As scouting combine approaches, Broncos need a throwback performance

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the eighth NFL scouting combine of John Elway’s tenure as the Denver Broncos chief football decision-maker approaches, the team is in similar trouble as it was in his first year on the job.

And Elway, as well as the Broncos, could sure use a draft class at the end of the run-up like 2011’s. That’s because Elway’s first draft class is still likely his best, and the Broncos again need exactly that kind of infusion.

Six-time Pro Bowl selection Von Miller topped that class as the No. 2 pick overall -- the Broncos have the No. 5 pick overall this year -- but in the nine-player class the Broncos got seven players who played in at least 30 games for the team, topped by Miller’s 104.

Of the nine players, seventh-round pick Jeremy Beal, who spent the 2011 season on the Broncos’ practice squad, was the only player selected by the Broncos that year who never played in a regular-season game for the team. Mike Mohamed, a sixth-round pick, played in three over two seasons.

But that draft still represents the best combination of players who fit the Broncos both athletically and in terms of football IQ. The Broncos have found impact players in the years that have followed, but have not found as good an overall balance in a draft class since.

And Miller is currently the only Broncos draft pick in Elway’s tenure who has been named to the Pro Bowl and is also still on the roster. In short, while what the Broncos do in free agency, especially at quarterback, will have a significant impact on how the offseason goes, the Broncos need to re-capture the sense of draft purpose they had in 2011.

At the Senior Bowl, Vance Joseph put it like this:

“I want players to be a good fit for us. That is in terms of loving football and being smart players. Smart players give you an opportunity to play guys in different areas. I want smart players. I want guys who love football on top of having ability. Once you get to this level, as far as the physical ability, it’s very close. The things that separate players is the mindset, the love of football, how he learns, what kind of teammate he is going to be and leadership skills.’’

Peyton Manning’s tenure -- 2012-2015 -- changed the dynamic a bit for the Broncos. Not only did they consider themselves Super Bowl contenders, they were, making two trips in those four years.

It made the draft-and-develop strategy that builds rosters for the long haul slightly more of a back-burner affair. Manning’s presence attracted free agents and also covered potential problems.

Now the Broncos, after a 5-11 finish, are in a similar spot as in 2011 when they were coming off a 4-12. Their first two draft classes of the post-Manning era -- 2016 and 2017 -- are filled with athletic prospects who finished at, or near, the top of the pre-draft rankings on the physical side of things.

But safety Justin Simmons, a third-round pick in ’16, is the only one of the group to have elevated himself to unquestioned starter for a team that has missed the playoffs in two consecutive years. The Broncos haven’t had enough players in those past two draft classes to turn their physical attributes into football performance the way Simmons has.

The Broncos hope tight end Jake Butt, who spent this past season on injured reserve, can be one of those success stories as well in his return to the field. They have been decidedly non-committal about where the highest-profile pick of the past two drafts -- quarterback Paxton Lynch, a 2016 first-round pick they traded up in the round to acquire -- fits in their plan at the moment.

The question the Broncos must answer is whether their issues come in developing players or from selecting players without enough on-field awareness or game-speed instincts. To that end, Elway has been out front since the season’s end, having appeared at a bowl game or two to watch top prospects as well as the practice week at the Senior Bowl.

Elway, too, has already spoken of the importance of this offseason to regaining some kind of balance for the team and his role in it.

“We need those answers,’’ Elway said. “We have to learn, grow, that’s me too.’’