How good is the Denver Broncos 2021 draft class? Grading Denver’s picks

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Patrick Surtain II (2) defends a pass against Duke Blue Devils wide receiver Jalon Calhoun (5) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Aug 31, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Patrick Surtain II (2) defends a pass against Duke Blue Devils wide receiver Jalon Calhoun (5) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After much anticipation, George Paton attacked his first NFL Draft as a general manager with gusto and added incredible talent, but could Paton have done even better?

Let’s seek to answer that question as we take a thorough look at each individual pick by breaking down the pros and cons of each prospect and the other options which existed at the time before assigning a final grade to the draft as a whole.

This is going to be a long one, so let’s dive right in. I hope you enjoy.

Round 1, Pick 9: Patrick Surtain II, CB

The most controversial pick of Paton’s entire draft class is Patrick Surtain II, though due to no fault of the player.

Surtain is a nearly unanimously loved cornerback prospect, that was widely ranked as the best player in the draft at the position and viewed as a top 10 player in the class. He’s incredibly polished, and as a result, one of the safer prospects in the draft.

His athletic profile compares favorably to Richard Sherman, though Surtain has much better long speed, and while he’s best in press coverage, there’s no reason to believe he’ll struggle in Vic Fangio’s scheme.

That profile can provide Broncos Country with some hope that maybe Surtain will be the answer to their tight end coverage woes. Darren Waller and Travis Kelce are matchup nightmares because they’re too athletic for linebackers and too large for most defensive backs, but Surtain’s size and physicality might change that perception.

Also, while the cornerback is incredibly talented thanks to some recent additions, including Surtain, the position was still a need. The team’s two best cornerbacks, Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller are free agents next season, and Callahan and Ronald Darby have combined to play one complete season. It’s a near certainty that Surtain will start games at some point this season, even if he doesn’t win the camp battle.

The controversy lies in passing up a quarterback with the pick, thus placing the otherwise loaded roster’s fate in the hands of an unproven quarterback, Drew Lock, unless George Paton is able to somehow land Aaron Rodgers.

If Justin Fields and Mac Jones flame out in Chicago and New England, while Lock or Rodgers make Denver a competitor in the AFC West, this selection is worthy of an “A” or an “A+” because Surtain is that level of prospect.

However, if Lock doesn’t take a massive step in year three and Paton is unable to reel in the catch of a lifetime while Fields solves Chicago’s 50-year quarterback drought, it will be incredibly difficult to look past what could’ve been to enjoy the talented cornerback play.

Grade: B+ (A if the former scenario. C+ if the latter)

Round 2, Pick 35: Javonte Williams, RB

As is the case with each of Denver’s first three picks, the selection of Javonte Williams is a mixed bag despite Paton managing to land a very talented player.

This time let’s start with the negatives and end with the positives.

To acquire Atlanta’s 35th overall pick and select Williams, Denver had to sacrifice the 40th and 114th overall selections in the draft, though they did get pick 219 in return as well.

Pick 114 is early enough in the fourth round where you can still get an important contributor and the Broncos sacrificed that hypothetical player to draft a running back, maybe the least valuable non-specialist position.

The value there is questionable when a player like Jermar Jefferson, who still could’ve contributed a lot to Denver’s running back room, is one of the final selections of the draft.

That proves Broncos could’ve used their premium top 40 pick on a position like tackle or edge rusher — one of which they weren’t able to address until the seventh round and the other they were unable to address at all via the draft — and still have landed a solid running back with starting potential late in the draft.

However, many viewed Javonte as the best running back in the draft and there are very few boxes he doesn’t check.

He has the speed and short-area quickness to create big plays and make people miss if necessary, but he prefers to lean on his marvelous power running to get the job done most of the time. He should also be able to make a day one impact in the passing game, as he’s strong in pass protection and is a really gifted receiving threat.

Once again, the Broncos land a great talent (ranked 23rd overall and first among running backs on our Mile High Sports Broncos big board) but there are questions surrounding the positional value and how needs were prioritized.

However, with how the board fell they were able to address most of those other needs with good players later on in the draft, which lessens the sting of the opportunity cost.

Grade: B+

Round 3, Pick 98: Quinn Meinerz, IOL

Of the top three selections, Quinn Meinerz is the toughest to gauge because the tape of him is over a year old and primarily features him bullying Division III athletes and it is very difficult to track down.

However, the Senior Bowl that solidified his spot as a Day 2 pick is accessible and it’s easy to see how Mike Munchak fell in love. “The Gut”, as Meinerz is sometimes referred to, was a human bulldozer who played with grit as he dominated top FBS talent — some of which was drafted ahead of him — and he has all the upside in the world.

Training with Duke Mannyweather for the past several months has led to him taking a big step forward, but there’s still so much potential for him to realize.

The problem with the pick is that the Broncos already seemed to have four starting-caliber interior offensive linemen in Graham Glasgow, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III and Netane Muti. Even once Glasgow is likely moved next season, the Broncos could’ve been set with Muti, Cushenberry, and Risner on the interior.

Meinerz is a really good player and the fit with Munchak is highly intriguing, but it seems like, once again, more pressing needs were ignored.

However, there’s very little doubt that Meinerz was atop Denver’s big board, which is why they took him and it’s hard to criticize a general manager for selecting the player they believe to be the best available in the draft at that point in time.

Every general manager in the league preaches the gospel of ‘best player available’ during draft season only to reach 40 slots for a nose tackle because it’s a pressing need. After one draft, it’s clear that when Paton talks about drafting the best player available, it isn’t just lip service.

Grade: B

Round 3, Pick 105: Baron Browning, LB/EDGE

When you hit a home run like Baron Browning, it can cover up a lot of the minor flaws with your earlier selections. Suddenly trading up to take a running back with a premium pick is no big deal because the linebacker you seemingly missed out on by making that decision falls into your lap 70 selections later.

Maybe you don’t like trading up for a running back, which is completely fair, but getting additional second-round talents in Browning and Jamar Johnson erases much of the cost of trading up for a running back.

We previously did an in-depth analysis of Browning in the run-up to the draft and viewed him as a top 40 selection because of the upside his rare athleticism provided.

There are questions about his instincts and his ability to read the field but linebackers with his traits are incredibly rare, placing him in the 99.8th percentile as an athlete at the position. He will also be receiving coaching from Fangio — one of the best linebacker coaches in the history of the sport — to help him clean up those more technical aspects of his game.

He instantly is in the conversation for ‘best coverage linebacker on the Broncos’ alongside last year’s fifth-round pick Justin Strnad, who has yet to see the field. He did a good job of matching up with tight end and running backs for the Buckeyes, and although his technique is flawed, he never found himself at a matchup disadvantage.

When matched up against a large, physical tight end like Pat Freiermuth in the red zone, Browning showcased a flash of what he could be in coverage, which should excite a Broncos Country fan base that has seen their team’s linebackers consistently struggle to matchup in coverage.

The added value with Browning is attached to his upside as a blitzer and a pass-rusher. He said himself that he feels more comfortable on the outside, and a lot of his best reps come out there where he has less mess to sort through and his athleticism can reign supreme.

Even if he remains inside, Browning should be able to create havoc as a blitzer. He’s a one-man riot at linebacker, and not in the Micah Parsons way. He explodes into offensive linemen and is excellent at shedding blocks to create penetration but his real killer is a lightning-fast jump off snap paired with excellent agility to get around the edge.

While being Denver’s long-term off-ball linebacker is his most likely path to the field, don’t be surprised if in a couple seasons he’s taking the mantle from Von Miller as Denver’s future speed-rusher, and Browning is so talented he’d probably perform that job well.

There is no reason why Browning should have gone this late, and it has steal of the draft written all over it.

Grade: A++

Round 5, Pick 152: Caden Sterns, S

By nature, George Paton appears to be a conservative general manager, which is what makes the Sterns pick so interesting, as it has a lot of boom-or-bust potential.

Sterns is another excellent athlete — which was fortunately a consistent theme through Paton’s first draft — and he’s also flashed a high-degree of football intelligence and natural instincts that make you believe he could be a superstar one day at the position.

After an awesome freshman season in Austin, Sterns was receiving top-10 pick buzz as a safety, but he then took a step back as a sophomore and junior before entering the draft. It’s possible the success got to his head, as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler reported one scout told him Sterns was still reading press clippings about his freshman year when he was a junior.

If he can recapture the form he showcased as a freshman for Texas, this could be one of the steals of the draft, but if he remains on his current trajectory — which seems more likely — it’s hard to imagine him as being much more than a special teamer.

Paton following the Sterns pick the way he did — which we’ll discuss shortly — made this selection much easier to swallow.

Grade: C

Round 5, Pick 164: Jamar Johnson, S

You could make a very convincing argument that Denver would have just been better off selecting Jamar Johnson to be their eventual Kareem Jackson replacement with this selection and utilizing their 152nd pick on a different position.

Johnson might not have the same athletic upside that Sterns does, but he’s so polished and instinctive in coverage, and his football IQ is so high it seems like he should have no problem replacing Jackson in the secondary.

Plus, as a result of extending Justin Simmons this off-season and now doubling up at safety, the Broncos have placed Johnson and Sterns in direct competition with one another for playing time — and a starting job once Jackson moves on.

Fortunately, some of that crowding of the position room is mitigated by the fact that Fangio often uses three safeties, as seen with Will Parks. It’s also true that depth at safety was a pressing under-the-radar need, so even with one of the draft picks destined to become a backup and special-teamer, that’s not the end of the world.

Expect Johnson to win the competition with Sterns though. He was projected to go in the late second or early third round, so getting him this late is one of the steals of the draft.

It also can’t be forgotten that Johnson was the last of the three players the Broncos acquired by trading down in the third round. By trading the 71st selection to the Giants, and then the 76th selection (acquired in the first trade down) to the Saints, the Broncos effectively traded UCF slot cornerback Aaron Robinson for Meinerz, Browning and Johnson.

Robinson is an exciting prospect in his own right, but it would be stunning if he manages to match the value added by those other three prospects.

Grade for selecting Jamar Johnson: A

Grade for trading the 71st overall selection for picks 98, 105, and 152: A++

Round 6, Pick 219: Seth Williams, WR

The Broncos needed to draft an X receiver who could serve as insurance for Courtland Sutton, if he struggles to return from his knee injury, or Tim Patrick, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season.

Seth Williams is an excellent value in the sixth-round who has the potential to fill Patrick’s large shoes upon his departure. He also offers special teams value and can block adequately.

The big concern with Williams is that his motor can run cool at times, and as a result, his play has a lot of peaks and valleys. The special stuff is really exciting, but the head-scratchers are far too frequent as well.

With that said, getting him at the end of the sixth round is a nice value.

Grade: B+

Round 7, Pick 237: Kary Vincent Jr., CB

Kary Vincent Jr. is another really nice value from Paton and Co. late in the draft.

Vincent was an quick and exciting slot cornerback for the national champion LSU Tigers who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over Coronavirus. He should be excellent in the slot and might even replace Callahan there after 2021.

His speed and short-area burst is very enticing, especially when combined with his highly-aggressive play style and ball skills. Vincent will likely get burned at times due to this combination, but he’ll create a big play far more often.

The big concern here is if the opt-out bothers you. Otherwise, it’s fantastic value late.

Grade: A-

Round 7, Pick 239: Jonathan Cooper, EDGE

The Broncos should have addressed edge rusher earlier in the draft — though if Browning transitions to the edge, that changes things — but got incredibly lucky when Jonathan Cooper fell into their lap late on Day 3.

Cooper was one of our own Joey Richards’ favorite pass rushers to target on Day 3, so getting him this late is excellent value.

He isn’t the most fluid mover, but he attacks the pocket with good power and can create a nice push. His athletic profile suggests there is untapped potential in his game as well.

Grade: B

Round 7, Pick 253: Marquiss Spencer, DE

After losing DeMarcus Walker to free agency and cutting Jurrell Casey the Broncos needed some reinforcements on the defensive front and Marquiss Spencer could be that.

Similar to Walker coming out of Florida State, Spencer is a bit of a tweener who is too big for edge but on the smaller side for a defensive end. He has the potential to be a rotational pass rusher but he struggles mightily in run defense and still has a long way to go as a rusher.

It wouldn’t be surprising if he was roster cut casualty.

Grade: D+

Final Verdict

George Paton did a masterful job of adding talent throughout this year’s draft, which is made even more impressive considering this was his first draft as a general manager.

The steals of Jamar Johnson and Baron Browning are the highlights, but Patrick Surtain and Javonte Williams might have been the best players at their respective positions and the special teams unit should be primed to take a large step forward.

Unfortunately for Paton, what might be a great draft in every other aspect will be clouded by the quarterback decision because of just how valuable the position is. If Justin Fields proves to be an excellent young quarterback while Lock fails to make the necessary leap in his play, this loaded roster will be wasted and Paton will be a major reason as to why. H

owever, if Fields isn’t it, Lock plays well, or Paton pulls off the trade of the decade for Aaron Rodgers this draft has “A” written all over it.

Unfortunately, as the quarterback position stands now, it’s a B+, because the possibility of a tire fire at the position which could’ve been easily prevented.

Final Grade: B+

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