ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The 9NEWS streak is in jeopardy.
Each year since 2016, when we started listing nine player candidates for the Broncos’ first pick in the draft, the eventual top pick had made our list – including Paxton Lynch (2016), Garett Bolles (2017) and Jerry Jeudy (2020) as the listed No. 1 choices.
We thought Bradley Chubb (No. 5 overall) and Pat Surtain II (No. 9) would be gone by the time the Broncos were on the clock. Still, they made the list. Even tight end Noah Fant in 2019 came with the notation: “Trade back option.” Which is what happened when the Broncos traded back from No. 10 to 20 and took Fant, while also using their added second-round selection to take quarterback Drew Lock.
The further back that first pick goes, though, the more difficult it is to predict.
The Broncos’ first draft selection this year is way back. Way, way back to No. 64, or the final pick in the second round. Even the Broncos don’t know who they will wind up with, because their choice will likely be a player who unexpectantly falls. Watch, if the Broncos stand pat and make their selection at No. 64, general manager George Paton will say they had a much higher second-round grade on him.
Here’s what we do know: The Broncos only true position of need, in my opinion, is a three-down tight end. Albert Okwuegbunam is a good receiver tight end with a chance to be an inline starter, but still has to prove it. Eric Tomlinson is in to block. Fant was a key piece in the Broncos' package sent to Seattle in the Russell Wilson trade.
The problem is, there seems to be only one tight end in this draft class worthy of a second-round draft pick, and that’s Colorado State’s Trey McBride. And McBride is expected to go anywhere from the end of the first round to upper half of the second. There are several potential three-down tight ends who have third-, fourth- and fifth-round grades from the so-called draft experts. But the No. 64 pick might be a little rich for the likes of Greg Zulcich, Jeremy Ruckert, Isaiah Likely, Jalen Wydermyer and Cade Otton.
So if not a tight end, it always makes sense to first pick a player from the three premium positions of pass rusher, cornerback and offensive tackle. There’s actually four premium positions, but the Broncos don’t need a quarterback. Acquiring Wilson in a trade from Seattle is why the Broncos didn't pick Thursday in the first round and won't again early in the second round Friday.
They’d rather have Wilson, but the cost was their two highest draft picks, No. 9 and 40 overall.
What may have helped Paton, assistant GM Darren Mougey and head coach Nathaniel Hackett in their draft decision process is they got a good look at their team this week during their voluntary veteran minicamp. Besides Wilson, three players drew positive notice during the Broncos’ voluntary minicamp that ran Monday through Wednesday: Freshly converted outside linebacker Baron Browning, returning inside linebacker Jonas Griffith and speed receiver KJ Hamler.
Had those three not looked good, there would have been greater pressure to add a pass rusher, an inside linebacker and a speed receiver in the second or third rounds of this draft.
Browning was impressive in his first professional action at the edge rush position. The 105th overall pick and the final player chosen in the third round of last year’s draft, Browning played both outside and inside linebacker at Ohio State. Vic Fangio, the Broncos’ head coach and defensive play caller, wanted to use Browning’s five-star athleticism at inside linebacker.
Starting with a hairline leg fracture suffered on the second day of rookie minicamp, Browning was banged up much of last year but still wound up starting nine games and making 58 tackles with two pass deflections and two tackles for loss.
After taking a year to consider, Paton and his new coaching staff decided Browning’s supreme athleticism may be better utilized on the outside, where he will be included in a four-man rotation of Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory, Malik Reed and Jonathon Cooper. Browning is still being evaluated on the outside, but so far, so good.
Would the Broncos take another edge rusher they have him ranked, say, in their top 50 and he was still on the board when they were on the clock at No. 64? Absolutely. But they would feel comfortable with what they have if one of their preferred edge rushers doesn’t fall.
Griffith was supposed to be a core special teamer when the Broncos acquired him for practically nothing from the 49ers just prior to last season. But when injuries forced the former Indiana State product into the starting lineup for the final four games, he responded with 40 tackles with four behind the line of scrimmage and two quarterback hits. Griffith confirmed his play during the minicamp and with Josey Jewell returning and Eagles’ leading tackler Alex Singleton signing with the Broncos as a free agent, the Broncos have decent depth at inside linebacker.
Hamler’s participation in the minicamp just seven months after suffering a torn ACL could also diminish fears the Broncos won’t have a deep-ball threat for the deep-ball throwing Wilson.
Difficult as it may, 9NEWS can’t stop now with its nine candidates for the Broncos’ top pick just because the challenge is tougher. Here are nine players (with a tie at receiver for No. 9) the Broncos may consider with the last pick in the second round Friday, No. 64 overall, along with their position, school, age, height and weight, and best 40-meter time:
(Update: When this list was first published Thursday, it listed offensive tackle Tyler Smith, who went No. 25 to Dallas. The Broncos got an extra day to consider their No. 64 pick so it's only fair we do, too. Two adjustments to our top 9 lwere made: The tight end Zulcich instead of Smith and at No. 9, the receiver tie was dumped for Michigan's injured pass rusher David Ojabo.)
1. Trey McBride, TE, CSU, 22, 6-4, 246, 4.56
If Paton does trade up from No. 64, he probably wouldn’t start until the 52-55 pick range. He doesn’t want to give up too much as he’d prefer to wind up with 10 picks in this draft, not his current nine. And next year, the Broncos’ draft picks as of now are only one each in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds. Don't be surprised if Paton shops one of his two third-round picks for an pick or two in the 2023 draft.
Still, if this Fort Morgan-grown product and John Mackey Award winner would for some reason be there in the 50s, Paton might start making some calls to see if he can move up.
2. Abe Lucas, OT, Washington State, 23, 6-6, 315, 4.92
Another huge man who can move, Lucas is a true right tackle, which is what the Broncos most need upfront. He’s expected to go earlier in the second round. Yes, the Broncos met with him personally at team headquarters.
3. Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn, 22, 5-11, 190, 4.5
One more outside corner to go with Surtain, Ronald Darby and K’Waun Williams is a need. The Broncos brought McCreary in for a top 30 visit.
4. Dylan Parham, G-C, Memphis, 23, 6-3, 311, 4.93
Another top 30 visit to Broncos’ headquarters, Parham started at right tackle, right guard and left guard in college but may project as a center in the NFL. A big guy who can move, which is the type of interior blocker Hackett is looking for as a fit for his outside zone running scheme.
5. Nik Bonitto, OLB, Oklahoma, 22, 6-3, 248, 4.54
He’s become the popular choice for the Broncos among local mocksters. Had 16.0 sacks in 21 games the past two years and was named 2021 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus. Was brought in for a top 30 visit.
6. Drake Jackson, OLB, USC, 21, 6-3, 273, 4.6*
*An estimate as Jackson didn’t run the 40 at The Combine or his Pro Day because of a hamstring issue. One of the Broncos' last top 30 visits. He has long limbs and flexibility. Could use more strength, as all rookies do.
7. Greg Dulcich, TE, UCLA, 22, 6-4, 243, 4.69
If McBride goes within the first 15 picks of the second round as expected, who is the next-best tight end for the Broncos? Dulcich is the most similar to Fant in that he's a deep-ball threat. In his last two seasons for the Bruins, Dulcich had a combined 68 catches for a robust 18.3-yard average.
There may be some thought that Ohio State's Jeremy Ruckert would make for a better pairing with Albert O because Ruckert is a bigger, stronger body at 6-5, 250 and considered the best blocker among the consensus top 5 tight ends.
There is also the thinking the Broncos might be able to get Dulcich and Ruckert at No. 75 in the third round, but again, Paton may be shopping that pick.
8. Martin Emerson, CB, Mississippi St., 21, 6-2, 201, 4.53
Long and rangy and willing to tackle. Broncos brought him for a top 30 visit.
9. David Ojabo, OLB, Michigan, 22, 6-4, 250, 4.55
An adjustment made here is there seems to be very little chance the Broncos go receiver at No. 64. A receiver/returner in the later rounds is more likely. Ojabo is the ultimate high risk/high reward prospect in that he would have been no worse than the fourth-best edge rusher prospect in the draft had he not tore his Achilles during his mid-March Pro Day.
It's a nine-month injury although there was the typical early positive reports he'd only be out six months. Either way, Ojabo would be a pick for 2023. And maybe that's what the Broncos should do. They could be fine with Chubb, Gregory, Reed and Browning this year, but Chubb and Reed are free agents after this season.
Other options: Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State; Skyy Moore, WR, Western Michigan; Tyquan Thornton, WR, Baylor; Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan; Chad Muma, ILB, Wyoming/Parker; Matt Waletzko, OT, North Dakota; DeAngelo Malone, edge, Western Kentucky; Cam Jurgens, C, Nebraska.
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