Nick Kendell's Top-4 NFL Draft Prospects For The Denver Broncos To Consider In The First Round

Nick Kendell reveals his top-4 prospects that the Broncos should consider in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Well, it’s officially Draft Season. As I sit here on the eve before I head off to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, I ponder many of the same questions that most other Denver Broncos fans are thinking, as the talks of the free agent offensive line prospects and Tony Romo grow tiring.

Who should the Broncos take with their first round pick?

While free agency will matter greatly on the fits and perceived needs by John Elway and the front office, given the landscape of this draft class, Broncos fans should start to get an idea of who is not only possible, but a likely fit for the Broncos first selection this April. Here are four potential players the Broncos should and will consider when they are finally on the clock.

Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State Spartans

While Mile High Huddle’s Erick Trickel just wrote a piece saying Malik McDowell is a player the Broncos should avoid in the first round, I am in the opposite camp. To me, outside of Myles Garrett, McDowell has the highest ceiling of any prospect in the entire NFL Draft.

Standing at 6-foot-6 and a listed 275 pounds (although, I have spoken with a high school coach of his who would be shocked if he weighed less than 290), McDowell is an absolute freak of a player.

Before the season, many were discussing McDowell being a top-5 player in the draft class, and putting on the tape it isn’t hard to see why. McDowell’s flashes are as good as any interior defensive lineman in the last few drafts. He is long, extremely strong, converts speed to power very well, and is a maniac at creating pressure in the backfield.

From a tape standpoint, he should be a top-10 selection based on the value of interior pass rushers and his overall athleticism. McDowell is able to not only anchor consistently against double teams, but on plenty of occasions if he fires off correctly and balanced with good leverage, he is able to push two offensive linemen into the backfield.

He also has shown the rare ability to split double teams, something that is rare for any defensive lineman but especially rare given his frame. McDowell does need to continue to add strength to his base and add more pass rush moves to his repertoire, as he mainly used a shoulder dip on the outside and a bull rush on the inside.

His lack of refinement isn’t completely his fault, as a poor Spartan defense moved him around the line (often lining him up at nose tackle, a horrible scheme fit for his frame, even though he still was able to anchor with success despite his height). What makes McDowell a potential option for the Broncos at 20 more than his tape is his whispers of off-field issues. There are rumors that he was not the best teammate while at Michigan State, sometimes dogging it in practice and having issues with coaches. Furthermore, from time to time it was rumored he would go ‘rogue’ on the field and ignore his gap assignments.

While McDowell was enough of a freak athlete that he could make up for some undisciplined play, that cannot happen in the NFL if he is going to succeed. Many also think McDowell has motor issues, but those became more apparent after it was obvious Michigan State was not going anywhere this season, and McDowell had little reason to risk injury given his assured early round selection status.

Interviews will be huge for McDowell, but he should be fully expected to show his freakish athleticism for his size at the combine. With Von Miller only notching one sack in the last five games and Denver really struggling to create interior pressure and anchor against the run, McDowell could be a home run selection at 20 for Elway and the gang.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama Crimson Tide

While Elway has always done a good job at sticking with the ‘core’ positions in the first round (which are quarterback, offensive tackle, pass rushers, and cornerback), if a special player at a different position falls, exceptions should be made. O’Terrius Jabari Howard, tight end from Alabama, is the kind of player that makes it okay to deviate from the formula.

Standing at nearly 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, O.J. is a weapon the Broncos have been sorely missing in the middle of the field and in the red zone since the departure of Julius Thomas. The kicker though, Julius couldn’t block the sun from his eyes, O.J. excels and revels in the physicality needed to be an inline blocker

Anyone who watched the past two NCAA National Championship Games should know that Howard is a heck of an athlete and weapon when used. In the 2015 game, he rattled off five receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns, a huge difference maker for the Crimson Tide.

This past year’s championship, despite playing with what was essentially a running back at quarterback; Howard was again a huge difference maker catching four balls for 106 yards and another touchdown.

Despite these huge games on the biggest stage, Howard’s statistical output throughout his career at Alabama was disappointing to say the least. While some point to it as a huge flaw in his game, watching the tape reveals a different story. Alabama, whether it be due to an amazing defense, run game, or a plethora of other weapons, just simply did not scheme to use Howard. On many plays, he was either kept inline to block (which he excelled at as one of the best blocking tight ends in this draft class), or sent him out as a check down option. In many games, when Alabama was starting to take physical control of the pace, one could see Nick Saban lean over to his offensive coordinator and repeat ‘run it’ over and over until the game was over. This limited what O.J. was allowed to put up statistically in the Alabama offense.

When asked about his usage at Alabama during the Senior Bowl, Howard stated he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t schemed more into the offense because he felt he had shown he could be a huge weapon, but he didn’t let it get him down. Instead, he focused on improving in every aspect he could to help his team, specifically in his blocking technique and his route running.

While he will need to continue to improve in these areas in the NFL, the progress he made on tape from 2015 to 2016 shows that Howard understands what it takes to win games at the next level and do the little things that don’t show up in the highlights. Denver absolutely needs to get better blocking and add a receiving threat over the middle of the field and in the red zone, and O.J. Howard is the best of both worlds to help jolt the Broncos offense.

Cam Robinson, OT/OG, Alabama Crimson Tide

Another Alabama offensive player for the Broncos in round one? Sure, why not? While I personally do not like the Alabama Crimson Tide (cheering for them feels like cheering for the Patriots. Give someone else a chance already), there is no doubt that Nick Saban and the program are able to churn out consistent quality NFL players.

While some bust and some go on to become good players, it is important to scout the player himself instead of the helmet when evaluating talent. One prospect that makes particular sense for the Broncos at selection 20 is Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson.

Robinson came to Alabama as the No. 1 offensive lineman recruit out of high school. Robinson started all four years for the Crimson Tide, going up consistently against future NFL players in the talented SEC. When compared to the other two top tackles in this class, Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin and Garett Bolles out of Utah, the amount of tape and starting experience in the best conference should be a huge boost to the player’s ability to transition to the NFL.

Thanks to (and unfortunately for him) the large amount of tape on Robinson, he has been nitpicked to the point of over-analysis, but it is important to note what Robinson can do rather than just talking about what he isn’t or struggles with right now.

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First thing to note about Robinson is obviously his frame. Standing at a monstrous 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, with 35-½” arm length and 10-½” hand size, Robinson looks like a tackle one would build if they were creating a tackle in Madden. While arm length does not equal talent, as there are plenty of players with tree trunks for arms who have failed in the NFL, they certainly help an offensive lineman in both pass block and run block sets.

Robinson is also not someone who deceives with his frame, as he is likely one of the strongest offensive lineman in the entire class. His torso power and core strength make him a problem for any defender if he gets his hands on them, and his ability to lock on and drive block would be a huge addition to a Bronco offensive line transitioning to a power scheme.

Robinson also shows tenacity in the trenches, as he is not only looking to block his counterparts, but drive them to the turf down the field. He also consistently flashes looking for work if a defender over him drops back into coverage, he will join the guard and combo block and destroy a helpless defensive lineman.

While Robinson has been hailed a top-10 pick before the season, there are reasons he is dropping and should be available when the Broncos pick. First of all, Robinson is not fleet of foot.

He is not going to be the most athletic tackle prospect in the NFL or even at the Combine this year. Some say he has heavy feet, and that mostly shows to be true in pass blocking sets compared to his run blocking, where he is adequately fluid getting down to the second level and delivering devastating blocks.

Robinson is not a tier-one tackle prospect like Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley were last year due to this, but he still flashes top -0 talent on tape. The key word there is ‘flashes’. While Robinson mostly plays with great technique, there are times he gets sloppy with his feet or hands and can crossed up.

Even if he does his job 95 percent of the time, that 5 percent can lead to bad plays that can kill drives and potentially lose games. There are also questions about his intelligence as a player, and teams are eager to get him on a whiteboard and ask him schematic questions about blocking schemes and assignments to clear this up.

One needs to be smart with good processing speed to make it in the NFL as a tackle, especially in the edge rush heavy AFC West. Also important to note, Robinson had an off the field issue this last offseason involving a gun and marijuana in a car, making interviews of the utmost importance to accessing what happened here and if he learned and grew from the situation.

While Robinson is not a perfect prospect, he still should be considered the best tackle prospect in this class in this writer’s opinion. Bolles is older and has strength questions, Ramczyk has medical concerns and strength questions, and both just have one year of tape making them very risky to select.

Robinson may never be an elite left tackle in the NFL, but in a league with more and more talent rushing against right tackles, and a team that needs help across the line in switching to a power scheme, Robinson could be a huge step towards the Broncos solidifying the offensive line, and finally establishing a dominating run game again.

Worst-case scenario, Robinson ends up one of the better power blocking guards in this class, best case, he becomes a very good left tackle. Most likely, Robinson ends up as one of the best right tackles in the league. Many have compared him to Cordy Glenn or Donald Penn, and if he can turn into either of those two players, he is absolutely worth a Denver selection round one.

Haason Reddick, OLB/ILB, Temple Owls

One area on the Broncos defense that surely could use an infusion of talent for the 2017 season is inside linebacker. While Brandon Marshall, when healthy, is one of the better off-ball linebackers in the entire NFL, his injury issues are something that the Broncos need to be concerned with as he plays more and more snaps and his body accumulates more and more dings and bruises.

Behind Marshall, the Broncos do have a number of talented linebackers, including Todd Davis, Corey Nelson, and Zaire Anderson. While all of these players are capable of coming in and staring next to Marshall, they are not upper level talents and do not stack up compared to the departed Danny Trevathan. As could be seen by the Broncos getting torn up by receiving running backs like Tevin Coleman against the Falcons, against monster tight ends like Travis Kelce, and a huge step back in run defense, Elway and his staff should consider taking an off ball linebacker round one.

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While Reuben Foster is undoubtedly the best linebacker in this class, as analysts Erick Trickel and Luc Polglaze have called him the best off-ball linebacker since Luke Kuechly on the Locked On Broncos Podcast (worth a follow and listen if you don’t already), Foster is very unlikely to be in any sort of range for the Broncos to acquire him. Even though Foster had rotator cuff surgery and will be missing the physical drills at the combine, if he falls out of the top-10 it would be a shock.

Another two options the Broncos may consider include Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis and Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham. However, both of these players have their own set of issues, such as a lot of medical questions for Davis and tackling and weight issues for Cunningham. There is another linebacker the Broncos should absolutely ponder about if he falls to pick 20, and that is Temple’s edge rusher Haason Reddick.

Reddick is very different from the other three players listed so far in this article, being he was not considered a high-caliber recruit coming out of high school. Instead, Reddick had to walk on and fight for everything he has earned so far in his football career.

Walking on at the non-power five Temple program, Reddick first started at cornerback for Owls. While there is no tape of Reddick at corner to scout to this writer’s knowledge, the fact that he started off on the outside covering wide receivers should say a lot about his potential to be a good coverage player in the NFL against running backs and tight ends, an area the Broncos have struggled in this past season.

Given that Reddick had the athleticism to play corner before, there should be little to no doubt the Reddick is an athletic freak with the fluidity to develop into one of the better cover linebackers in this class.

After Reddick hit the weight room at temple, he started to put on muscle and mass that the coaching staff decided to move him to edge rusher for the talented Temple defense. Once again, Reddick showed that he was more than talented enough to handle the switch, notching a total of 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this past season for the Owl defense. Reddick showed to be extremely twitched up and explosive out of his stance, with a high awareness to find the ball carrier and pursue them with closing speed.

Reddick’s play this last season was good enough that he notched an invite to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and once again, Reddick did not disappoint. He showed a very strong get off on the edge, winning many reps in practice and being a problem for offensive lineman.

However, what made Reddick really shine and raise his stock was when they transitioned him to off-ball linebacker in drills. At 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, Reddick does not have the frame or size to hold up purely as an edge rusher in the NFL so he needed to show he could transition to be a versatile player who can line up off ball in base packages and then have the ability to kick outside as a speed edge rusher in sub packages.

Reddick showed off his athleticism and fluidity in the drills, making it obvious he was a former cornerback and excelling in his ability to backpedal and cover receivers.

While the transition from edge rusher to off-ball linebacker in the NFL does make Reddick somewhat of a risk in the NFL, as there is limited tape on him from the position, he is by all accounts able to make the transition. He is expected to be one of the more explosive linebackers in this class, with some saying he could put up athletic numbers close to Ryan Shazier at the Combine and further solidifying himself as a first round linebacker.

In today’s NFL with so many offensive chess pieces causing problems for defenses, Reddick can come in as the versatile knight and cause problems all across the front seven for opposing offenses. If Elway wants to add an off-ball linebacker round one, Reddick may be the best one available at selection two.

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

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