Monday, May 4, 2015

Broncos Continue to Build for Now and the Future

I used to be one of those people who assessed a team's draft solely based on how well they filled their needs. I've changed that approach, though, because when you do that, you are often looking at immediate needs, not future needs. Addressing both is part of the team-building process.

Additionally, there's no telling how well any of these players are going to do. There are countless players who were drafted, who never lived up to expectations. Grading a draft is like grading a student based on the material chosen for a research paper. You are making a judgment before you know what the finished product will look like.

And when it comes to the Denver Broncos, I've found more often than not that John Elway has been a good judge of talent. His 2011 draft class was strong, as of his nine picks, seven of them contributed extensively for at least one season. Yet if someone was handing out draft day grades that year, that someone was wondering why Elway didn't draft a defensive lineman until the seventh round. But time has told that Von Miller was very much worth the second overall pick in the draft, and that the likes of Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, and Julius Thomas were worth the picks used.

Elway continued to do well in 2012,with fourth-round pick Phillip Blake the only real miss. The jury is still out on the 2013 draft class, but there is hope that Montee Ball can get back on track, that Sylvester Williams could be the answer at nose tackle, and that Kayvon Webster could take a bigger role in the defense.

With all that said, Elway was wise to not only think about the future when he moved up in the first round to select defensive end Shane Ray, but to minimize his risk when he moved up the board. As I discussed last week, what makes a move up the board wise is when you don't give up too much or jeopardize your ability to build your team. The Broncos accumulated compensatory picks this year, so they could afford to part with one fifth-round pick this year. They will get more comp picks next year, so parting with a 2016 fifth-rounder was fine. And it wasn't likely that offensive guard Manny Ramirez was going to stick around, so it made sense to include him in the trade package.

From there, Elway's strategy became clear about looking for value. Some think offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo was taken a round too early, but if that's who was at the top of the Broncos' draft board, then that's who they should have taken if they weren't able to trade down. Always remember this rule of thumb when drafting: Trade down if you can, but if you can't, stick to your board and don't worry about perceptions of reaching for a player.

I liked the Broncos' pick of tight end Jeff Heuerman in the third round. Owen Daniels was a good value signing, but he isn't a long-term solution, and Heuerman will get a couple of years to develop before entering the starting lineup. Fourth-round pick Max Garcia is a versatile offensive lineman, and it's clear that Gary Kubiak wants versatility out of most of those players.

Now comes the time when we find out who fits in where. At this point, we can safely say that Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez will have the left tackle and right guard spots nailed down. I wouldn't rule out Michael Schofield at right tackle just yet -- my hunch is that he will win the starting job. Meanwhile, Sambrailo can be given time to develop. One thing to keep in mind: Sambrailo might be a better fit at left tackle, but consider that Clady's future beyond 2015 is uncertain, and the Broncos might view Sambrailo as the guy who can replace him. At left guard and center, it remains to be seen who will emerge, but having multiple players who can handle either position is better than having multiple players who are a fit at just one position.

Then there's nose tackle, a position many wondered why the Broncos didn't spent an earlier pick after Terrance Knighton departed in free agency. Keep in mind that the Broncos aren't giving up on Williams just yet. He'll enter training camp as the starter, and this season will tell whether or not the Broncos will want to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Marvin Austin can provide the depth behind him. If not, that's the reason why the Broncos took Darius Kilgo in the sixth round, to give the Broncos depth, and perhaps a potential starter if Williams doesn't pan out.

I remain skeptical about certain moves the Broncos didn't make, such as not doing more to retain Orlando Franklin, and misjudging the market for Rahim Moore. I didn't care for the Broncos' trade for Gino Gradowski, in which they sent a fourth-round pick to the Ravens, even if they got a fifth-round pick back. (Sending a sixth-round pick to Baltimore and getting a seventh-round pick would have been better.) But, for the most part, the Broncos minimized their offseason risks.

Looking at some other teams and what they did in the draft:

* The New York Jets did well for themselves. The problem I saw under John Izdik was that he didn't make it clear enough to fans and ownership that the team needed to rebuild. More importantly, he retained a head coach whose mindset was that the Jets just needed to reload. New general manager Mike Maccagnan started from scratch with the coaching staff and, while his free agency moves indicated he wanted to reload, his draft showed he was thinking as much about the future as he was about the present. Leonard Williams was a great pick, Devin Smith was worth taking to develop behind Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and the trade down with the Texans allowed the Jets to accumulate more picks, after trading several away earlier in the offseason. It was a step in the right direction, and perhaps the Jets can get back to relevancy, as long as Maccagnan continues to project the idea that the team wants to win now and in the future.

* The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are two teams I see heading in the right direction. Each team was similar in that the previous regime was making too many mistakes and every mistake kept setting back the franchise.

Former owner Al Davis had done good things for the Raiders in the past, but was too stubborn to adjust his approaches, and it led to a string of poor personnel decisions. His son Mark is not without his faults, but he's at least willing to admit he's never been the personnel guy his father once was.
General manager Reggie McKenzie started slowly, but has gotten better with his drafts each year. He did well to get Khalil Mack and Derek Carr last year. There's still hope for 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, and while McKenzie did take him early in the draft, he made one move down the board, then the time he spent making the selection suggested McKenzie was trying to move down again. (Remember, the rule of thumb  to try to move down, but if you can't, stick to your board.)

This year, McKenzie did well with his selections of Amari Cooper, Mario Edwards, and Clive Walford. McKenzie was also wise to trade back twice on Day 3, allowing him to accumulate more depth. The key, though, is for Mark Davis to remain patient with McKenzie, allow the players to develop, and only insist on change if coaches aren't working out.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, had been decimated by the constant moves up the board by the previous regime. The mindset was clearly that the Jaguars were just a few players away from returning to the playoffs, when the reality was that it was time to rebuild. It wasn't just that the players they selected didn't pan out, but what they gave up to get them.

It's still too early to judge Jacksonville's 2014 draft class, but the good news is that Blake Bortles gets another year to develop a rapport with receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. There is still hope that offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, the team's 2013 first-round pick, can get on track. And this year, the Jaguars did well to get outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and running back T.J. Yeldon. It's understandable that head coach Gus Bradley will need to show he can get the Jaguars to at least a .500 record this year. But more importantly, it's imperative that patience be shown for general manager David Caldwell, who is slowly getting out of the mess the previous regime left him, and needs time to show what his work in the drafts can yield.

* I've liked what I've seen from current Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman the first two years he's drafted. His 2013 first-rounder, Star Lotulelei, has been very good, and 2014 first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin looks like a keeper. And he's finally dug himself out of the salary cap mess left for him, so he should be in position to get Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly extended.

But this year, Gettleman fell into the worst trap a general manager can fall for: Panicking. This was the case when he traded up for tight end Devin Funchess. Giving up third- and sixth-round picks was an example of not minimizing risk. Additionally, Gettlemen's judgment that other teams were going to draft receivers proved incorrect. That move reminds me of when Mike Shanahan traded up to select Jarvis Moss, after limiting his board to a select few players. I have no idea if Gettlemen limited his board, but regardless, he gave up too much.

Now Gettlemen needs to hope that Michael Oher can turn things around, or that fourth-round pick Daryl Williams can start at right tackle. It's true you don't draft for need just to do so, but giving up those picks might have cost Gettleman a chance to further help his team's situation.

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