John Elway didn’t give away much in his mandatory pre-draft meeting with the media wretches Monday, but then, why would he? If he were more Machiavellian — and one day he might be, you never know — he would have engaged in a little misdirection of the sort Mike Shanahan used to attempt.
But Elway is still trying to be as honest as he can, which includes explaining why it would make no sense for him to show his hand publicly just before the draft.
Knowing his willingness to entertain specific position questions probably wouldn’t last long, I did get responses on two, and they were pretty different.
First I asked about defensive tackle, routinely listed by outsiders as the team’s greatest need. That need seems to dovetail nicely with a pick late in the first round because the class of 2012 is judged so deep at defensive tackle that as many as seven prospects have first-round grades from one analyst or another. Peter King of Sports Illustrated is not alone in matching the Broncos with LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers in his mock first round, although other observers have Brockers coming off the board well before the 25th pick.
Outsiders have been calling defensive tackle the Broncos’ greatest need ever since Elway and John Fox took over — in fact, since before that — and the Broncos’ brain trust has given no indication it agrees. It was widely expected to take Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the second pick last year, but chose Texas A&M linebacker and pass rusher Von Miller instead, judging him a higher impact player. The decision was vindicated in the short run: Miller was named the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year.
They signed veteran Ty Warren to play tackle, but when Warren went down in training camp, they picked up Brodrick Bunkley from the Eagles at the last minute. He played well enough to earn a five-year, $25 million free agent contract from New Orleans.
“We wanted to keep him but couldn’t do that,” Elway said of Bunkley. “We don’t feel as bad about our tackles as everybody else does. I think that we feel OK there. Ty Warren will be back coming off an injury and (Kevin) Vickerson is coming back and then we have some young guys in there where we feel like we’ll be OK. It’s not nearly the need in our minds that people think it is.”
Elway didn’t even mention veteran Justin Bannan, signed to return a year after being released just prior to the lockout. That doesn’t make the Broncos deep in talent in the interior line, but there’s a popular theory that when Peyton Manning is your quarterback, you’re going to be facing the pass a lot more than the run.
For that reason, the other area I asked about was the defensive secondary. I might have mentioned that Tom Brady toasted Broncos defensive backs in the playoffs last season with New England’s spread passing attack.
“We struggled all last year against anybody that spread us out,” Elway said. “That’s the thing. Every team has needs. It’s just a matter of the impact of the people you can find to help solve that need.
“You can never have enough good corners; you can never have enough good pass rushers. There is no question corner is another spot that is very vital if you’re going to be good on the defensive side because of where the game is going and the amount of spread offense that we’re seeing now, you have to be good in the secondary. But you’re only as good as your pass rush, too. You have to combine both of those. Obviously, our pass rush is better than it’s been, but we have to get better when people spread us out.”
In other words, unless Elway was blowing smoke, the Broncos’ interest in cover guys is greater than their interest in defensive tackles.
Since well before he took over the front office fifteen months ago, Elway has believed the modern NFL is all about the passing game. Offensively, he responded by wooing and winning Manning to play quarterback.
Defensively, he knows his team needs more capable defensive backs. He hopes free agent Tracy Porter will play a more physical style than released starter Andre Goodman, but changing the name tag opposite Champ Bailey didn’t affect the numbers game. Three young players — Chris Harris, Syd’Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn also figure in the pre-draft depth chart.
Still, as Elway reiterated several times, it all depends on how the board falls. He is determined not to overlook a potential difference-maker by reaching for a lesser player who would fill a need.
“The bottom line is we want to come out with players that are impact players,” he said. “As I said last year, you have a lot more misses in my mind when you draft to need. So we’re going to find the best players in positions of need but also try to find those impact players that are going to come in and help us right away.”
Repeatedly, Elways was asked to predict who might be available at No. 25. Repeatedly, he said he had no idea, which explains not only why attempts to predict the course of the draft are so entertaining, but also why they’re so futile.
“It’s just fluid,” he said. “It’s always changing. There are always surprises and you never know. Even though you know everybody has their mocks and everybody has their opinions on where different players should go or different viewpoints, when you have 32 teams, they are going to have different viewpoints on different players. I think No. 1, it’s very fluid and No. 2 is that you can’t rely on anything. It is going to be changing all the time. I think that’s probably the fun part about it. It’s so unexpected.”
So Elway views the draft pretty much the way he viewed playing the game. You go in with a game plan, knowing it may be turned on its head by an early surprise or two. Ultimately, success or failure is very likely to rest on the ability to make good decisions on the fly.
Offensively, speculation centers on the need for a running back to complement Willis McGahee and the possibility of adding a young quarterback to develop behind Manning. By the time he was asked about running backs, Elway had retreated to a general assurance that the club will consider players at every position. He was not much more forthcoming on the quarterbacks.
“There are some good prospects,” he said. “You never know. When you look at the two guys at the top (Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III), everyone kind of has them as franchise guys. I think for the most part it’s always a crapshoot, especially lower in the draft—not only that position, but all the different positions. You want to try to find the best packages that you can. There are some guys that are good athletes that are going to have a chance to be successful in the league. It’s just a matter of them getting in the right situations.”
The Broncos currently have Manning, Caleb Hanie and Adam Weber on their depth chart at quarterback. If they don’t draft one, they’re likely to bring in a street free agent or another undrafted college free agent (like Weber a year ago), at least for training camp.
When I asked if he was open to trading the No. 25 pick, Elway said he was. He also volunteered he is more likely to trade back than trade up.
“We’re open,” he said. “I think that preferably, we’d like to go back. If there is somebody that likes somebody in our position at No. 25, we’re fine there, but we’re always open to go either way.”
Elway and his front office crew are generally credited with a pretty good inaugural effort in the draft. Of course, starting at No. 2 is a lot easier than starting at No. 25. Their first and third picks last year, Miller and offensive tackle Orlando Franklin, settled in as starters. Their second, safety Rahim Moore, was an early starter who played his way out of the lineup, to the benefit of their fifth, Quinton Carter. Their fourth, linebacker Nate Irving, was advertised as a middle backer but ended up mainly a special teams player.
(The order of their picks does not necessarily reflect the round in which they were selected; Moore and Franklin were both second-round picks; Irving was a third and Carter a fourth.)
Their last four picks of 2011 didn’t do much as rookies, but Harris, an undrafted free agent, became the nickel back.
Once again, Elway’s goal is to find three starters. To do that, he insists, the Broncos will have to stick to their board and avoid reaching to fill needs.
“I think you can look at a lot of different areas that we have, but the bottom line is that we’re going to take the best player on the board at that point in time when it comes to us,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to get into what our needs are. We’ll let other people figure that out. Going into the draft it’s important that other teams are guessing where you’re going to go. We’ll continue to do that.”