After the Miami Dolphins selected Jake Long with the first pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, there were six more tackles taken after him in the first round. One of those tackles was Ryan Clady, who was the second tackle selected in the draft and the 12th pick overall by the Denver Broncos. Coming from the WAC conference - a conference that’s considered one of the weakest in Division I football - Clady dominated the competition for three years and decided to forego his senior season to explore his game at the next level. Clady did much more than explore in his first year.
It’s hard to imagine that a rookie offensive tackle could dominate from the moment he stepped into the league, but the 6-foot-6, 309-pound athletic mauler did just that. The No. 1 prospect in the Broncos organization, Clady started all 16 games for the Broncos and allowed just a half of a sack the entire season, which ranked first among all left tackles in the league. For his efforts, Clady finished third behind Matt Ryan and Chris Johnson respectively in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and was named second team All-Pro. The honor that Clady didn’t receive, but his draft counterpart Long did, was a trip to Hawaii to star in the Pro Bowl. Players are usually voted into the Pro Bowl based on reputation, and as good as Clady was in his first year, he wasn’t the top pick in the draft, didn’t play for a playoff team and didn’t have the name recognition that others possess around the league, yet. Clady’s game is now being compared to some of the best tackles in the league, including future Hall of Famer Walter Jones. The sensational first season that Clady put together provides the Broncos with a sense of security on the left side of their line. And from this point on, Clady will be a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
Another 2008 draft pick, second round wide receiver Eddie Royal, also played at a Pro Bowl level during his first year. Known for his ability as a return specialist at Virginia Tech, Royal was a good slot receiver with the Hokies, but he struggled to show consistency catching the ball and running routes. Although, something clicked for the second rated prospect in the organization during his first year with the Broncos; maybe it was the fact that he was surrounded by better talent and had a quarterback that could get him the ball, but Royal showcased great ability as a receiver. In his first career game, which happened to be on Monday Night Football, Royal emerged on national television as a player to keep an eye on and caught nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. He started in 15 of 16 games [missing one game due to injury] and finished the season with 91 receptions for 980 yards and five touchdowns. Royal’s 91 catches were the most by a rookie since Anquan Boldin hauled in 101 during the 2003 season. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Royal’s size and skill are best suited for the slot, because he’s most dangerous in space. But, expect him to be moved all around – inside, outside and even in the backfield for some trickery - to create mismatches. If Royal can stay healthy, he will once again approach 90 catches.
The Broncos have done a nice job of drafting the last two years, and this past April they secured three players that immediately will become top five prospects in the organization - running back Knowshon Moreno (No. 3), linebacker Robert Ayers (No. 4) and cornerback Alphonso Smith (No. 5). All three players have the talent and opportunity to enjoy the same success in their first year as Clady and Royal experienced.
At 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, Moreno is a mirror image of future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Everything that they do on the field is comparable, from their ability to their physique, even their versatility; it’s all eerily similar. And the irony is that Moreno ended up in the AFC West, the same division that Tomlinson tore up for the last decade. Moreno is a tremendously gifted offensive weapon who finished his career at Georgia with 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. He runs with outstanding pad level, displays great vision and tremendous cutback ability. He has a quick first step and is lethal on the edge. He’s deceptively strong between the tackles and will fight for extra yards. He’s faster than his timed speed suggests and has the potential to take it the distance from anywhere on the field. Moreno plays with a lot of emotions and is a high energy player who can occasionally be taken out of his game if he’s not productive. The upside of Moreno is limitless, his talent is obvious, and judging from the success that the ’08 running back class had in the NFL last year, don’t be surprised if he’s the starter on opening day.
With the Broncos switching to a 3-4 defense, Ayers will make the transition from defensive end to linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 272 pounds, Ayers could play DE for the Broncos, but his athleticism and ability to get in the backfield make him a great weapon off the edge. A bit of a late bloomer, Ayers was a backup at Tennessee for his first three years and finally broke into the starting lineup as a senior. In his first year as a starter, Ayers had an up and down year and finished with 49 tackles, 15.5 for a loss and just three sacks. The 15.5 tackles for a loss shows his ability to get in the backfield and terrorize, which is what they envision Ayers doing more of with his transition to outside linebacker. Ayers is more quick than fast and uses his hands very well. He has a powerful lower body and great leg drive. He attacks mostly on the outside and has the ability to bring his momentum inside. He has an explosive nature, but has to develop better technique to compensate for his lack of straight-line speed. He has to show better awareness and improve his run defense. It will be interesting to see how Ayers progresses as a player, because he’s one of a handful of players selected in the first round that’s the ultimate boom or bust prospect.
A first year player that the Broncos are extremely high on, which was shown during the draft when they traded their 2010 first round pick to Seattle to get him, is Smith. If Smith were a few inches taller he would have been a top 20 lock, but at 5-foot-9 and 193 pounds some wonder if he’s just a very talented nickel corner. Smith will start his career as the team’s nickel corner with Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman patrolling the outside, and will take some of the return responsibilities away from Royal so he can concentrate more on offense. Smith may be undersized, but he’s a physical, productive defender who registered 39 tackles and seven interceptions to close out his career at Wake Forest. He displays good route recognition and is a determined defender. He’s effective facing the action, locates the ball quickly and possesses excellent closing speed and ball skills that allow him to turn defense into offense. He is a very instinctive defender who has a great sense of timing. Smith plays physical at the line, and at the NFL level he will have to display that ability in the slot. It’s unfortunate that Smith’s career will always be tied to the first round pick that the Broncos gave up to acquire him, because if he struggles in his first year, fans will clamor for the unknown. A note to Broncos fans… don’t worry, the Broncos stole Smith in the second round and will be rewarded with an outstanding playmaker for years to come.Rounding out the top 10 are third year offensive tackle Ryan Harris and defensive end Tim Crowder at No. 6 and 7 respectively as well as second year contributors fullback Peyton Hills (No. 8), cornerback Jack Williams (No. 9) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (No. 10). Just missing the cut were former first round disappointment Jarvis Moss, free safety Josh Barrett and defensive end Ryan McBean.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.