The Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Draft class looks like a home run for general manager George Paton. With six of the initial ten players still on the roster and primed for crucial roles, do the Broncos have a strong foundation in place for the future?

Broncos 2021 NFL Draft class in review

George Paton loves having quantity as it pertains to NFL Draft picks. In his first draft class in his role as general manager, Paton and the scouting department seemingly nailed the draft. While many fans at the time clamored for Justin Fields, Paton went with Patrick Surtain, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.

Hindsight is always 20/20 when evaluating the NFL Draft, and while many outlets hand out grades like flyers, time is always the most important factor when revisiting draft picks. Fast forward three years later, six of the Broncos’ ten selections are still on the roster and are key contributors or are in a position for an elevated role this season.

Surtain exceeded any and all expectations set on him coming out of the draft. Foundationally speaking, he is a cornerstone part of the Broncos’ defense and will be for years to come. After Surtain, the Broncos and Paton moved up to draft Javonte Williams.

Williams shined as a rookie and instantly became a fan favorite while rushing for five touchdowns and averaging 4.4 yards per carry while splitting reps with Melvin Gordon, according to Pro Football Reference.

Despite suffering a major knee injury last season, Williams is anticipated to be ready for the start of the regular season. Even upon his return, Williams will be an intricate part of Sean Payton’s offense. Much of the discourse on social media seemingly places unrealistic expectations on Williams to produce immediately upon his return to the field.

Williams doesn’t need to rush for 1000 yards this season to be effective. If he can capitalize in red zone situations and rush for over five rushing touchdowns, that should be considered a success considering the circumstances. Denver’s offense sputtered last year the moment Williams went down with the injury.

Quinn Meinerz has quickly emerged as one of the Denver Broncos’ top offensive linemen. Despite not being able to play his final season at Division-III program Wisconsin Whitewater, Meinerz earned an invite to the Senior Bowl, where he held his own and, in some cases, dominated some of the draft’s top defensive line prospects.

While the offensive line struggled last season, Meinerz was arguably the position group’s only bright spot amongst the starters. He returns this season under new offensive line coach Zach Strief and will have a solidified right tackle option next to him with the arrival of Mike McGlinchey.

Putting the tape on, Meinerz is effective as a pulling lineman and consistent in pass protection. NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund deemed Meinerz as one of the AFC’s most underappreciated players in terms of recognition.

“Ascending to full-time starter in his second season out of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Meinerz improved his leverage in pass protection more than any other guard in the NFL in 2022, per computer vision, increasing the amount of time he stayed even when contact was made with a defender by 0.9 seconds, on average,” Frelund said.

Baron Browning was another addition in the third round that has all of the tools to become an elite edge rusher for the Denver Broncos going forward. After initially playing off-ball linebacker in his rookie season, Browning transitioned to outside linebacker, where the Broncos felt his extremely athletic traits would translate well off the edge.

He finished the 2022 season with five sacks and 18 quarterback pressures in his first experience playing off the edge in the NFL. Browning was the projected starter opposite of Randy Gregory this upcoming season but recently had surgery on a partially torn meniscus that Broncos head coach Sean Payton said could land him on the physically-unable-to-perform list for the start of the season.

While the injury puts his starting status into question, combined with the addition of Frank Clark, Browning will still play a pivotal role for the Broncos’ defense upon his return — whether that comes as a starter or as a key rotational pass rusher.

Caden Sterns has been impressively productive throughout the start of his NFL career despite not having a large sample size. His ability to track the football has led to him snagging four career interceptions through two seasons, demonstrating his ability to play the middle of the field while also showcasing his ability to play inside the nickel and immerse himself as a run defender in the box.

He’s projected to start this season next to Justin Simmons and has all of the tools — athleticism, football IQ, and discipline to emerge as a quality starter in the NFL. The biggest concerns surrounding Sterns have been related due to his health. For the past two seasons, Sterns has played through a hip injury that has impacted some of his availability.

He had it surgically repaired following the Broncos’ Week 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts and aggressively attacked his rehabilitation at the team facility. During OTAs, Sterns mobility and athleticism looked like they remained intact, which is generally a concern after hip surgery. He made several plays downfield, flipping his hips to get in phase on vertical routes by wide receivers.

While that’s a great sign for the Broncos, another positive observation about Sterns is how much bulkier he looks in his upper body, shoulders, arms, and chest. If he starts this season next to Simmons and continues to play at the level he’s demonstrated previously, he’ll be yet another Paton pick from the 2021 draft class who could become a foundational piece for the organization.

The sixth and final member from 2021’s draft class that is still on the active roster is Jonathon Cooper. Cooper was taken by Denver after dropping to the seventh round that year due to a heart condition that he had repaired shortly after the draft’s conclusion. Once he stepped onto the field for the first time, his high motor and disruptive nature as an outside linebacker was on display in training camp.

Cooper has appeared in 30 games in his first two seasons and has started 14. With Browning’s timeline uncertain, Cooper stepped into his role during OTAs and minicamp and was the most consistent player during media’s observations. Once again, his high motor and disruptive nature were quite noticeable.

Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton praised Cooper for his explosiveness but also noted that he wanted to see how things progress once the pads come on during training camp.

“It’s difficult because those are the groups that aren’t in pads, but you certainly see the get off, the explosion and the experience,” Payton said. “I think when we get into training camp, you then get a better feel. I’ll get a better feel for a lot of these players that I still don’t know well. I know them now and I know their names, but I’ve just seen it so many times when the pads come on, and you get a completely different perspective from a certain running back or a certain someone who stands out. It becomes a little clearer, but he’s important to what we’re doing.”

The four other players the Broncos drafted that year were not able to make the roster. Those names featured Marquiss Spencer, Jamar Johnson, Seth Williams, and Kary Vincent Jr.

If all six of the Denver Broncos remaining players from the 2021 NFL Draft class can contribute at a high level this upcoming season, they’ll solidify themselves as foundational pieces of the team for various years to come.