For the Denver Broncos, a massive decision loomed before the 2019 NFL Draft.
After a disastrous 2018, going 6-10 to miss the playoffs for a third straight season, Denver was set up with the No. 10 overall pick. The Broncos has a chance to address glaring needs on the offensive line or at inside linebacker but instead traded down to select a tight end. It was only the second time in franchise history Denver took a tight end in the first round, however, that unusual move seems smart currently with so many injuries at the position.
But, with injuries and lack of depth at inside linebacker, some would argue Denver made a mistake in not taking Devin Bush.
We examine both sides of the argument here in Double Coverage.
Side 1: Denver should have taken Bush
Looking at both the short-term and long-term hopes for the team, Denver’s front office completely missed an opportunity to win from now on by selecting Bush.
When John Elway and Co. picked up Joe Flacco, Ja’Wuan James, Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson in free agency, it signaled to everyone Elway wants to win this year. But, during that same free agency period, Denver let it be known they were allowing Brandon Marshall to walk, leaving a gaping void in the middle of the defense.
It all set up for Denver to draft a linebacker, right? Wrong.
Full disclosure: I wanted Denver to take Devin White, but when he went No. 5, Bush was the next-best pick for the Broncos.
But no, Denver traded down at Pittsburgh took Bush at 10.
The Broncos decided to go into 2019 with Todd Davis — a fringe starter — and second-year man Josey Jewell on the inside. Even if healthy, that’s not a dynamic duo, it’s a “just good enough” pairing.
Now, both Davis and Jewell are injured, further exposing how few players they have inside. Davis and Jewell are expected to return to the field by the time the regular season kicks off, but they will have missed out on valuable preparation and bonding time with teammates.
Alexander Johnson, who was out of football from 2014-17, is the next man up, with rookie Josh Watson performing well in the Hall of Fame Game before a drop off last week. It’s so dire, safety Jamal Carter was moved to linebacker this week.
Meanwhile, Devin Bush is impressing everyone in the Steel City. In the Steelers first preseason game he enjoyed 10 tackles in only 40 snaps played. It was such a great performance, Mike Tomlin is comparing him to Ryan Shazier.
“Really (it was) kind of reminiscent of Ryan Shazier’s performance in his first home preseason game a number of years ago in terms of production and getting around and making a number of plays.”
Sure, it’s just preseason, so let’s not buy too much into his early success, but his pedigree at Michigan points to a long run at the NFL level.
To take a tight end at No. 20, the Broncos have to hope Noah Fant will become the next Rob Gronkowski. And yet, Fant was merry the second-best tight end on his college team.
Whereas tight ends are a dime a dozen, finding a stud inside linebacker is a more rare feat. Elway and Co. missed a possible star now and into the future in Bush.
Side 2: Trading back to select Fant and get picks was the right call
Devin Bush has looked great for the Steelers throughout training camp and his first preseason game. He’s also likely to be better, more productive player than Noah Fantin the short term. In fact, Bush is the favorite to be Defensive Rookie of the Year right now according to Vegas, but the Broncos aren’t playing the short game.
Of course, they want to win now — as do most of the other 31 NFL teams — but they don’t have the talent or experience to do so yet. Could the Broncos somehow sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed? Sure, but their ceiling is a first-round playoff exit, and that’s assuming everything goes right.
It’s way more likely that they find themselves in the middle of the pack. Those same oddsmakers that favor Bush to win Defensive Rookie of the Year have the Broncos win line at just seven games this season. There are plenty of teams in the NFL in win-now situations, but the Broncos just aren’t one of them. The team has a lot of young talent, but that talent needs time to develop before the Broncos are to even be taken seriously in their own division.
That means it’s far more important to invest in the future of the team than chase rings in 2019, and they did just that by trading back.
John Elway’s trade with the Steelers netted the team the 20th and 52nd selections in this year’s draft, as well as a third-round pick in 2020. Without that 52nd pick, the Broncos would’ve been unable to trade up for Drew Lock, who could potentially be their quarterback of the future.
It’s possible that if the trade with Cincinnati hadn’t come to fruition that the Broncos would’ve opted to select Lock 41st overall instead of Risner, but that would have catastrophic consequences of its own.
Without Risner — and given Ron Leary’s recent injury struggles as well as Connor McGovern’s poor play at center so far — the Broncos would have one of the league’s flimsiest offensive lines, especially on the interior.
Yes, the depth at linebacker is a real problem, but having a three-man-wide hole in the center of the offensive line with an older, oft-injured and immobile quarterback starting while they try to develop their quarterback of the future is far worse for the team. Not only would it be hard to win now when Flacco is under constant duress and doesn’t have a trustworthy tight end to throw to, but it could be incredibly damaging to the team’s future.
The trade was the only way for the Broncos to get Noah Fant, Drew Lock and Dalton Risner, all three of which were graded as top 50 players by Daniel Jeremiah and Matt Miller, two of the most-respected media scouts.
Risner will start from Day One on the offensive line and (based on what we’ve already seen in training camp and the preseason) could quickly emerge as one of Denver’s best in the trenches. Noah Fant is a perfect fit for Rich Scangarello’s offense, especially with Joe Flacco at quarterback, and at the bare minimum will be one of the most athletic tight ends the league has ever seen. At best, he could be the Broncos’ own version of George Kittle, though quicker and less gifted as a blocker. Finally, Drew Lock needs time to marinate but given his clear gifts and unmatched work ethic, it’s near-certain he starts in 2020.
The Broncos needed a linebacker, but did they really need one more than a quarterback, tight end, and versatile offensive lineman combined?
They also do have other options at linebacker moving forward.
Josey Jewell has elite instincts and was consistently lauded by opponents like Josh Allen and Mike Gesicki as the best defensive player they matched up against during their college careers, despite his limited athleticism. Alexander Johnson was projected as a first or second-round pick before he was forced to take a three-year absence from the game. He continues to look more like his old self as he gets re-acquainted with football. Also, next year’s linebacker class could be even better than 2019’s, with Dylan Moses headlining.
Lastly, Vic Fangio is the greatest linebacker coach in the history of the sport. His credentials are unmatched and he’s been around the very best of them. If he really wanted Elway and the Broncos to take Bush, they would have. The fact that they went with Scangarello’s guy, Fant, with the 20th pick proves he had that much power.
If Fangio doesn’t want Devin Bush at linebacker, do you?