This past spring, the Denver Broncos selected eight players in the NFL Draft and signed 20-plus college free agents. Once again, GM John Elway has flooded the roster with new blood, trying to find the next great Broncos.
Not all of Denver’s 2017 rookie class will be great. In fact, most of them will be out of the league three years from now.
Perhaps the Broncos can mine some value out of the undrafted ranks once again. If so, it will be a bonus.
More than anything, the Broncos need this rookie class to be productive and make an impact early on. With a rookie Head Coach, a first-time defensive coordinator and relative inexperience at quarterback, the Broncos need as an immediate return on their 2017 Draft investment as possible.
Eight draft picks. Six offensive players and two defenders. There’s no guarantee all eight rookies will make the 53-man roster, although, this year’s class has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of 2016’s group, and stick with a 100 percent conversion rate.
The Broncos are a young team. That can be a good and bad thing. If they can get steady leadership at the coaching level and clarity and stability at quarterback, Denver’s youth movement could be the arrow in their quiver that allows them to shake things up in the AFC.
But those are two big ‘ifs’. Regardless, if the Broncos are going to take a step forward this year, they’ll need production from their rookie class. But which rookies will the Broncos rely on the most? Let’s take a look.
Garett Bolles, OT
Sure, the Broncos could get by without Garett Bolles as the starting left tackle. With the improvements Ty Sambrailo has apparently made, he could be a serviceable starter, at the very least.
But the Bronco rushing attack isn’t going to blast through to the next level with Sambrailo at left tackle. It’s just not going to happen.
With free-agent acquisitions — Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson — plugged into the starting lineup, the right side of the Broncos offensive line promises to be powerful. Add Garett Bolles, and all his physicality at the point of attack, to the left side — the Broncos could explode upward out of the league doldrums and into something special.
A worst-to-first type of transformation would be the best-case scenario with Bolles in the lineup. Pump the brakes, because nothing is guaranteed. But the Broncos aren’t going to experience any kind of renaissance in the trenches with Sambrailo at left tackle.
As Head Coach Vance Joseph likes to say, Bolles was a first round pick for a reason. He’s nasty, powerful, athletic and he finishes plays with violence. As nice of a guy as he is off the field, on the grid-iron, Bolles transforms into a kind of Hulk-ish brute.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1777865-film-room-garett-bolles-v… I say that in the best sense of the word. Frankly, the Broncos could use some brutality up front. If they want to overcome their short yardage woes of the past, the Broncos are going to need Bolles to come through and be the bully.
Denver’s first-rounder started out the offseason on the second team but by the time OTAs and mini-camp concluded, he was splitting reps with Sambrailo with the ones. When training camp kicks off on July 27, Bolles will immediately compete on the first team and work to earn the starting job.
It’s great to see him move up the depth chart already. But Bolles’ true skill-set, and his best attributes, won’t truly come to the surface until the actual contact begins. When the pads go on and it’s time to hit someone, I expect Garett Bolles to take control of the left tackle position.
His pass protection will be a work in progress, but with Von Miller already taking him under his wing, Bolles will receive a first-rate education long before the Broncos take the field for their first regular season game. There might still be some trial and error in that department, but when it comes to the running game, it shouldn’t take us long to measure Bolles’ impact.
Carlos Henderson, WR
For the last two seasons, the Broncos have lacked a true difference-maker in the slot. Following Wes Welker’s departure, the team tried to get by with a combination of journeyman savvy, and raw, undrafted zeal.
It hasn’t worked. Last year, Denver’s third most productive receiver wasn’t a wideout, nor was he a tight end. He was a rookie running back by the name of Devontae Booker, who finished the season with 31 receptions for 265 yards and a score.
However, that’s more of an indictment on Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison than it is on Jordan Norwood, or Virgil Green.
As Will Keys pointed out recently, tight end A.J. Derby developed some great chemistry with Trevor Siemian late in the year, after Denver acquired him via trade with New England. But inexperience, and Derby’s late-season injuries, prevented him from developing into a sure-fire third option in the passing game.
John Elway had enough of his team’s dearth of explosive talent at WR3. When the NFL Draft rolled around, he pulled the trigger on Louisiana Tech wideout Carlos Henderson in the third round, and Georgia’s diminutive play-maker Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round — for good measure.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1777462-film-room-carlos-henderso… Henderson (5-foot-11, 199 pounds) is built more like a running back than a receiver. And with the ball in his hands, he plays like a running back, too.
He can make plays outside the numbers, but when Henderson gets the ball in space, he is absolutely electric. The Broncos are hopeful that he can set himself apart early in training camp and head into the regular season as WR3.
Up to this point, McKenzie has earned more praise during the Broncos on-field activities. But for these elite athletes, who possess otherworldly speed and athleticism, it’s easy to look good in shorts.
When the hitting starts, we’ll find out what’s what. McKenzie has raw ability, but Henderson is a more refined receiver at this point and much more physical. With Mike McCoy’s tactical ability as a play-caller, I can only imagine the damage Henderson could do as a rookie.
For too long, opposing defenses have been able to bracket Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. With an impotent running game and no viable third receiver, Denver’s top-two receivers have had to work extremely hard for every catch and yard.
But if Carlos Henderson can acclimate to the speed of the NFL game quickly, opposing defenses will have to pick their poison. That should give the quarterback more opportunities to find the mismatch and exploit it, whether it’s Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian who wins the starting job.
Henderson can also contribute as a special teams returner. But if the Broncos have their druthers, McKenzie will be the one taking on that responsibility, which will hopefully go a long way toward preserving Henderson’s health and keep him fresher.
But the Broncos will be relying on McKenzie very much this year. It’s been a long time since Denver had anyone returning punts and kicks who could flip field position and change the game. McKenzie offers the team that possibility, if he can hold up physically and protect the football.
DeMarcus Walker, DE
Defense might be Denver’s strength, but there was a reason they fell to 28th in the NFL against the run last year. They lacked depth on the defensive line.
Injuries and free agent departures contributed to the Broncos step back defensively, but this time around, Elway reloaded the group with a balance of veteran experience and rookie talent.
Having a fresh rotation in the trenches will not only help bolster Denver’s rushing defense, but also keep guys fresh to rush the passer on third down. DeMarcus Walker will factor in greatly to that effort.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1780457-film-room-analyzing-demar… Taken in the second round out of Florida State, Walker comes to the Broncos fresh off a senior campaign in which he finished second in the nation with 16 sacks. While more than one Mile High Huddle analyst doubts Walker’s ability early on to make an impact as a run defender, where we all agree he can truly help out is on third down.
In Von Miller and Shane Ray, the Broncos have one of the best edge-rushing duos in the NFL. The tandem combined for 21.5 sacks in 2016.
But with the exception of Derek Wolfe, the Broncos couldn’t get a consistent inside push on third down, which allowed opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket to evade the edge pressure all too often.
As a role player, at the very worst, Walker will rotate in at defensive end on third down. It might take him some time, as it often does for young defensive linemen, to fully develop the technique to make an impact against the run, but he offers immediate value as a pass rusher.
If the Broncos can stay healthy up front, they have the D-line pieces to return to 2015 form. But it will not only take a big contribution from Denver’s 2017 second round pick, but also last year’s.
Before he had to undergo a knee scope to close out Denver’s offseason training program, Adam Gotsis had become the darkhorse to actually start opposite of Wolfe. Gotsis has put on the necessary weight to hold up at the point of attack and was a constant force during OTAs.
Fortunately, Gotsis is expected to return to action early on in training camp. With a healthy Gotsis and DeMarcus Walker champing at the bit, I see the Broncos D-line taking a big step forward in 2017.
If Jake Butt were 100 percent healthy, he would be on this list. But I can’t say that Denver’s 2017 prospects rely on a rookie still recovering from an ACL tear.
If Butt suffers no setbacks in his recovery and manages to make an impact as a rookie, consider that a bonus and a football blessing. Just don’t count on it.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.