There were plenty of questions circulating after the Denver Broncos made their first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft: Did they reach by taking offensive tackle Garett Bolles with the 20th overall pick? Were they drafting purely for need, instead of taking the best player available? Can Bolles develop into the type of player that is worthy of a top-20 selection?
Each calls into question the validity of John Elway‘s process.
There were, after all, a number of other tempting players on the board (David Njoku and Reuben Foster, for example) when the Broncos called Bolles’ name, but Elway knew who he wanted and grabbed him. And while there may be some skeptics in Broncoland, Elway deserves the benefit of the doubt. In his six seasons as GM and executive vice president of football operations, Elway has made move after move that has paid big dividends. We simply have to trust the Elway process.
In 2011, the Denver Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season. Elway came back into the Broncos fold and was given final say in personnel decisions. Josh McDaniels had been fired as head coach, and the Broncos were a little thin in the talent department. Kyle Orton would eventually be replaced at quarterback by Tim Tebow, and the Broncos would go on an unforgettable run to somehow make it all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Yet Elway knew that the Broncos would need to upgrade significantly in order to be a true contender. So, he made moves that seemed unpopular at the time. He jettisoned Tebow and convinced an aging player that had missed a full season with multiple neck surgeries to come to Denver. Peyton Manning then went on to lead the Broncos to two Super Bowls, win one, and compile an incredible 45-12 record as a starter.
Manning may headline Elway’s free-agent acquisitions, but he is hardly the only signing to pay huge dividends. While it might be easy to point out misses like Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson, Elway was also responsible for bringing top-notch free agents to the Mile High City. Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart, Jacob Tamme, Terrance Knighton, Emmanuel Sanders, and DeMarcus Ware were all products of Elway’s process. He made another savvy move this offseason to sign running back Jamaal Charles to a low-risk, high-reward deal that will help Denver in the AFC West regardless of how Charles performs on the field. He may have come up short on a few targets, but all things considered Elway has been highly successful in free agency.
That brings us to the Elway draft process. The true test for first-round draft selections is to look at which players actually receive a new contract after their initial four-year rookie deal.
So far, two of Elway’s four top picks have been re-signed and one had his fifth-year option selected. The first selection with Elway at the helm was Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller. Of course, Von was tagged a franchise player in 2016 and then signed a six-year contract to make him the highest-paid defensive player in history. Denver didn’t have a first-round pick in 2012 after trading down, but they did select defensive end Derek Wolfe with the pick they received in exchange. Wolfe signed a four-year extension last December. Elway selected Sylvester Williams in 2013, and the big defensive lineman has departed via free agency to Tennessee after four decent, but not spectacular, years. However, in 2014 Elway selected cornerback Bradley Roby, who looks like he could be the next great corner in the Denver “No Fly Zone.” Earlier this month, the Broncos exercised Roby’s fifth-year option to keep him in Denver through 2018.
Yes, there have been missed picks. Quarterback Brock Osweiler went in the second round, as did running back Montee Ball. Ty Sambrailo may have been selected too early, and Cody Latimer has not produced at the level the Broncos were hoping. A number of very good draft picks have also done very well, but have moved on to other teams in free agency. Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, and Kayvon Webster all had productive seasons in Denver, but moved on for bigger money.
There have also been draft steals that no one saw coming. Quarterback Trevor Siemian was selected in the seventh round in 2015, and will vie for the starting job again this fall. Center Matt Paradis lasted until the sixth round in 2014, and was ranked among the top centers in the NFL in 2016. And seventh round choice Riley Dixon turned in the greatest statistical season ever by a rookie punter in the NFL.
Time will tell whether Garett Bolles turns out to be the pick that Elway thinks he can be, but until then we will just have to trust the Elway process.
So far, it seems to be working.