able to get off blocks, and be able to drop into slot effectively. While Peppers is a fast and reactive player, he does not possess the traits necessary to be a very effective strong safety in today’s pass happy league. Some argue that Peppers will need to be moved to weak side linebacker to be effective at the next level. While this is likely true, being only 210 pounds and not showing a strong ability to shed blocks, Peppers might struggle being a full-time linebacker in the NFL.

Peppers does display great instincts and speed in pursuit of the ball, and with a clever and creative defensive coordinator, can be moved around the defense to create matchup problems in a multitude of positions. However, Peppers just appears to be too much of a ‘tweener’ to be worth such an early selection in the NFL in a deep class.

On tape, Peppers looks somewhat stiff and rigid in coverage, often times getting caught up by a receiver or tight end when they run smooth routes with suddenness. Peppers also can be too aggressive in run support, often times over-pursuing leaving his defense vulnerable to big plays when he is caught out of position.

Peppers also often doesn’t take proper routes to the ball, allowing ball carriers to set up blocks and even cut back for more yardage when allowed. Denver could use a player like Peppers, but with needs elsewhere on the roster, he is not worth the 20th selection for the Broncos.

29. Corey Davis, Wide Receiver, Western Michigan Broncos

Outside of Sanders and Thomas, Denver has no real threat at wide receiver going forward. While some may claim that Jordan Taylor and Cody Latimer are more than capable to perform as the Broncos’ three and four receiver, neither has shown the skill-set nor consistency to be counted on as a true receiving threat to help Denver’s young quarterbacks, take pressure and coverage off of Sanders and Thomas, and help the Broncos woeful third down conversion percentage.

While it likely would be a better decision for Denver to select a receiver in rounds two through four (names to watch include Carlos Henderson from Louisiana Tech, Taywan Taylor from Western Kentucky, Ryan Switzer from North Carolina), Denver should still consider adding a talent like Western Michigan’s 6-foot-3, 205-pound — and rising — wide receiver Corey Davis.

Mike Williams and John Ross have been considered better wide receiver prospects in the scouting community, but many are starting to elevate Davis’ name higher and higher, even to the point of being the first wide receiver selected in this April’s Draft. Putting on the tape and watching Davis, it is easy to see why he is generating such strong buzz.

Davis does not display many elite traits, but rather is a player who is good at everything. Given his size, Davis is a player with good speed and burst in and out of his routes. When thinking about it, Davis produces strong catches, using his strong hands to go up and grab the ball and bring it into his frame.

He will sometimes have frustrating drops if he turns his head to attempt to go up-field before the ball is fully in his grasp and does sometimes body-catch instead of going and plucking it with his hands.

Davis also offers surprising yards after catch ability given his size, making him a threat to turn modest gains into big splash plays. Davis also runs very smooth and clean routes for a man his size, but did not face much press coverage in his conference.

Davis will have to have a strong postseason to keep his stock rising around the league considering the level of competition he faced, but given his talent, size, and reportedly strong character, Davis has a great chance at being the first receiver off the board this April.

30. Dion Dawkins, Offensive Tackle/Offensive Guard, Temple Owls

With Mike McCoy joining the Broncos staff as the offensive coordinator, the blocking scheme of the offensive line may be transitioning to represent more of a power scheme. While this is good news for some offensive lineman on the roster — such as Max Garcia — Denver is going to need to use free agency, as well as the draft, to help solidify the offensive line and get it humming and effective to the level we haven’t seen since the Mike Shanahan days.

The power scheme does not require the same level of chemistry and technicality that a full-fledged zone requires, but it still requires strength, size, and technique to run effectively. A quick look across the ‘starters’ on the offensive line shows that the Broncos do not currently have any sort of ‘earth movers’ that they can run behind and gain tough yards.

While LT Russell Okung and Garcia do have the ability to move defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage, there needs to be two new starters on the right side of the line if Elway wants to have a run game to compliment the elite defense he has built. Coming in at No. 30 on the Bronco Big Board is 6-foot-5, 320-pound Temple starting left tackle, Dion Dawkins.

While Dawkins played left tackle in college, he probably will start at either guard or right tackle in the NFL. He has the length and tenacity to be a mauler type and hold up at right tackle, and may even have left tackle potential if technique is cleaned up.

Dawkins is the type of player the Denver offensive line has been missing since the departure of Orlando Franklin. Dawkins plays angry when blocking, like someone insulted his family. This is both his greatest strength and weakness.

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It can lead to him reaching and leaning, getting off balance from time to time. Dawkins also has a tendency to miss with his hand placement, which leads to holding penalties if his hands slide off the chest plate of defenders. Dawkins displays inconsistent leverage and knee bend, which will need to be cleaned up at the next level as well.

Dawkins has shown he can solo block and anchor against bull rushers, and has the agility and fluidity needed to get out in space and kick step against speed rushers. Depending on what Denver does in free agency, Dawkins could step in day one and be a big improvement at right guard or right tackle.

While his current stock is somewhere in late round two, don’t be surprised to see him rise as we get closer to April. For now, pray that Denver has a chance to select him round two. Dion Dawkins may not be in the top 30 Big Board as April approaches, but he is definitely a name to watch that would immediately solidify the horrific right side of Denver’s offensive line.

Thus concludes the Denver Broncos Top 30 Big Board for now. Look for the updated series to begin in late March or early April, as the league and fans prepare for what some believe to be the most exciting part of the year, the NFL Draft.

These are the 31-40 on the big board who just missed the cut and are players to watch heading into the offseason:

31. Adoree Jackson, CB/KR/PR, USC

32. Christian McCaffrey, RB/KR/PR, Stanford

33. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama

34. Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida

35. Chris Wormley, DT/DE, Michigan

36. Budda Baker, S, Washington

37. Charles Harris, Edge, Missouri

38. Dan Feeney, OG, Indiana

39. Curtis Samuel, RB/WR/KR/PR, Ohio State

40. Forrest Lamp, OG/OT, Western Kentucky

Nick Kendell is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ndkendell.

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