NFL draft could offer Broncos options on offense early

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When George Paton was hired to replace John Elway as the guy at the top of Denver Broncos' football food chain, there were inevitable questions about how much things would change from the previous decade.

After the first month of free agency it is clear Paton and Elway agree on a significant item -- free agency is for immediate needs. With the NFL draft up next we'll see if their philosophies align on collecting the best players available.

With nine picks in hand at the moment -- four in the top 114 -- the Broncos could look at offense early before focusing on the draft's deepest positions the rest of the way.

The quarterback flurry expected as soon as the draft opens will impact the Broncos at both of their first two picks -- No. 9 and No. 40. If quarterbacks go 1-2-3 as many in the league expect, the Atlanta Falcons' No. 4 pick will influence the remainder of the top 10. If the Falcons stay at No. 4 and do not take a quarterback -- and with the next four teams not expected to take a QB -- many believe the Broncos at No. 9 or the New York Giants at No. 11 would field calls from teams looking to trade up for a quarterback.

Paton has repeatedly said he'd like more competition for Drew Lock, but has also said "fortunately we have a quarterback." The Broncos could use the No. 9 pick on a quarterback if Trey Lance and/or Justin Fields were still on the board.

That's where the "best player available" philosophy comes in. If the Falcons remain at No. 4 and select a quarterback or trade the pick to a team that does, the odds are slim that a quarterback will fall to the Broncos at No. 9. The Broncos would then be looking at the potential of one of the top two cornerbacks on the board, possibly Patrick Surtain II, any of the top-ranked linebackers, including Penn State's Micah Parsons, or either of the top two tackles (Rashawn Slater or Penei Sewell).

The Broncos could also have a shot at any of the four best pass-catchers -- Kyle Pitts, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle or Ja'Marr Chase.

Seven of the eight unrestricted free agents the Broncos have signed in free agency have been on defense, including signing safety Justin Simmons, who had been given the franchise player designation. That indicates, even if the Broncos use their first-round pick on a defensive player, they believe the board tilts early to offense.

"It is tempting to go out and go crazy in free agency, but that doesn't work very often," is how Paton described the team's approach earlier this offseason. "We're measured. ... We're very calculated. We know our weaknesses and our needs, and we try to attack them."

As the Broncos move through the second and third rounds -- picks No. 40 and No. 71 -- Paton's history with the Minnesota Vikings would indicate he'd been willing to move in the middle rounds to acquire some additional picks. As he has said "the more draft picks you have, the more flexibility you have."

In Paton's nine draft as the Vikings' assistant general manager, the team had at least 10 picks in six of those drafts, with a high of 15 picks in the 2020 draft.

The draft's depth at wide receiver, up and down the board, will present the Broncos with options as a player at the position will almost certainly be among the "best available'' at almost any pick. In the second- and third-round range, there will also be some of the draft's best running backs available as well as quarterbacks such as Stanford's Davis Mills and Texas A&M's Kellen Mond.

The Broncos currently have six picks, including three seventh-rounders on Day 3. Depth at cornerback and edge rusher with a smattering of linebackers who fit the Broncos' scheme should be available. Broncos linebacker Von Miller will be in the final year of his contract in 2021, linebacker Alexander Johnson will be poised for a significant deal in free agency. Safety Kareem Jackson as well as cornerback Kyle Fuller each signed a one-year deals in free agency, and cornerback Bryce Callahan has finished each of the past two seasons on injured reserve.

There could be well over 30 cornerbacks carrying sixth-round grades or better in this draft and while there will be some edge rushers who may need some developmental work, the Broncos have mined productive rushers like Shaquil Barrett and Malik Reed as undrafted rookies in recent years.

Many evaluators in the league also like the depth of prospects across the offensive line and many have specifically mentioned how many Day 3 prospects at both guard and tackle they believe are worthy of selections.