After looking at options to improve the Denver Broncos offense, a pressing need for the team in the offseason. It’s time to look at the defense, the side of the ball that executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has selected with his first pick in all but one year, Paxton Lynch in last year’s draft.
This one's for Vance!
As we noted in our film analysis of Vance Joseph's defensive scheme, the new coach in town loves to play with five defensive backs, often playing with one high safety and another in the box. T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart will work perfectly in those roles, but while Stewart is signed through the 2020 season, Ward’s contract expires next offseason. The 30-year-old could be let go, and while Will Parks had a promising rookie year, the Broncos might want to add talent to such a vital position in their coaches scheme.
With that, here are a couple of playmakers who’d fit perfectly with the way Joseph likes to scheme the back end of defenses, his bread and butter.
The dream scenario
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers is a well-known star in college football. He’s been a known name since his time as a top national recruit and has starred his entire career with the Wolverines where he’s been used in a variety of different ways. In the NFL, Peppers should abandon his linebacking duties as he’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 205-pounds, focusing more on being a defensive back.
He’d be ideal as an in the box safety in Joseph's 'D,' where his athleticism to quickly make plays downhill and tackle in space would be huge plusses. He’s also a reliable blitzer and very capable in coverage.
Peppers has shown the ability to play as a zone defender, while also covering some of the best slot receivers in the country—he did a nice job on Curtis Samuels. Michigan’s playmaker also possesses ample athleticism to play as a high safety if need be in the occasional cover 2 look. Jabrill is also a talented returner, an area in which he’s explosive and often creates big plays in the return game.
He’s a special talent if put in the right hands and that might be a good thing for the Broncos. Despite a stellar career, Peppers isn’t for everyone and has begun to have his fair share of detractors amongst analysts. His true worth to NFL teams will be seen come draft time, but if he slides, Denver could pounce, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Budda Baker, FS, Washington
Baker was another coveted recruit—albeit out west, not to the national level that Peppers was—and he’s had a legendary career with the Huskies, being used in all different roles.
Baker’s best position is as a safety where he can let his instincts take over. He’s not the biggest but is constantly around the ball. He can play closer to the line and in the box, but can also cover slot receivers. Baker's unique talents and instincts for the ball are reminiscent of Tyrann Mathieu without the off-field red flags.
As a playmaking safety that can be moved around the formation, Baker wouldn't be an exact replacement for Ward (like Peppers), but he could be paired with either Stweart or Justin Simmons, and still fit what Joseph likes to scheme on the back end.
Zach Cunningham, ILB, Vanderbilt
Cunningham isn’t a safety but as a linebacker with above the norm coverage ability who’s a great tackler and possesses great instincts, making tons of plays in the opposing backfield. Cunningham would be a great fit with this unit. Denver hasn’t addressed the interior linebacking position since the loss of Danny Trevathan last offseason, and Cunningham could be a bigger more complete version of what the now Chicago Bear was to this defense.
Cunningham’s ability to cover ground and swarm to the ball would help tighten windows in coverage over the middle. A daunting proposition for opposing offenses who are already gasping for air against the Broncos.
Cunningham is a worthy top-15 talent in this class and would be great value at the 20th pick, though Elway and co might not value the interior linebacking position enough to select one this high.
Help in the trenches
The Broncos defensive line didn’t show the same strength against the run this past season and as the year wore along with injuries mounting the line depth was tested. Maybe worst of all by the end of the season opposing quarterbacks were able to avoid the oncoming rush from the outside because they could step up in the pocket. Something that was a big strength of the defense during the Super Bowl 50 run.
Because of this, talent and depth need to be added along the defensive front. That could occur in free agency if the Broncos are willing to splash the cash for a big name like Calais Campbell or Kawann Short, but if they don’t, there are some interesting options on the d-line in this draft class.
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
Thomas is the dream scenario up front as his combination of power, ability to slip blocks, nastiness, and non-stop motor make him a high-level prospect. In fact, his stock is on fire right now after a dominant bowl performance and, in most scenarios, he wouldn’t be dropping to the 20th pick.
There’s still time from now till April, though, and you never know what could happen. Thomas would be perfect as an end in the Broncos three-man front, a role he played in Palo Alto.
Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
McDowell has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in this draft regardless of position. He came into the year with huge expectations but failed to meet them due to inconstant play in a down stretch for the Spartans.
McDowell has length, functional power, and supreme athletic tools for a man his size, both in his ability to bend and get under blockers pads and create penetration in the backfield. Simply put, the kid has tons of talent. In the right hands he could be a special player, and at pick No. 20 his upside might be too tantalizing to pass up if other options are off the table.
If Sly leaves
Broncos starting nose tackle, Sylvester “Sly” Williams, is a free agent and after the team declined to take his five-year contract option his status in Denver is uncertain. A nose tackle isn’t the most exhilarating position, but in a three-man front having a bull on the line who can take on two blockers at a time and stuff gaps is essential. A good nose tackle would also free up blockers for Von Miller and company, and can be a big part of this defense.
Montravious Adams, DT, Auburn
There are other options later in the draft if Denver just wants a functional two-down nose guard who helps against the run, though it would be nice to have a player who similar to “Sly” can be used on third-down and create some pressure up the middle as well. Adams might even be an upgrade, as he’s a true bull against the run, very strong at the point of attack and has a tremendous motor.
At his best against the run, he also moves nicely, has decent hands and can create push from the interior. It wouldn’t be the sexiest pick, nor would it be the best value, but he could impact the defense significantly starting in 2017.