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.

Top Defensive Linemen

This been covered in excruciating detail, so I’ll just review quickly with a single exception. The most common call in the mocks for Denver has been Da’Quan Bowers, and his presence usually suggests that Carolina will take Nick Fairley, which is far from established fact. Bowers is an interesting player - he had a single year of top production, but played behind good people before that year, and that by itself isn’t a non-starter. He’s big - 280 lb, and he could hit 285-290 in a couple of years, but with his long arms, he only did 22 reps on the bench press.

He’s greasy-fast around the edge and has both bullrush and alternate moves - rip and swim are solid, and his spin moves have real speed to them. Denver seriously lacked a pass rush, and even with Elvis Dumervil back, they still need help on the DL to stop the pass. The goal isn’t sacks, which only occur in a relatively few plays. Hurries are far more common and the defensive coordinator’s best friend, as they lead to incompletions, interceptions and wasted downs (as well as the occasional sack). With Robert Ayers, Bowers and Doom (who can step in for the Will, while tasking the strong safety to cover against a weakside run, just in case), Denver would look like a different team. Bowers has good numbers against the run as well. The problem remains in the middle, with Kevin Vickerson and Louis Leonard the only true DTs at this point.

Then there is Nick Fairley, who showed up for the Combine at 6’4” and 291 lb with a 34.75" arm length, and who has taken a lot of grief that, from what I’ve seen, appears to be a tempest in a teapot. The knock on Fairley is that he’s reputed to have attitude issues and take plays off. I watched the Auburn/Oregon game three times, and if he did, it didn’t show. Granted, I usually like to see at least three games, and this year was too taken up with getting IAOFM going for that to happen, but I expected to see something to give credence to the comments on Fairley. What I saw was a big man who was faster and stronger than everyone he went up against. It’s true that he only weighted in at 291 at Combine but he will play at a heavier weight and he was very fast for a DL (4.82), which conjures up visions of attacking from multiple positions in my fiendish brain. Explosion has always been a big part of his game, and his vertical leap was 31 inches. I’d have no worries with Fairley. This is what Wes Bunting had to say recently:

I will admit being slightly turned off when I first saw the overall physical make-up of Auburn DL Nick Fairley and his leaner lower half. However, watching him change directions, sink his hips and bend into and out of his breaks was nothing short of striking. Plus, the big guy posted a 40 in the low 4.8 range at nearly 300 pounds and displayed some real natural power on his punch during drills. If I had to pick number one overall, I am leaning toward Fairley as that guy.

DT Marcell Dareus out of Alabama is the third option, and perhaps the safest. He can play DE or DT - under tackle or nose - with equal aplomb, and perhaps his biggest advantage is that he has his technique down as well as any lineman in the college ranks. He’s 6’3” and 319 lb, ran the 40 in 4.92, had 24 reps on the bench, a vertical of 28 inches and yet has the light feet of a good left tackle, permitting him to play nose, under tackle or DE in the 4-3. I’ve loved Dareus since the first time I saw him. I can’t say that I prefer him to the others, but he seems a safe choice. On the other hand, Bowers has earned a rare 8.5 on a 9 scale by some sites, so clearly, many think that he’s the best choice, with more upside. That’s true of Fairley, too - more upside, less current technical development than Dareus.

Marcell Dareus is close to Fairley and Bowers in skill level - so close that Scott Wright at Draft Countdown, someone whose analysis I’ve often found accurate, has his rated above Fairley. Dareus is an inch shorter but between 17 and 28 pounds heavier than Fairley (depending on whose numbers you use). He’s not faster in the 40, not that DTs often run one (4.92 for Dareus vs. 4.82 for Fairley). UNC DE Robert Quinn had to sit out all of 2010 with a suspension, but he is still projected as a top 10 player and for a team that needs a DE as much as a DT, he’s a good option (read, might help Denver by letting more of their preferred players drop in the draft). From ESPN:

Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Monday that he was very impressed by the speed of the defensive linemen. He said it was the fastest defensive line group he’s ever seen (Note from Doc: Last year, the same was said about the OL. The players aren’t getting smaller or slower).

Alabama’s Marcell Dareus was particularly impressive, McShay said. He may set himself up to be the No. 1 overall pick by Carolina. Denver will likely seriously consider Dareus at No. 2. Dareus ran a 4.92 40-yard dash. That is a stunning time considering Dareus weighs 318. McShay said Dareus likely fared better than Auburn’s Nick Fairley in the eyes of scouts. Fairley was measured at 6-foot-3, instead of 6-foot-4 as he has been listed. Fairley did run a 4.82 40, so he will still remain a top prospect. Denver could choose between Dareus and Fairley.

Linebackers

The fourth option has to be Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. While Miller wouldn't fill the gaping hole in Denver's line, he’s a heck of a front 7 player and would upgrade the Sam position (at the least) immediately. Secondarily, he could, depending on how Doom is used, add to the effectiveness of Elvis, which would  help the Denver pass rush problems and still strengthen their ability to stop the run. As good as I think that Mario Haggan is, Miller is much better as a Sam for a 4-3 defense, given his speed and coverage skills. Haggan does have some experience at MLB in case Joe Mays doesn’t work out there for any reason (I’m very interested in seeing Mays work at Mike. I think that he has a lot of potential there, but he hasn’t played the position to my knowledge). It was commented by a few people this week, and I noted this last November - Von Miller can play Mike in the right scheme, and Denver could make that happen. Again, I don’t expect Denver to choose Miller, but drafts can become very unexpected as trades take place and smokescreens clear. The fact is, most of the best LBs aren’t picked until the mid-to-lower 1st round, but as Oakland proved in taking Rolando McClain eigth overall last year, anything can happen.

It’s a very rare linebacker who earns a place in the top two, much less the top five, but it would be a miracle if Arizona passes on this generously talented young man at five, so he’s highly unlikely to see anything below that and won’t be there by the tenth pick. The Cards could go with a QB, but Miller is a superb option for them. He’s an outside LB but he shows the leadership, passion, skills and nearly faultless abilities that are scarce among players at that position, and again, it’s possible that he could potentially be a solid Mike. His leadership and intellect are supposed to be very highly thought of. He’s very good in coverage, something which the Broncos lack, and he’s got pass rushing skills that are rare, with multiple moves and a talent for getting past larger players. If Miller were matched on the weakside with Doom and with Ayers at strongside DE and the DTs driving the collapse of the pocket, it would be an uncommon team that would pass easily against Denver in the foreseeable future.

If Miller doesn’t fit at MLB for any reason, he’s still a heck of a Sam, although Denver may need a middle linebacker more. Joe Mays unquestionably has the attitude and the hits for it - whether he can call the signals and get people lined up remains to be seen, although I haven’t seen anything to suggest that he can’t. Anther option is the Illini’s Martez Wilson. Denver’s done well with a Wilson at MLB in the past - remember Al Wilson’s effect on the team?

Illinois LB Martez Wilson moved up a lot of boards this week, although he doesn’t quite have the type of natural bend to his game as a guy like Akeem Ayers. However, he ran much better 40 (4.44 range), was still fluid for his size when asked to open up his hips during position drills, has some coverage skills, and overall could now get some looks in that late-first-round range as an intriguing 3-4 rush backer or in the second as a Mike.

My only disagreement is with the frequently written idea that he’s only a natural rush backer; I’ve always seen him as a Mike and I think that he’s best there. With a 4.44 40 and a 36-inch vertical, he’s athletic, likes to hit, has coverage skills and could handle the Mike well. Questions to be answered: What was he doing outside a bar in December of ‘08 when he was stabbed in the back (he was supposed to have stepped in to help a friend), why was he sat for some of the Illini’s games that season? He’s matured, but some questions have to be answered, including his injury history. Matt De Lima of FF Toolbox said:

Wilson was highly productive in 2010 with 112 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 1 interception. He has the height to play inside or outside. For his size, he plays very fast with speed and quickness. He will likely switch positions (as previously stated), but he adapts very quickly as evidenced by the fact he has played different linebacker positions and defensive end.

He will need to improve his ability to read and react to plays as he sometimes gets caught up in over pursuit. He also has medical concerns in his past. Ultimately, he may not be a player who can contribute immediately, but with some coaching would be very good. Wilson projects as a second-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft due to his versatility, athleticism and upside.

For Denver, could he be their later second-round pick? It’s a thought.

Other Options

Corey Liuget, a defensive tackle out of Illinois, is not far behind Fairley and Dareus if Denver trades farther down (with Washington at #10, for example). He’s not quite the same kind of dominant impact player, but he’s not far from it and as I’ve noted (along with every other Denver fan), Denver has no shortage of needs, and not enough higher picks to fill them. Liuget will probably (almost certainly) be gone by the start of Round 2.  Oregon State's Stephen Paea is a 6’1, 311 lb name that is often linked to Denver, assuming that he’s still on the board when they pick fourth in the second round (36th overall). Paea set a new record with 49 lifts on the BP at Combine, but still felt that he could have done more. Sometimes, that unwillingness to be satisfied can be the mark of a superior player. Paea has had a recent knee surgery, but it obviously didn’t keep him out of the weight room. He has a lot of upside. Given time to develop, Paea could be a tremendous 4-3 nose tackle. It could be under tackle that becomes tough for the Broncos.

Another second-round consideration is North Carolina DL Marvin Austin, although he's had his share of personal problems and may not be someone that John Fox would be comfortable with. He has done nothing but improve his draft stock since the postseason started, though. Austin has a strong, impressive looking frame, could add additional weight and strength,  ran in the low-4.8 range Monday and showed good natural power and explosion throughout position drills. I could see the guy coming off the board in the second-round range. Denver has two choices there, and has needs at LB, DL, OT, S and TE, so it’s something to think on. As far as Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, Doug Farrar commented:

Robert Quinn, DE, and Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina - Though Fairley didn't have much to prove, Quinn and Austin had to show that they still had it after missing their 2010 seasons as the result of various suspensions. Quinn looked dynamite in the pass-rush drills; his speed for his size is truly exceptional. And Austin showed good power and punch. Few players had more to gain at the combine than these two, and they both showed up in a big way.

If Ryan Harris leaves, Denver will need another right tackle. Even if he doesn’t leave, developing a good RT seems like a smart move considering Harris’ injury history. Happily, if there’s free agency, there are quite a few potential replacements out there. In the draft, Miami's Orlando Franklin has the arms, the height at 6’5.5 and the weight at 316 and a wide, solid lower body. Lee Ziemba of Auburn is another option, although he only managed 20 reps on the BP, and John Carpenter of Alabama is another who was weak on the bench press with 23. Ben Ijalana from 'Nova has the long arms that you look for in right tackles. There are several others. And then there’s Marcus Gilbert - all 335 lb of Tebow-lovin’ right tackle.

Gilbert started 30 games for the Florida Gators, the majority of which came protecting Tebow's blind side at the right tackle position. If Tebow wins the starters’ competition, Gilbert would be a well-known addition. Oddly, Gilbert’s father was a secret service agent who has helped guard Presidents Bush II and Barack Obama, and Gilbert has said that he felt that he was protecting someone of similar importance. He needs to have a good showing at his Pro Day to get a slot on an NFL team, though. What he’s done with bulk in the past will need to be done with technique at the next level, and he’s still weak there. It’s tough for a man that big to move his feet lightly and quickly.

Denver also needs to be looking for a starting safety, and in a thin year at the draft position, I’m with Ted on Ahmad Black. He ran an average of 4.51 at Combine, with a low of 4.43. You can get a snapshot idea of him at NFL Draft Scout. Meanwhile, CBS Sports wrote: “In a tough season for Florida, Black's consistency and leadership stood out (emphasis mine - talk about what Denver needs...). His reliability as an open-field tackler and penchant for big plays won't be lost on NFL scouts. The instinctive defender might not be drafted in the first round, but his ability to step up his level of play against elite talent won't be overlooked.” He’s that good.

They added, “Black, the 2011 Outback Bowl MVP, finished his career with 13 interceptions, which is tied for fourth most in school history. The three-year starter also notched 244 total tackles, including 14 tackles for loss. He is tied for second on the SEC's all-time list with three interception returns for a touchdown and fourth in SEC history with 362 yards in interception returns.” I hope he lasts until Denver takes him.

Those are just a few of the options that Denver will be looking at when their name is called, and this isn’t to suggest one over another. I’m more interested in acquainting folks with the options that they may see rather than in picking or preferring one over another. I’ll put together other general reports as we get closer,  and there will be individual bio pieces as well. I enjoy earning and writing the great personal stories, no matter where the players end up going. Doing bios doesn’t indicate that I want them just for Denver - I want their stories to be told, and the players to be seen as people as well as athletes.

You’ve got to love draft time - everyone has a shot, and we all have our preferences - right now, anyone could be right. Go Broncos!

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

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