Scouting the Broncos

Scouting the Broncos: A first look at free agency

It’s that time again - almost spring - when a young man’s fancies turn lightly to free agency and the draft. Equally, it’s much like love in that there’s often more wishful thinking than reason to the players that are mentioned. That being the case, I thought I’d jot some things down regarding important areas of the Broncos' rebuilding project.

John Elway has confirmed exactly what a lot of our readers have expressed hope for - that the Broncos intend to build through the draft and fill gaps in free agency. The thing is, just as it is with Denver’s own, that most free agents would just as soon not move and have to rebuild relationships without a lot of good reasons, most of them green. The Carl Nickses of the league aren't likely shots, to put it mildly, although you never really know who will become available or have a tiff with their team. However - there are a lot of good players available who can help Denver immediately via either free agency or the draft. I’ll be covering this by position, post-Combine, to add some draft options, but here are some rarely stressed basics to think seriously about.

First on the list? Remember to check for unrestricted free agents (UFA) vs. restricted free agents (RFA). Folks should keep in mind that taking on an RFA would cost the Broncos a draft pick as compensation to the former team, in addition to the monetary value of whatever contract they give the player. It could happen with the right deal, but it's highly unlikely. Those valuable picks are going to be the basis for the rebuilding process - I can seen trading out of the 25th-overall pick for a couple of second-rounders, for example. Denver needs more picks, not less.

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Scouting the Broncos: Safeties

As a defensive back, Denver Broncos safety Renaldo Hill has seen it all.

By all, what I mean isn’t limited to the length of his career, although that is moving into its 11th year. Hill has seen the change in the modern game to ever-increasingly pass-oriented offenses which use more of the short pass as a staple of their approach. That movement (although some teams still predominatly use the longer, Coryell-type offensive passing strategy) has led to a need for the safeties - both strong and free safeties - to have coverage skills as well as to be strong hitters. The lines between the strong and the free safety are becoming blurred, as compared to the historical versions of those positions. Hill is a good example, since he began his career in 2001 as a cornerback with the Arizona Cardinals before sliding back to safety, where he’s quietly been highly effective ever since. Brian Dawkins has said that he and Hill tend to take turns quarterbacking the defense. Both are excellent at reading the offense and calling the responses.

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Scouting the Broncos: The battle at Mike LB

Joe Mays is making news.

Mays was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, beating the draft pundits and oddsmakers who had ranked him as an undrafted free agent. Denver traded twice-signed running back J.J. Arrington - or a conditional sixth-round pick if Arrington didn’t make the team - to the Eagles for Mays. Arrington didn’t stick in Philly, and Denver cheerfully gave up a sixth-round pick in 2012 to obtain Joe’s services.

Born in Chicago, where he attended Hyde Park High, Mays was the 2007 Great West Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He played in the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star Challenge after his senior season at North Dakota State University, a school made special in the hearts of Denver fans by the Broncos' 1987 12th-rounder - Tyrone "Chicken" Braxton. Mays was named to the 2007 Walter Camp Football Foundation FCS All-America team and The Sports Network FCS All-America third team. Mays was also a candidate for the Sports Network 's Buchanan Award. 

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Scouting the Broncos: Cornerbacks

Although no team in recent memory has complained of having too many talented cornerbacks, Denver is in a good situation at this time. There are factors that could change that - such as the possibility that Perrish Cox is convicted in his sexual assault case and does jail time - but as things stand today, Denver has a fairly nice group at the CB position. Here’s the breakdown:

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School 2011 Salary Signed Through
24 Champ Bailey 6-0 192 32 12 Georgia $11,000,000 2014
32 Perrish Cox 6-0 198 24 R Oklahoma State $405,000 2013
21 Andre' Goodman 5-10 184 32 9 South Carolina $2,880,000 2013
29 Chevis Jackson 5-11 193 25 3 LSU $555,000 2011
33 Nate Jones 5-10 185 28 7 Rutgers $800,000 2013
22 Syd'Quan Thompson 5-9 191 24 R California $405,000 2013
41 Cassius Vaughn 5-11 195 23 R Mississippi $405,000 2012

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Scouting the Broncos: Tight ends

As we covered last week, the Broncos are well-stocked at wide receiver; meanwhile, the tight end position is somewhat more of a cipher. This is the position that many fans consider the least important on the field. On the other hand, the legendary Sid Gillman said that with two good TEs you could control the entire middle of the field. The comment may be a little dated, but it’s still fair to note that you can use TEs mainly as blockers, send them underneath when you need three or so yards, throw them up the seam against Cover 2, or employ them primarily as receivers with a wide spectrum of routes - and, you can still use them as blockers. You can set them out in a three-TE set that’s sometimes called a ‘Magic 3’, with a good blocking/receiving WR and a RB/FB who can block, run or receive to drive the other defense nuts and who can run or receive a pass in multiple ways out of that formation. However - that’s not how new Broncos coach John Fox tends to like to use them, and whatever happens will take that into account. The point here is, though, the TE position has long been underestimated and has a world of approaches and uses.

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Scouting the Broncos: Wide receivers

One area of the field that Denver has very well covered is the wide receiver slot. Whatever their other weaknesses, barring another onslaught of injuries, this is one place that the Broncos are flush. That’s odd, in a way - former head coach Josh McDaniels was trained by Bill Belichick, a man who once famously said that you don’t fill out the WR position until your other spots have been solidified. Denver is in nearly the opposite situation due to McDaniels’ approach, but it does take the A.J. Green/Julio Jones argument out of the draft conversations for the Broncos this year. The TE position is somewhat less clear, but has some quality young talent - we’ll get into that more next time. To give you an idea on the wideouts, though, here’s what the Broncos tweeted:

Fox on the wide receivers: "This may be as good a corps as I'm familiar with." 11:26 AM Jan 14th via web.

He’s absolutely right. It’s a remarkable group, with veteran skills and young talent - this bunch has it all. Let’s look at who they have:

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Scouting the Broncos: Running Backs

With the ‘primary back’ system that Josh McDaniels preferred being (thankfully) lost in the transition to John Fox’s more committee-oriented approach, one question that is beginning to arise is what back or backs Denver will add to pair with Knowshon Moreno. Hopefully, moving to more of a group strategy will help reduce the injury bug that has seemed to slow Moreno, although he misses few games and has shown that he is willing to play when hurt. With that in mind, I spent a while going over the running backs and fullbacks that are currently on the Broncos. What I found at times surprised me. One player was even masquerading as a running back when he was a linebacker - and potentially a good one.

If my experience was any gauge, many of us are probably unaware of the number and histories of the eight running backs that Denver has accumulated in preparation for the potential of a brief (if any) free agency and a hurried training camp. Denver has obtained the services of running backs who generally fit the approach often taken by HC John Fox, although it's worth mentioning that all of the unfamiliar names were acquired before Fox's hiring. They’re generally a bit bigger than average, and look, just from the numbers and draft profiles, like a group that can handle a lot of pounding over the course of the year. Interestingly, Knowshon is the lightest of the bunch, if only by four pounds.

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Scouting the Broncos: Defensive Line

With the recent release of both Justin Bannan and Jamal Williams, and with Marcus Thomas currently uninterested in signing his tender, Denver is creating a brand new level of opportunity for whatever defensive linemen they acquire over the next six months. One has to hope that there will be a free agency period as well as the draft; and while questions about who Denver will select aren’t answered, the positions to be targeted has become more clear.

I have to admit: the logic behind letting Bannan go eluded me. I know that they didn’t want to pay out his $500K roster bonus or $3.5 million salary, so there’s one scenario that makes the most sense to me, and it follows the oldest laws of crime fighting or of young women who marry men fifty years their senior: Follow the money. Bannan is a good DT and from what I could see on broadcast film (it isn’t the same as coaches film so they may have access to observing weaknesses that we cannot), they wanted to avoid the roster bonus, and also asked him to take a substantial pay cut for doing a pretty good job; he turned it down and he’s now moving on. There’s not much else to say. I wish the big guy the best, and I enjoyed seeing him play as a Bronco. Good luck, JB.

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Scouting the Broncos: Draft options

As we move along from the Combine to Pro Days and private workouts, many of the players who may end up on Denver’s board this year are showing what they do - and don’t - do well. There’s no doubt that Denver needs help on the defensive line, especially after yesterday's release of Justin Bannan and Jamal Williams. And if we can believe Brian Xanders and his Mouth of Sauron tendency to speak for Head Coach John Fox, Denver may need some linebackers as well. They do need another safety, and the situation with Ryan Harris, unless solved prior to the draft, may make finding a RT necessary. At the very least, a backup tackle with actual skills seems to be essential, given the time that Harris has spent on the injury report throughout his career. A running back is likely in the mid to later rounds - Denver has one 1st-, two 2nd-, one 3rd-, one 6th- and one 7th-round pick - and they may parlay any of them into more picks. As things stand, they have four picks in the top 67, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

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Scouting the Broncos: Linebackers

The question of whether the Broncos will run a 4-3 next season has been answered in the affirmative by John Fox, and changes to the linebacking corps will be forthcoming. There will be a few keys to which scheme the team primarily uses - and the choices of which LBs are kept, which are not, and who is brought in will be central to this decision. I’m going to talk in general about the LB corps, listing the current players and noting some thoughts on them today. At this point, most of us are fairly familiar with the basic duties of the LBs in each system (see the last two entries of Fat Camp for a refresher), so I’ll be more specific as to which I like for each and why.

First and foremost, here’s the issue: according to Brian Xanders, Fox wants smaller, faster linebackers, with coverage as well as run-stopping and pass-rushing skills. That’s normal in most 4-3 approaches, but a long way from most of what Denver has accumulated. He wants them to be smaller, faster and more disruptive. This is a good example of the reason that you try to avoid changing coaches in a nutshell: it’s a tall order, it means finding a new kind of player for the team, and at first glance, I didn’t see it happening. After looking over the linebacker player pool carefully, it isn’t going to be easy either, although it’s doable, depending on whether there’s free agency this year, and whether Denver is willing to pay good money. Certainly, as often happens, some fan favorites such as Mario Haggan may not survive the change, although he’s a very possible temporary fill-in. With these general ideas in mind, here are the current players:

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