The 2016 NFL Draft was a truly special group of players on the interior defensive line, a class comparable to this year's tight ends, cornerbacks or running backs. The Denver Broncos targeted their guy in that great class in Adam Gotsis last year, a raw and talented player with limited experience in American football and was coming off an injury.
Gotsis’ inability to contribute immediately at a high level was understandable, though the Broncos continue to make the defensive line a priority after having lost two of the starters from the group that terrified opposing offenses on the run to Super Bowl 50 in Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. Those losses showed up on the field last year as the ‘D’ struggled to dominate against the run, and the interior pass rush wasn’t the same, allowing teams to more effectively block the outside rush.
Those were two big losses that in time should be replaced by Gotsis as well as new free agent additions Domata Peko and Zach Kerr. The fact remains that none of those guys are ready-made stars, exactly why the Broncos could (and should) still go back to the well in the draft to add depth and hopefully another gem like Jackson.
2017 doesn’t offer up anywhere close to the amount of talent that we saw a year ago in the draft, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good players with intriguing upside.
Without further ado, here are Denver’s best options come late April on the defensive line.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
First things first, Allen dropping all the way to 20 may require a bong-mask type draft day scandal. He's been after all one of the best players in college football the past two seasons. Allen is, however, seen as a bit of a tweener for 4-3 teams and was extremely disappointing in his athletic tests. More worrisome he has mild arthritis in both shoulders another potential hindrance to his stock. While his status is that of a top 10 player, a prospect who's undersized and doesn’t offer elite athleticism with injury concerns could slide a bit.
In Denver, Allen would be a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end, a position he played the majority of time at Alabama. On tape he plays with a nasty edge, rarely misses an assignment, and shows good burst with the ability to penetrate while being strong against the run. If he did drop into the early teens, the Broncos might be tempted to trade up for him.
Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
The Spartans standout is very similar to what Robert Nkemdiche was to the 2016 group; potentially the best player at the position but also a very risky pick.
McDowell doesn’t have the same off-field red flags that the now Arizona Cardinal had, but his effort level, reluctance to follow the play as it’s designed (and/or be coached), on top of some off-field personality questions have hindered his stock.
Going into the season he was a top five talent in the class, but a down year has seen him lose lots of ground. When at his best he’s a special player with rare size and agility who can both bull through blockers or bend the edge around them like a player that’s 50 pounds lighter.
Look at most mock drafts, and you won’t see his name in the top-20 picks anymore, but if the Broncos believe in their ability to develop him and they’ve done their research off of the field, McDowell’s elite tools and potential could be earth shattering on this defense.
A mix of depth and upside for day two
Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Brantley stands out in this class and for the Broncos in particular because he’s one of the best on the list defending the run. Brantley plays low to the ground with great leverage, and he’s powerful enough to hold up against double teams.
When he’s on, and at his best, he’s also a pest rushing the passer with a quick get-off at the line of scrimmage. A quality run defender with some upside in the pass rushing department, Brantley would be a worthwhile addition to the defensive front. Unsurprisingly, the Broncos have already met with him in an interview at the combine.
Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn
Adams suffered a bit at Auburn when used as a nose tackle, not his best position. But for the Broncos that might actually be appealing as he’d be great rotating with Peko in obvious passing downs as he’s a talented interior rusher.
That’s what Adams brings to the table when he’s on—his motor is a big question mark—as he’s long, quick and has violent hands allowing him to do his fair share of disruption in opposing backfields. He’d also be a great rotational piece at defensive end splitting time with Gotsis. Adams doesn’t always play with a high motor, he also plays a bit high and can get washed down too easily against the run where he’s suffered holding up against double teams. A bit of a gamble on upside, Adams has intriguing talents for the long term and already some immediate utility.
Chris Wormley, DE/DT, Michigan
Wormley came into the season with high expectations, and though he hasn’t necessarily disappointed, his ceiling is in question as it doesn’t seem to be as high as others here. He also underwent a system change as Michigan began to use more 4-3 looks this year having been a 3-4 defense previously - the front in which Wormley’s looked best.
He’s a sound defender who’s efficient against the run and has good length that he uses well. Already a fit in the Broncos scheme Wormley would be a safe pick who’s ready to contribute immediately against the run.
Jaleel Johnson, DT, Iowa
Johnson was a hot name as the draft process began, but his stock’s taken a bit of a hit after a very underwhelming combine. The Iowa standout is still a quality run defender who can create some pressure in the backfield. His lack of elite athletic traits are concerning as his upside seems a bit limited, but there’s no denying Johnson’s skill set. In the late third, he'd be an appealing pickup.
Elijah Qualls, DT, Washington
Qualls is a fun watch as an almost nose tackle size guy who was at times used as a stand-up edge rusher on the outside with the Huskies. He’s got a great motor and impressive mobility for a 300-pound man. He plays with a reckless abandon and was part of a really strong front last season. He’s not the tallest and length in a 3-4 is important, but all things considered, he’d be an intriguing pick with one of the Broncos two third round picks.
Dalvin Tomlinson, NT, Alabama
Our first true nose guard on the list, Tomlinson got lost in the shuffle of Alabama’s strong defense, but he’s very effective at what he does. He plays with a strong base and good leverage as a classic gap stuffer. He won’t offer you much in lateral mobility, but north and south he can do some damage creating penetration up the middle. Not the most sudden mover, but he’s efficient and stout against the run two important qualities.
Day three sleepers
Jarron Jones, NT, Notre Dame
Jones’ high’s might be higher than anyone’s outside of the top two guys, but his problem lies in consistency and his injury history. Watch him this season against Miami, and you’ll see an ultra-dominant player that abuses opposing blockers and makes endless plays in the backfield, looking like a Chris Jones clone - the Kansas City Chiefs top pick last year coming off a strong rookie campaign.
Jones is extremely long, and he moves incredibly well for his size but, he also plays too high not creating as much leverage as he should. Though he's 6-foot-6 and 316 pounds, he moves like a much lighter player and plays like one with some real finesse to his game. If the Broncos clear him medically and believe they can get him to play with an edge, this could be a fantastic pick.
Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
Watkins has been a little lost in the shuffle of this class as he became a rotational player with a star-studded freshman class coming into Clemson. Being in more of a rotational role seemed to help him as he played well particularly at the end of the year.
Watkins can slip blocks and create interior pressure, great qualities. When he’s on, he’s also a stout run defender who’s talented taking on double blocks. He has a decent amount of upside in the tank, but that’ll need to be channeled.
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
Vanderdoes’ talent could get him to go higher than this, potentially even in the second round but his tape doesn’t warrant such a high pick.
He missed almost the entire 2015 season due to an ACL injury, and he didn’t look like himself in 2016. A former five-star recruit, he has the talent to beast on blockers with his combination of great size and athleticism to penetrate making him a menace who often ends up in opposing backfields.
He showed some of that old pre-injury form at the Senior Bowl, an encouraging sign. A risky but potentially very rewarding selection.
Nazair Jones, DT, UNC
Jones isn’t the flashiest and doesn’t have much fanfare, but he’s very fitting to the Broncos defensive stylistic needs. He possesses great size and is a stout run defender who plays with an edge. He does a tremendous job plugging gaps and then is able to get into opposing backfields to create pressure on sheer motor.
Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Charlotte
A very popular small school prospect, he’s a bit one-dimensional and might be a bit overrated at this point, but there’s some pass rushing upside here. Ogunjobi might not be an ideal fit in the Broncos 3-4, but he would bring some much needed added depth in an internal pass-rushing capacity.
Summing it up
Even if the class isn’t the deepest and doesn't have as many first rounders, there are a lot of guys who could help the Broncos. The day-two group offers some intriguing options, particularly if someone drops to the third round where Denver has two picks. Day three could also give the Broncos options in finding more rotational elements who could add depth. There’ll certainly be options.