Rookie production in a strange year

It's pretty much an inevitability that the lockout will create issues for all players new to their teams, whether traded players, veteran free agents, draftees or undrafted rookies. Even if a new agreement were reached tomorrow (an unlikely scenario), countless players will already be so far behind the curve, having missed out on playbooks, mini-camps, OTAs and coaching that they won’t be able to contribute right away. For some rookies, their first year could end up a lost one, as coaches will tend to use veterans when possible - they know the game better, and in the Broncos' case the offensive players will be working out of a simpler version of Josh McDaniels' playbook that they’ve already had to master, so they face a stronger likelihood of playing well.

But many of the draft picks are looking at an uphill climb. I think that LB Von Miller has a good shot at contributing right away - he’s played within both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in college, he was moved around quite a bit as a senior in his Joker role and he’s played in coverage as well as setting the edge and attacking the quarterback. He’s likely to be on Robert Ayers’ left for a lot of his plays, and that won’t hurt either - Ayers has two years under his belt, although he was hurt for part of last season, and he’s shown that he’s a steady player who sets the edge, collapses the pocket and who will clear the way for Miller quite frequently. The strong side of the Broncos' defense could be tough to gain yardage against. For those reasons, Von’s likely to pick up quickly on the Broncos' defensive scheme, whatever it may be, because he’s already bounced from scheme to scheme and excelled in each.

Secondary

Second-round pick Rahim Moore will have his work cut out for him at safety, and I’ve noted before that this could work to his advantage. He might sit for a while, and could have more time to learn how to be an NFL player in terms of taking care of his body, putting on muscle and learning the system until it’s instinct. Who will start in centerfield is still up for debate - how many safeties Denver will keep at all is going to be an interesting question. Darcel McBath’s injuries could count against him. David Bruton’s ST skills will speak for retaining him, and Brian Dawkins will be kept, although I suspect that his $6 million salary will be renegotiated. He’s going to be there mostly to mentor the younger guys and to provide leadership. Renaldo Hill is a player who has to be on the edge, given the size of the safety group and his own $2.4 million salary. You have to assume that Quinton Carter and Moore are locks, as are Dawk and, I suspect, Bruton. That leaves Kyle McCarthy, Hill and McBath fighting for the fifth safety slot. Bruton might also have a struggle, but given his production, I think that ST coordinator Jeff Rodgers will want him back. Denver also has Nick Polk, but he’s facing unfavorable odds in the numbers game.

As I’ve mentioned, I think that S Quinton Carter is a lock to make the team, and I don’t expect him to start in the upcoming season except on special teams. I think that he was going to have to take a year or two to get into the shape and to attain the level of understanding that will put him on the field with great regularity, but at the same time, this is a tough kid to bet against. He’s powerful, quick more than fast, but has good recognition skills, which are worth a chunk off his 40 time (4.62 at Combine, in his case).  Carter is someone who will have to start out on STs and earn his way to more playing time on defense. It will probably take a year or three, and that’s just fine as long as he shows his talents on STs.

The Broncos didn’t pick up a cornerback, and the ones already on the roster all have some experience. Champ Bailey will be back, thanks to his new four-year dea, and Perrish Cox’s trial isn't scheduled to take place until October, so he can contribute at least for a while. Nate Jones was brought on as a nickelback and also can play some safety - that’s an advantage, but his play was less than optimal. It might just be that I didn’t see him when he was playing really well, but I’d put him up as a maybe. Andre' Goodman is a cypher - his tackling is pretty sloppy, but his coverage is good. I suppose that his fate will depend on what the Broncos want to do on defense. The assumption is that the D will be aggressive and utilize a lot of zone coverage - I can’t say if that hurts Goody or not. Syd’Quan Thompson should stay, based on his progress last year. Cassius Vaughn showed some ST skills last year, with a return for a TD in the final minutes of Denver's season. That may help him. Chevis Jackson has problems with speed, and he’s been talked about as possibly moving to safety, but that wouldn't help his case with the Broncos. I don’t see him making the squad, but time will tell.

Front 7

LB Nate Irving definitely has lost some quality time due to the lockout and Joe Mays has taken the opportunity to become the starting Mike very seriously;  working out with Dawkins since March and studying the playbook he was fortunate enough to receive. Irving will probably back up Mays, at least for this year. Again - that might work in his favor. Irving needs to muscle up some, and he’s going to have the chance to do that, and to learn what’s expected of an NFL Mike. He’s got good recognition skills for the college level, and he needs to develop them for the NFL. Some time to focus on that may help him. I don’t doubt that he’ll start at either Mike or Will at some point, but the lockout will make it hard for that to happen this season.

LB Mike Mohamed and DE Jeremy Beal have even tougher roads ahead. I expect Mohamed to make the team and to be a special teamer and backup linebacker - he can play every LB position, which makes him valuable and his ST work in college was promising. I don’t know that he’s going to make it past a ST/backup player, at least for quite a while, but you also need quality depth, and he provides that. The importance of STs can’t be overstated - look at San Diego’s struggles there last year. They went from one of the best to one of the worst, and it cost them games. Denver has had the same issues.

Beal isn’t really suited for STs, just on the basis of his slower time in the 40. However, he has the heart, the desire for it, and he takes excellent angles to the ball. That may prove helpful to him. He’s not all that slow - his on-campus 40 time was 4.65, while Carter’s was 4.62. Beal’s problems come from his Combine performance, in which his 40 time rose to a stratospheric 5.16, and his bench press dropped from 31 reps on campus to 22 reps in the Combine. The same was true across the board - he had a 6.98 on-campus drill time, but he produced a 7.19 at Combine. He ran his 20-yard short shuttle on campus in 4.18, but slowed to 4.46 at Combine. His vertical fell from 33 inches on campus to 28.5 at Combine. The rest of the drills show the same pattern - he just had a lousy day at Combine. That’s the root of his fall to late in the seventh round but it also is in direct opposition to both his on-campus drills and his production over the four years he was at Oklahoma. I’ve watched actual game film on the guy, and he plays a lot faster and hits a lot harder than his Combine showing would suggest. Which do I believe - four years of production plus his on campus drills, or a rough day at Combine? Film wins with me every time. There’s a logjam at DE, with Ayers, Elvis “Doom” Dumervil, Jason Hunter and David Veikune also fighting for the four spots that Denver will likely keep.

Beal will have to show in practice what he did at Oklahoma in order to stay on. He’s essentially a strongside backup, and I don’t know if Veikune will be able to handle the move back to DE: I do think that the decision will come down to Veikune versus Beal. Veikune was a standout special teams player with Cleveland and that’s in his favor, but they let him go based on his play despite having selected him in the second round of the 2009 Draft. Veikune stands 6’2” and weighs in at 257. Beal is also 6’2”, and weighs 262, so they’re close to even there. What’s in Beal’s favor are his 29 sacks at Oklahoma, second in the school’s history and fourth in the Big 12 Conference, as well as his 56.5 tackles for loss, the second-most by an FBS player which rank second in Oklahoma history. He added 11 forced fumbles to set a school career-record. That also ranked second in Big 12 history and stands seventh on the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time record list.

Beal wasn’t recruited out of high school, even though he was a Prep Star All-American, a first-team All-State linebacker as a senior, the team’s Defensive Player of the Year and the District 10-5A Defensive Most Valuable Player in 2005. He redshirted in college for his first year at Oklahoma, and then started only two games as a redshirt freshman. He started every game as a RS sophomore, though, with 8.5 sacks and 15.5 TFL, to go with 61 tackles and three forced fumbles. Then he got even better over the next two seasons, earning All-American status both years. You can read his Broncography here . I really like this kid, and that probably influences me, but when you look at his on campus testing and his production over the four years he played at Oklahoma, there’s a lot of reasons to believe that he’ll be in the mix at DE.

Gabriel also commented,

On defense, linemen probably have the best chance to play early, especially if they are outstanding pass rushers. At the least, the good pass rushers can play in passing situations and just be turned loose. It may take a bit longer to play on running downs only because the coaches have to be sure they know the defense. A simple mistake can lead to a big play because the defender is out of position.

It’s a fair point, and it’s also encouraging for Beal. Beal’s history of sacks and TFLs suggest that he could have a place as a pass rusher, whether during this season or in the future. It’s interesting how one bad day at Combine can overshadow a substantial body of work, but that’s just the way it is. It will be up to Beal to show the coaches which view of him is more accurate.

Offense

RT Orlando Franklin will make the team, but he may have his work cut out for him in terms of cracking the starting lineup. Greg Gabriel recently noted that offensive linemen will probably be slow to develop, and Franklin may be hurt by that. I’ve already heard the cries that he’s a likely bust - it’s interesting that a bunch of folks with little or no skills at breaking down film, who haven’t had the benefit of spending time with the player, seeing how he responds, pressing him on the whiteboard to see if he really knows the game and is dedicated to it or any of the advantages that the Broncos have had can predict the future so well. Since the draft is generally a crap shoot, the critics always have a chance of being ‘right’, but not because they have any realistic reasons for their opinions. Coach Fox pronounced in early May that Franklin will be pushed into place at right tackle immediately, although I’d be surprised if he didn’t struggle at times during his first year. It makes no difference. Mike McCoy was succinct in his analysis:

"When you see him on the field, you'll understand what we're talking about," the offensive coordinator said. I think that covers it - either way.

Moving on to TEs, it’s hard to doubt that fourth-rounder Julius Thomas is a lock. Denver won’t expose him to the possibility of someone snatching him off the PS, so while I’m not sure that he’s going to make the 45-man active roster on game day for a bit, he’ll be on the 53-man roster (which may be expended for this season). Third-year player Richard Quinn is a lock:  Fox and Co. have spoken highly of him. Despite the initial struggles that he had learning both the playbook and NFL blocking, which were perfectly normal in making the NFL jump, Quinn has contributed on special teams and began to really show his skills later in the 2010 season. After those two players, things become a bit murky.

The big question is likely to be between Dan Gronkowski and Virgil Green. A lot of teams were surprised when Green dropped to the seventh round - so was I, and I loved the pick. Green is probably more NFL ready than Thomas and may give Gronk a run for his money. Green isn’t great at changing directions, but he’s a fine weapon when placed on the wing and sent vertically up the seam. His blocking is unusually good for a player his size (6’3”, 249 lb): he was considered perhaps the most NFL ready of the TEs in this year’s crop by quite a few draft watchers:  although it wasn’t a brilliant bunch, there were players with every combination of blocking, route running, speed and hand use available. Gronk, on the other hand, made substantial progress last year. Was it enough to earn a roster slot? I don’t know - carrying four TEs would mean a player dropped off of a different position, unless the NFL has the sense to expand the normal and game day rosters, a topic that’s on the table for negotiation. If they do, both Gronk and Green might stick. If not, it will be a tough competition.

Conclusion

There’s no question that how the rookies arrive in terms of conditioning, their aptitude at learning the playbook and their willingness to work very hard will all come into this equation, but the lockout has placed many of the rookies in tough slots. There will be less time to evaluate them, so standing out (whether on STs, in whatever preseason games are played or in practice) is going to be essential. Players will have to make an impression quickly or risk losing their chance with Denver, as will be true all around the league. There will also be an emphasis on obtaining and playing quality veterans to contend with.

The final decision on roster size will also affect how many rookies Denver is going to keep. There will also be the CFAs to consider, as well as the probability of additional free agents - that market will be insane, and Brian Xanders has already announced that Denver is fully ready, has their veteran and rookie FA targets already marked and are going to go after them from Day 1. It would be great to see Denver picking up a couple of top players, particularly at DT where the Broncos need both UTs and NTs. They haven’t really opened their wallet to obtain top talent in quite a while, and the good news moving forward is that has left them cash-heavy and far under the cap.

The timing is there - can they convince top veterans who aren’t too old that the Broncos are a good option and have a serious shot at the playoffs soon? John Elway was wise enough to declare a three-year rebuilding process. The first draft looks good on paper, but paper shreds in the winds of change. The Broncos have to be able to bring home the kind of talent that makes the playoffs. Since the rookies are at a disadvantage this year, how well Denver does in free agency will be essential in establishing how well they do next season. The two positions that I expect to see receive the most emphasis are running back, where Denver is thin, and defensive tackle, where they are nearly empty. The OL could use some better backup talent, but the WR and TE positions are full.

On defense, Denver’s in good shape in the secondary, where some tough calls will have to be made. They are, after a heck of a draft for the position, very solid at linebacker, and in good shape at DE as well. The Broncos have started their rebuilding well, I tend to think, as far as the first draft goes. We won’t really know for years. Now they need to show the fans that they are serious about rebuilding by making waves in free agency and by bringing in CFAs who really have a chance to push people in training camp and who may demand slots on the main roster. It’s a great opportunity for the team, and the Broncos will be up against a lot of other teams who will be doing much the same thing - coming out of the free agency and CFA gates with a full head of steam. It’s going to be interesting to watch.

Go Broncos!

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

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