Scouting the Broncos

Scouting the Broncos: RB Ronnie Hillman

Highlight film is notoriously useless for evaluating players since by its nature it’s focused on the best that the player can do and usually (although this seems to be changing, which I like) avoids their errors and weaknesses. Even with these limitations, there are things that stand out in the below video of new Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman. Taken with the fourth pick in the third round after a move up the board, the selection of Hillman confounded a lot of Denver fans. It hasn’t taken long to see the potential advantages that he brings to the Broncos.

For one, his shorter natural height is benefited by his tendency to run with a good pad level. He does run high from time to time, and if that doesn't change in the NFL, he’ll get to deal with the consequences. However - if you look at the number of tackles that he breaks, you get an immediate impression that for a somewhat smaller, lighter player, this is a kid (and at only 20, he is still a kid) who runs with surprising power and authority. He’s skilled at obtaining yards after the catch and it’s hard to argue with his production of 36 TDs and 3,243 yards in only two years of college. I don’t care what conference he was in - that’s serious production.

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Scouting the Broncos: Duke Ihenacho

Duke Ihenacho has gotten plenty of pre-camp media attention, more than most college free agents that I can recall offhand. Rob RangPat Kirwan and Doug Farrar all named the ex-San Jose State Spartan among their top undrafted rookies. The safety, who will wear #38 #39 for the Broncos, played 47 games for SJSU and finished with 268 tackles (15 for loss), seven interceptions, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and three defensive scores.

Head coach John Fox and new DC Jack Del Rio both talk about aggression; they both prefer to dictate to the offense, rather than utilize a read-and-react style. I’m glad about that.  Del Rio was well known for that quality as a linebacker, and he’s also sincere to the point of a religious belief about it as a coach - Elvis Dumervil describes him as having a “fiery side.” That’s a well-crafted understatement from Doom, who knows a thing or two about focused aggression. I expect, from the draft and from the form of the team right now, to see a lot of very aggressive, attacking play from their front 7. Ihenacho seems like the kind of player who might find a niche with Del Rio fairly quickly.

One reason is that while Duke’s not a man cover burner, he’s a player with a lot of different uses. He’s not the kind of guy you leave out by himself on an island, but he is the type who likes to blow up defenses and defenders, to cause and jump on fumbles, grab interceptions, and even blitz the quarterback. He’s fearless when hitting and tackling, is solid in run support, and with the Broncos’ emphasis on getting to the QB as part of protecting the defensive backfield, Ihenacho has the size, power, and aggressive nature that could become a successful part of that.

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Scouting the Broncos: Philip Blake

There has always been a push within the game of football to find ever more rare and unknown players. The 1940s brought an effort to permit black players into the league; as bizarre as that seems now, it wasn't that long ago in real terms, and teams like the LA Rams led the way. The AFL All-Star game was moved in January, 1965 because the original city's hotels (New Orleans) wouldn't allow black players to stay or eat at the players' hotel there. Modern experience tells us that scouting traditionally black schools changed the game. By the 1950s there were teams like the Cleveland Browns who were also scouting the smaller schools and bring in big name players from them.

Now, the NFL is increasingly looking at players from Canada. Danny Watkins moved from British Columbia to Oroville, California, to take part in the firefighter's academy at Butte College, planning a career in that brave profession. Now Watkins is a former 2011 first-round pick out of Baylor who's starting and playing well for the Philadelphia Eagles. Philip Blake, a guard/center for the Denver Broncos, was one of four players from Canada selected in last month's draft. Boise State's Tyrone Crawford (Dallas Cowboys) is a defensive tackle (6-4, 275), as is the 318 lb Akiem Hicks (New Orleans Saints); both went in the third round. The 6-5, 290 lb DE Christo Bilukidi (Georgia State) went to Oakland in the sixth round.

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Scouting the Broncos: Tracy Porter on film

Bill Walsh pretty much had it covered, even over 20 years ago. He said this about cornerbacks:

Ideal size: 6-2, 195, but good ones come in all sizes

You would prefer a good-sized cornerback, but fortunately they have come in all sizes. Some of the best coverage men have been extremely small and dwarfed by their wide receivers and still were able to cover because of quickness, explosion and anticipation.

But the great cornerbacks have been able to play a physical game with receivers. They can bump the receiver on the release, but more important go up for a ball and not be overwhelmed or knocked off the pass by the receiver.

Of course, you need quickness and explosion. Full-sprint speed is important, but there have been cornerbacks who have overcome a lack of sprinters' speed and played many years and become Pro Bowl participants. You'd like to think of the cornerback being able to run 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds.

He must be able to do the kinds of things receivers do when they go up for a ball.

My emphasis added. Now, let’s walk through some game film and start seeing who Denver has this year, starting with new CB Tracy Porter.

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Scouting the Broncos: Do Boss, Carter, Langford, Atogwe fit?

With the tension of the Manning issue burning up Broncos Country, and feelings of frustration rising over Denver having added no players yet, it’s easy to miss who’s still available. In addition, new players, many of whom are quality guys who believe that the market will pay more than they are currently being offered, come into free agency daily as they fail to reach accords with their teams. That’s exactly as we will see happen in Denver. We often get ‘stuck’ at the beginning of the FA period in our thinking about the big targets, but a lot of upgrades are out there. Let's check in on a few players who are still available, although they may go quickly:

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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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