ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There was no NFL Combine. In many cases, there was no 2020 college game tape.
There were no top 30 in-person visits. There were roughly 30% fewer draft-eligible prospects to choose from. There was little familiarity between new general manager George Paton and the personnel staff he inherited from John Elway.
Yet, the Broncos came through with one of their top 5 drafts in team history in 2021, rivaling those from 1973, 1975, 2006 and 2010.
Criticism came from not taking a quarterback with the No. 9 overall pick. But with Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance off the board, Paton and company didn’t feel comfortable with taking the two best remaining QB prospects, Justin Fields or Mac Jones.
Fields mostly had a disappointing rookie season with the Bears, while Jones had a better rookie season than Lawrence, Wilson and Lance for the Patriots. It remains to be seen, though, how much more growth Jones has in his game.
The Broncos are still looking for a franchise quarterback entering the 2022 season, although no one is complaining about Pat Surtain II, the cornerback who became the team’s first-round pick last year.
Nor is there any second-guessing about the Broncos taking running back Javonte Williams in the second round, guard Quinn Meinerz in the third, Caden Sterns in the fifth or Jonathon Cooper in the seventh.
Without the Combine and owners meetings, Paton and his staff had more time to evaluate tape and hold more group discussions on every player. The Broncos turned adversity into positive results.
After a one-year hiatus, the NFL Scouting Combine returns next week in Indianapolis.
The Broncos can only hope it doesn’t get in their way. Paton and new head coach Nathaniel Hackett will leadoff the Combine interview portion on Tuesday. Then comes watching this year’s draft prospects perform in what is sometimes sardonically referred to as the underwear Olympics.
There were significant obstacles last season, yet check out the Broncos’ 2021 draft player-by-player:
1. (9) Pat Surtain II, cornerback, Alabama
He played all 13 games for the national champs as the Southeast Conference decided early on to play through the pandemic. The Broncos paid $10 million in 2021 salary to veteran corner Ronald Darby, $9.5 million to Kyle Fuller and $7.2 million to Bryce Callahan. But by Game 2, it was obvious Surtain, who played all season at 21 years old, was better than all of them.
His signature performance came in Game 11 when he had two interceptions with a clinching pick six against Justin Herbert and the Chargers to lift the Broncos to a 6-5 record. Surtain made the All-Rookie Defensive team, as voted on by the pro football writers.
Signing bonus: $12.6 million. 2022 salary: $1.61 million.
2. (35) Javonte Williams, running back, North Carolina
It was a week past Williams' 21st birthday when the Broncos started Day 2 of the draft by trading away their fourth-round pick to move up from No. 40 in the second round to No. 35 in order to jump the Dolphins and take the powerful running back.
He rushed for 1,140 yards in 11 games as a junior for the Tar Heels. Williams’ ability to break, carry and bulldoze tacklers made him a frequent clip on the NFL weekly highlights.
He rushed for 903 yards on 4.4 yards per carry while playing 1B to Melvin Gordon III’s 1A. An All-Rookie Offensive team selection.
Signing bonus: $3.81 million. 2022 salary: $1.06 million.
3a. (98) Quinn Meinerz, center-guard, Wisconsin-Whitewater
His small-school conference canceled his 2020 senior season because of the pandemic, but an impressive, belly-exposed performance at the Senior Bowl lifted him to a Day 2 draft prospect.
The Broncos initially were going to take him with their No. 71 overall pick in the third round. After losing a fourth-round pick to get Williams, Paton wanted to re-establish his mid-round depth.
So he traded back from No. 71 to the Giants’ No. 76 selection, plus picked up a fifth-round pick that turned out to be safety Jamar Johnson.
The Broncos then traded back again, dealing their No. 76 pick in the third round to New Orleans in exchange for the Saints’ compensatory No. 98 and 105 picks. All that third-round swapping resulted in end-of-the-year starters in Meinerz (No. 98) and linebacker Baron Browning (105).
Instead of staying at No. 71 and taking Meinerz, Paton traded back twice and still got Meinerz, plus Browning and Johnson. That was some skilled draft board maneuvering – and some luck that Meinerz was still there 27 picks later.
The Broncos initially had plans for Meinerz to push Lloyd Cushenberry III for the starting center position. But Cushenberry during training camp showed significant improvement over his rookie season and starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t comfortable with Meinerz’ snaps – understandable as Meinerz had never previously played center.
When veteran right guard Graham Glasgow went down with a season-ending ankle fracture against the Cowboys, Meinerz started the final eight games. By far the most physical, point-of-attack offensive lineman among Broncos, Meinerz is expected to be the Day 1 starter at right guard in 2022.
Signing bonus: $840,620. 2022 salary: $877,539.
3b. (105) Baron Browning, inside linebacker, Ohio State
Browning initially appeared to be a disappointment as he suffered a tibia fracture during his first professional weekend at rookie minicamp.
There would be other game-missing injuries during the season, but an epidemic of linebacker maladies made way for Browning to start nine games and play in 14.
An active, sideline-to-sideline pursuer. With reps, he should improve on his read-and-react skills.
Signing bonus: $840,620. 2022 salary: $877,539
5a. (152) Caden Sterns, safety, Texas
After he was Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2018, when he had 4 interceptions and 62 tackles, Sterns fell off as a sophomore. He then played in seven games during the COVID season of 2020 before opting out of Texas’ final three games, including its Alamo Bowl win against the Colorado Buffaloes.
Another rookie who started last season as a 21-year-old, Sterns was a pleasant surprise as he had 2 interceptions and 2.0 sacks in 15 games.
The question for 2022 is: Will the Broncos have faith he can replace Kareem Jackson as a starter if the 34-year-old Jackson leaves through free agency? (The Broncos are expected to allow Jackson to hit free agency, but are keeping the door open for his return.)
Signing bonus: $330,588. 2022 salary: $825,000.
5b. (164) Jamar Johnson, safety, Indiana
Because the COVID pandemic canceled or shortened so many college seasons, there were an estimated 30% fewer prospects available for the 2021 draft.
While it still turned out to be one of the strongest collections of first-round talent, it was roughly the middle of the fifth round where the pool started to dry up.
One position that held strong was safety, which was why the Broncos decided to go with back-to-back safeties in the fifth round. Johnson was the best player available, even if he was a developmental prospect. He redshirted most of his rookie season, although he did play special teams in three of the final four games.
Signing bonus: $310,220. 2022 salary: $825,000.
6. (219) Seth Williams, receiver, Auburn
The Broncos got this compensatory pick back from Atlanta in the second-round swap that netted Javonte Williams.
Seth Williams had a disappointing rookie season that was spent mostly on the practice squad. He replaced COVID-stricken Jerry Jeudy in a Game 16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and had a nice 34-yard reception from Drew Lock for his first NFL catch.
The Broncos’ top 5 receivers – Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Kendall Hinton – are scheduled to return in 2022, so Seth Williams will have to compete for a 53-man roster spot again this year.
Signing bonus: $130,708. 2022 salary: $825,000.
7a. (237) Kary Vincent Jr., cornerback, LSU
The track sprinter and slot corner opted out of his senior season at LSU and didn’t dress through the Broncos first eight games. He was then dealt at the Nov. 2 trade deadline to the Eagles in exchange for a sixth round pick in this year’s draft. So the Broncos gained a round with a player they never used.
Signing bonus: $103,412.
7b. (239) Jonathon Cooper, OLB, Ohio State
To have a strong draft, a team has to hit at the top, in the middle and at the end. Cooper put this draft over the top. The pick had been acquired the previous year from the Giants in exchange for cornerback Isaac Yiadom.
Cooper slid to the 7th round because of a heartbeat irregularity that resurfaced through medical tests a couple of days before the draft. Before teams were informed of his medical alert, Cooper was considered a late-third/early-fourth round prospect.
He not only brought much-needed energy, enthusiasm and maturity to the Broncos’ roster, he filled-in admirably for the injured Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, finishing with 2.5 sacks, 7 quarterback hits and 38 tackles.
Signing bonus: $100,672. 2022 salary: $825,000.
7c. (253) Marquiss Spencer, defensive lineman, Mississippi State
Among the final cuts before the setting of the season-opening roster, Spencer spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad. The COVID outbreak did give him a few special teams snaps in game 16 against the Chargers.
Signing bonus: $81,400. 2022 salary: $705,000.
Undrafted: Andre Mintze, outside linebacker, Vanderbilt; Mac McCain III, cornerback, North Carolina A&T; Curtis Robinson, inside linebacker, Stanford; Drew Himmelman, offensive tackle, Illinois State; Shaun Beyer, tight end, Iowa.
Run it back, George
A team’s draft class is best evaluated four years later. Look at the Broncos’ 2018 draft class that looked great through its first two seasons but not so now after Bradley Chubb, Sutton, Josey Jewell and Phillip Lindsay all suffered career-altering injuries.
But so far, the Broncos’ 2021 class measures up against the best in franchise history. Here are some of the better drafts in Broncos’ history:
1968: 2nd round, Curly Culp; 9th, Paul Smith; 14th, Marlin Briscoe
1973: 1st, Otis Armstrong; 2nd, Barney Chavous; 3rd, Paul Howard; 4th, Tom Jackson
1975: 1st, Louis Wright; 4b, Rick Upchurch; 5b, Rubin Carter; 8th, Steve Foley
1980: 1st, Rulon Jones; 5a, Mike Harden; 6th, Keith Bishop
1983: 1st, Chris Hinton; 2nd, Mark Cooper; 8th, Gary Kubiak; 12th, Karl Mecklenburg
1985: 1st, Steve Sewell; 2a, Vance Johnson; 2b, Simon Fletcher
1994: 2nd, Allen Aldridge; 7a, Keith Burns; 7c, Tom Nalen; Undrafted, Rod Smith
2000: 1st, Deltha O’Neal; 2a, Ian Gold; 2b, Kenoy Kennedy; 4b, Cooper Carlisle; 6th, Mike Anderson
2006: 1st, Jay Cutler; 2nd, Tony Scheffler; 4a, Brandon Marshall; 4b, Elvis Dumervil; 4c, Domenik Hixon; 5th, Chris Kuper
2008: 1st, Ryan Clady; 2nd, Eddie Royal; 7b, Peyton Hillis
2010: 1st, Demaryius Thomas; 1b, Tim Tebow; 2nd, Zane Beadles; 3a, J.D. Walton; 3b, Eric Decker; 5th, Perrish Cox
2011: 1st, Von Miller; 2b, Orlando Franklin; 4a, Julius Thomas; 7a, Virgil Green
2018: 1st, Bradley Chubb; 2nd, Courtland Sutton; 4a, Josey Jewell; Undrafted, Phillip Lindsay
2021: 1st, Pat Surtain II; 2nd, Javonte Williams; 3a, Quinn Meinerz; 3b, Baron Browning; 5a, Caden Sterns; 7b, Jonathan Cooper
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