Discerning Denver’s offseason forest from the draft trees

I walked out of the draft nonplussed. If I'd been plussed, I'd have been much happier, but some days you just can't get plussed to save your life. The draft was so different from the energy of the free agent period (which was moderately ecstatic), that several moves during the draft took me completely off guard. Rather than go to the draft board, though, I took a somewhat different approach. I went back to the team - the one the Broncos had in February, and then I looked at the one they have today and how they put those pieces in place. I'm still getting my head around all the CFAs and I'm going to be buried in film for a while, but a pattern soon occurred to me that I couldn't ignore.

I was recently asked by a reader who's also a friend to consider looking at this year's FA/draft/CFA period in terms of what the Eagles were doing last year - they were supposed to be the winners of the Offseason Olympics in 2011, and Denver was in 2012. What were the basic approaches of each team? What I found - and I'll probably publish this at some point with supportive evidence - was that they really did a little preemptive striking; getting new and upgraded players into the positions that they could handle financially when the current players were near the end of their contracts and/or underplaying, aging, or asking for too much for their performance. It wasn't what the media made it out to be -  and, no shock there.

JasonB from Bleeding Green Nation had this to add:

I think the biggest misnomer is that the Eagles are using different "approaches" between this year and last. Eagles GM Howie Roseman has said more than once that the team had a multi year strategy leading up to and after the lockout/new CBA. Last year they had positioned themselves to attack the free agent market, while this year they saw as the one to use their budget to re-sign players that would soon be coming due. Last season, with the exception of DeSean Jackson wanting a new deal, there simply wasn't the urgency to do that.

The fact is that we as fans and the media as well see the NFL as a year to year business. In some sense it is, but at the same time teams don't really see it that way. At least not smart ones. Salaries, cap hits etc should be planned years ahead of time. One of the Eagles' reasons for signing so many of their own players now is that they're betting against this prevailing wisdom that many have which thinks the salary cap is going to balloon in 2014 when the TV deals come up. The media seems to all accept this as true, while a lot of teams privately think it won't move the cap much at all.

If that ends up coming true, teams who signed guys long term this offseason and backloaded contracts (the Eagles, other than Asomugha, didn't even hand out long term deals last season) will be seriously up against it. While teams who have planned on the cap staying almost the same, will be well positioned to make moves.

The Eagles' last offseason was a series of attempts to make good long-term decisions for improving the team that was misread as a desperate attempt at the SB ring, the way our media often pigeonholes complex ideas. It's quicker to talk (or yell) about, and there is the aphorism in media that if it thinks, it stinks. That's often the approach. Back to the point - the Eagles made some nice moves that will help for an extended time. When I look back on this last period, it's obvious that so did Denver.  They made moves that will benefit them no matter who's at QB. Obviously, if a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Peyton Manning is placed at the helm, the team’s odds improve immediately.

We know that Denver wants the big ring, but I think that it’s clear that the front office also recognizes that Manning needs a better overall team around him, and is working by a very similar approach to what happened in Philadelphia. The specifics are different, of course, because the teams were in different situations, but the principles each used are very much the same. They're improving each position as much as they can afford to, maintaining the economic pad that’s needed for signing injury free agents while fielding a team that can be competitive right away.

Any one year can go well or poorly, but the principle still works if you work at it consistently over time. That's exactly what Denver has done in this same time frame, and I'm starting to realize just how they filled in the pieces in this draft and CFA period. In that sense, I'm walking away from the offseason pretty much OK. Not as happy as I was - picking up Peyton Manning left me walking on cumulonimbus, where I saw quite a few of you, but I was still pretty much OK with it. I think I saw it in longer terms, and that made a difference as well.

As a result, I've been looking at this process in part through this lens: Where are the Denver Broncos compared to where they were on March 1? Manning could last four years or four downs - one is as as likely as the other, from everything I can glean. But two or three years from him wouldn't surprise me, and it's possible that it's going to take that long to be ready for a serious playoff run - although I found a very strong case that the team today is much better than the team in February. 

I'm pretty much with most of you - I liked the Derek Wolfe pick immediately and I like it more and more over time, in part due to a recognition of scarcity. There aren't more than a few natural undertackles in any draft, and Denver punted the last time the opportunity came, so that part suits me fine. I also adore his attitude - this is a young man who isn't going to stop. He doesn’t have quit in his makeup. His life calls to mind the tale of Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals TE - I wrote it up at one point, but the short version is that he was sleeping on any couch he could find, when he was essentially adopted, first by one man, then by his hometown, and then legally by his coach, with whom he lived. It's the kind of story that puts your trust back into the people around you and reminds me how little the general media tells us the everyday stories of this kind of grace and compassion. It's a small wonder that we're a justifiably cynical society - all we often hear is the lowest of the things that happen among us.

As far as the nuts and bolts of the draft - the rumors of John Elway being angry on missing BSU RB Doug Martin don't really make sense to me, since JE signs off on each trade, but anything's possible. Mostly, I think that Wolfe was the guy they wanted and they wanted to go back until they weren't sure of getting him before pulling the trigger - but they had to realize that other teams also saw the #2 pass-rushing DT in the draft. I expected more of a trade up than I saw on just the Hillman pick - I thought they'd package a few picks and move up once more, but they seemed happy with their board and that's the company line. Perhaps they offered and found no partners - no one’s likely to tell.

The two TEs they found in Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen as FAs are long term pieces, and Julius Thomas will be whatever he is. WR Andre Caldwell has had buzzard’s luck due to QB and coaching turnover, and he's an iffy guy in degree who has shown that he’s good in the slot and good after the catch, which is just fine. Manning will quickly show if he's worth it or not. I like Brandon ‘Stokes’ Stokley on a purely emotional level - I don't know if he's done as a player, but I do know that after 12-15 concussions by his own estimate that he should be. But he'll teach if he stays, and a coach/player around might make the youngsters better - they needed that last year. The three young guys - Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Matt Willis - are good players that Manning will make immediately better, and Decker has a foot up there.

QB is obviously much better if Manning plays, but that brings up Denver's second pick in the draft. I'm not in love with the Osweiler choice, but I understand why and I don't entirely disagree. Whatever people think of it, the FO guys all came to a consensus and they were high on Brock. Not drafting him, as the best option they felt they had available (after looking in FA and the draft), opens you up to a potential Caleb Hanie-ous season. If Brock doesn't work out or is a backup - that's not a surprise. It's about average for a second-round QB on playoff teams, and a quality backup can occasionally save your bacon. The thing I like about it is that the entire FO signs off on it, and they've been over him with a microscope. I wish him the best, and I’m willing to be provisionally open to him being a success. Why not?

The offensive  - thank goodness for the draft. I like Philip Blake, and I think he's an immediate developmental depth player who could take away either Zane Beadles or J.D. Walton's job (or Chris Kuper's, if he's too expensive or has trouble healing) within 2-3 years. I congratulate Denver on dealing with the vacancy at both center and guard - Blake’s been told that guard is his immediate path, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t give him some snaps at center down the road - he’s too valuable a potential resource not to train him both ways over time. There are a couple of CFAs that I like:

Austin Wuebbels signing on as an undrafted free agent made me happy - he’s light at 292, but he’s scrappy and powerful in the weight room - he lifted 225 40 times, although I’d deduct points for not locking out the elbows on several. He’s got good feet, though, and if he has functional strength and technique, he’s also a potential guard. On the other hand, Wayne Tribue out of Temple, a 329-lb guard, is on the other end of that physical continuum. NFLDraftScout noted,

12/06/11 - 2011 ALL-MAC THIRD TEAM (MEDIA): Offensive Lineman – Wayne Tribue, Temple, has been selected All-MAC Third Team for the 2011 college football season as voted by the MAC News Media Association. Tribue has started all 12 games at right guard. He also saw action as a member of the field goal unit. Tribue and his four fellow offensive linemen have combined for 130 starting appearances. Providing great protection, the offensive line gave up no sacks against Ohio, Buffalo, and Akron this season. Tribue was named to the 2011 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team for his community service work. - Temple football

Quality, community-based guy whose best use is as a guard in pass protection but also is good in the run game? Yeah, that might work. It’s gotten him a trip to training camp at the least. The rest is up to him.

I’d say that the running game is better with a better line and with a quality scatback, and I’d put Ronnie Hillman in that second boat. I worry about his health at that size, but I felt the same way with Darren Sproles - you always roll the dice. Either way, I think that he improves both the run and the short - or longer - pass game, and without an attempt to take a bigger guy, it also suggests to me that they like Mario Fannin, as a lot of sources have suggested (and/or Jeremiah Johnson, or both) as well as liking Willis McGahee. Knowshon Moreno I just don’t know about, although I think that he’s a serious weapon receiving from Manning and could earn a roster slot that way. I see a lot of good things in Hillman, and I also think that he needs a lot of quality coaching. Eric ‘Studes’ Studeville will get whatever the best is out of him. I would have loved Doug Martin - sigh. But the running game is better now with Hillman and the new line guys. They’ll only keep 8-9 guys, and it’s going to be a rough camp. Competition will be high.

Line depth and RB depth are improved, and I wanted both this year. My biggest requests of the Sacred Draft Gnome were for two defensive lineman, a RB, and a CB, with an offensive lineman if possible. I got them, so I’m not in a position to complain. The FO did a lot for the team - just not in the way that most of us expected.

This becomes the dilemma - an increased volume of new players often means less elite players as you get more of the holes filled with upgrades, but not stars. That was the essence of this draft, I thought, although I think that Wolfe will be a starter, Omar Bolden starts as a returner and Tamme and Dreessen are starters at TE. Danny Trevathan might start at Will. Osweiler could later start at QB. Denver added elites in Manning and, I think, in Tamme. Mike Adams is a very smart choice and Tracy Porter is a well-played gamble, as is Bolden, I think. Wolfe could become elite - but the Broncos were looking for upgrades, and feel that they found them.

Bolden is a maybe as a man (mostly off-man) CB and a probable returner (Eric Page out of Toledo is another return option). They believe that Porter is coachable, and that only leaves the lower end of the roster to improve right now - they think that Bolden can compete to do that, and they need a returner to offset the loss of Eddie Royal. They got one in Bolden and another in Page, and this is the kind of player that recent approaches have neglected. Next season, I think that CB will be a higher priority as Champ Bailey's days draw down.  But Chris Harris looks like a keeper at nickelback, and they're hard to find.

I think Denver likes their young safeties. I wouldn't sleep on David Bruton, and Quinton Carter looks good. Rahim Moore - eh. Maybe he makes it, maybe not, but this year he's got OTAs, minicamp, this training camp, and maybe the entire season to find out. Losing the OTAs and minicamps last year and then just tossing him out in preseason was a gutsy, but not necessarily smart move (if it had worked, it would have been brilliant, of course). He wasn't ready. It screwed with his head because he just wasn’t prepared well enough for the game, he was overwhelmed by the game, and the coaches are talking about that same kind of issue all around the league, courtesy of the lockout. Carter, on the other hand, looks like one of the two starters the team is looking for. Mike Adams was a smart two-year pickup who has a good reputation as a mentor, and that prepared them for the loss of Brian Dawkins - again, I would have loved BSU's George Iloka as a TE-cover safety and would have preferred him to some other options, but that wasn’t in this draft.

So, considering the DL and LBs are the areas left. Von Miller is amazing. They re-signed Joe Mays for two years, so they must think that they can teach him to deal with coverages and fakes. It's potentially worth it - he's a highly enthusiastic and well-liked player with the requisite middle linebacking mentality - all out aggression on the field, which he now needs to channel in a more controlled, more focused manner. That will include a lot of extra film work to understand offenses in a deeper way. Nate Irving might take some 3rd downs at Mike, with Mays being a two-down 'backer (Harris could be in on their nickel).

Irving, Mike Mohamed and Danny Trevathan should all get to compete for Will with Wes Woodyard. It should be a tough TC year at LB, with lots of youth and competition. I would have liked a better LB in the draft, but you only get so many picks and Trevathan, from what I saw, is a gutsy guy who will need to speed up his recognition, but doesn’t make a lot of unnecessary moves. He’ll also see special teams work immediately if he makes the squad.

I like where the Broncos are going at DL - going with enthusiasm, a decent balance of power and speed, and a view towards attacking the passer more. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson should both work out in that way. Trevathan also has a reputation as a player who can get into the backfield, which may make him an even better acquisition at Will if he can handle the run, which he’s been excellent in doing to date. I see a consistent approach there aimed at strengthening the aspects of the defensive scheme that were weakest, and I like it. John Fox said that he was going to get more aggressive in terms of attacking the QB with the DL/front 7. This draft did an excellent job - on paper, as always for this time of year - to improve that.

With regard to Trevathan - every player who falls to the sixth round has some weaknesses. Most of Danny’s are genetic - he’s 6-0 and 237 lb, about nine more than Wesley Woodyard. Over the past two years, though, he has 287 tackles. He ran a 4.82-second 40 even with a pulled hamstring (and very good pain control) and he has beautiful tackling fundamentals - there had to be a player somewhere in the country who did. I like this kid a lot. Let’s face it - the guy who leads the SEC in tackles is the kind of player I’d like to see trying out for my team. Trevathan’s issues appear to be otherwise a matter of coaching and practice - not turning his head in coverage, slower play recognition than you’d prefer at times, getting caught flat-footed in zone coverage, some issues of hand technique. There’s some hard work ahead, but nothing seems to be unsolvable.

I do think that after making a bigger splash in free agency, they were now plugging the most important gaps with guys they believe in for the long run, who they also think can produce on special teams and help out with starts right away, while they're getting their NFL chops down. If the Broncos made good personnel decisions overall - overall, not in just any one case - then they're going in the right direction. I love the fact that they recognize that a better returner might also make it as a cornerback, but I think that he could be a returner first. NFL teams use a lot more press coverage, and Bolden mostly was in off-man from what we’ve seen so far.

Considering the draft in light of what was done in free agency, where the holes in the team were - and everyone pretty much agreed on DT, OL, DE, LB and RB - Denver walks out of the draft looking stronger in every category. Frankly, that’s one heck of a mark to have hit. When you add that upgrades happened in free agency at safety, another CB, QB, TE and WR, that’s a very wide brush to paint with. I can see eventual starters out of Wolfe, possibly Osweiler, Hillman as an immediate scatback (starter is a loose term here) and Bolden starting as a returner, all in the first months of the season. Blake is a solid player who will push people and either start or upgrade depth at guard and eventually at center - both were necessary. The team was constantly one OL player away from disaster. While he was already on the roster, since January, Ryan Harris, if healthy, offers an excellent zone-blocking option for tackle depth.

When you take all of these into consideration, it appears to me that the overall running game, the overall passing game, the front seven, and the back of the defense were all improved, as are the special teams. Looking from that perspective, I have to give it up to them. You can argue on every player individually (and you always can), but when you look at the wider view of what they did with this team over the past eight weeks, what emerges is an adherence to rock-solid principles of team-building, willing to be both conservative and to take a bigger gamble on some higher reward options, including Manning. They’ve added both starters and depth, elites and players who will fight just to hold on to a position, and they filled in a potential returner or two as well as a quality scatback - both potentially key pieces on a winning team.

One thing that will come up a lot is that Peyton Manning might not last more than a year. That’s true. It’s true that he might last four downs or four years - it’s an unknown. For the moment, then, I’d praise it as a gutsy move and leave it out of this discussion. No matter who’s the quarterback, I’m satisfied that after the past two months, the 2012 Broncos are a stronger, deeper, and more talented team than they were in 2011. That’s what I’m looking for every offseason, and it speaks well of what the Broncos organization set out to do.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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