The following appears in the August Football issue of Mile High Sports Magazine
George Paton and the Denver Broncos added a ton of talent to the team’s roster via the draft. Aside from the decision not to draft Ohio State quarterback, Paton’s first draft in Denver was nearly universally applauded. But, considering how much veteran talent already exists on both sides of the ball, it will be hard for this class of rookies to crack the starting lineup.
With that said, what is fair to expect out of these rookies in their first year in the league? In “Rookie Review,” milehighsports.com Broncos insider Zach Segars examines each rookie in terms of how and how much they might contribute in 2021.
Patrick Surtain II
How much Patrick Surtain II contributes to the Denver Broncos defense will come down to how he performs in the training camp competition with Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan.
Considering Fuller is a former All-Pro on an expensive one-year deal, who also has a close relationship with head coach Vic Fangio, and considering Callahan was arguably the best slot cornerback in football last season when healthy, that task will be easier said than done. However, Surtain does stand a good chance of beating out Darby, who has never been an elite cornerback.
On top of being a special athlete, Surtain was drafted in the top 10 in part because of how exceptionally pro-ready he was. That was obvious during OTAs and minicamp, as Surtain earned the nickname, “The Specimen” from Von Miller, and has impressed head coach Vic Fangio.
He has the talent to steal a starting spot, even if he’s unable to do it before Week 1. He also has the ability to make an instant impact on this defense as a tight-end coverage-specialist if he opens the season as a backup.
As a result, Surtain should be an instant contributor on defense, though that contribution might be slightly limited as a result of how crowded the room is.
Projected Stat Line: 11 starts, 2 interceptions, 55 tackles, 1 sack; targeted 86 times, allowing 53 receptions for 623 yards and 4 touchdowns
Javonte Williams should be the Broncos’ most productive rookie and there isn’t really a clear-cut second option behind him.
This is in large part because Williams is a running back, and running backs generally have their three most productive seasons in their first three years in the league. Look no further than his running mate in Denver’s backfield, Melvin Gordon.
Ever since his first three years with the Chargers, Gordon’s performance has been a steady — although gradual — decline. Last year his season-long numbers saw a slight uptick, but that had more to do with Phillip Lindsay’s injury and the offense leaning on the run game more down the stretch, than it had to do with Gordon once again being a high-end starter.
The fact of the matter is, Gordon is no longer the player he once was. No longer is he a top-10 back – and that isn’t even really debatable. Meanwhile, Williams has the potential to be that top-10 guy, could be that guy immediately, and frankly, might even be better than top 10.
That sounds lofty for a rookie, but it also matches Denver’s in-house expectations. During the team’s “Behind the Broncos” docuseries, it was shown that director of college scouting Brian Stark compared Williams to Ezekiel Elliott and Nick Chubb. Who in their right mind is sitting Chubb or Elliott behind late-stage Melvin Gordon? No one.
Now, whether the workload is more of a 50-50 split, or if Williams wins the starting job outright, Williams should get plenty of touches.
No quarterback in football saw a greater disparity between their play-action and non-play-action performance than Drew Lock, and Teddy Bridgewater is nothing more than a game manager. All that adds up to the Broncos needing a strong running game to carry the offense – a necessity – no matter who wins the competition.
Projected Stat Line: 13 starts, 210 touches. 1,035 rushing yards and 180 receiving yards for 9 total touchdowns
Quinn Meinerz could win the starting center job from Lloyd Cushenberry III outright, but that feels like a lot to ask from “The Belly.”
Meinerz was a great value pick at the end of the third round, but it would be surprising if he’s ready to be an NFL starter early on in his career. The highest level at which he’s competed has been Division III college football, and even then, he hasn’t played in a real game since 2019.
Now, he did attend the Senior Bowl and was maybe the most impressive lineman there – even while competing against FBS prospects. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be ready to go for the Broncos. Cushenberry was the most impressive lineman at the Senior Bowl a year ago, and was a much more pro-ready prospect than Meinerz, and struggled mightily as a rookie.
All that said, the Broncos are bound to lose one of their interior linemen to injury at some point this season, and Meinerz has a great chance of being that next man up.
Projected Stat Line: 3 starts, 1 sack allowed, 1 penalty
The Broncos might have found a player who can fill their need for an athletic linebacker in Baron Browning. His athletic profile ranks in the 99.8th percentile among college linebacking prospects to enter the league over the past 34 years.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason why such a rare athlete managed to fall so far in the draft — he’s fairly raw, especially in the processing department. He needs a lot of coaching in that aspect to be ready to play inside at an NFL level.
If Browning proves to be “too raw,” he should still able to get on the field as a rotational edge rusher. He played on the edge occasionally for Ohio State, and was incredibly impressive in limited time. Playing outside would also put less processing responsibility on his shoulders, and let his athleticism do the talking.
Projected Stat Line: 0 starts, 31 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks
Upgrading the special teams has been a major priority throughout George Paton’s first offseason as general manager, and Caden Sterns is a sign of that.
Barring an injury to either Justin Simmons or Kareem Jackson, Sterns has no chance of starting this season, but he should be a valuable special teams addition with his elite athleticism. He has the skillset of a safety worthy of being selected in the first round, but scouts questioned his drive and performance over the past two seasons, so he fell in the draft.
Sterns could see some playing time on defense in the “Will Parks role” if he wins the No. 3 safety spot, but fellow rookie Jamar Johnson should be considered the favorite there. It’s also safe to wonder if that role will be occupied by a cornerback instead this season, considering how deep Denver is there.
Projected Stat Line: 0 starts, 18 tackles, 1 pass broken up
The second safety the Broncos drafted, Jamar Johnson, finds himself in a nearly identical position to Sterns.Though for Johnson, winning the battle to become the No. 3 safety is much more important. Johnson is a worse tackler than Sterns and a less of a pure athlete, which limits his versatility and would likely lessen his effectiveness on special teams.
If special teams snaps are, in fact, harder for Johnson to come by, he will have to find a way to get on to the field on defense to avoid being on the roster bubble next offseason.
All that said, Johnson is an especially smart player with great coverage skills. He could instantly fill the void left by Parks, and would be possibly be considered an upgrade in the role.
Projected Stat Line: 0 starts, 13 tackles, 1 pass broken up, 1 interception
With Tim Patrick slated to earn a big contract in free agency next year, the Broncos need to have someone ready to take his place and Seth Williams might be that guy.
Williams is an impressive, big-bodied, jump-ball receiver who went much later in the draft than expected. Still, he might not even make the Broncos final roster through no fault of his own; Denver is just loaded at wide receiver. Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Patrick are locks for the final roster and Tyrie Cleveland is right behind them. That leaves one, maybe two, spots open for other wide receivers, and the Broncos might already be covered on big-bodied, jump-ball receivers with Sutton, Patrick and Cleveland.
Williams is talented enough to earn a roster spot at the end of the day, but he’s unlikely to see the field much.
Projected Stat Line: 2 receptions for 23 yards, 3 special teams tackles
Denver is hoping they found their nickel cornerback of the future in Kary Vincent, but he won’t see the field outside of special teams as a rookie. Vincent might even find himself on the practice squad given the number of talented cornerbacks the Broncos possess. Ultimately, his special teams ability, paired with Denver’s lack of true nickel corners, should earn Vincent a roster spot.
With the Broncos looking to move on from Diontae Spencer, don’t be too surprised if Vincent sees some work as a returner.
Projected Stat Line: 5 tackles
Much like the Broncos’ draft selections at safety, injury is the only path to Jonathan Cooper starting. With that said, he should still be able to have an impact. The job to be Denver’s No. 4 edge rusher is wide open, and that’s a rotational role that should see decent playing time. Plus, despite not living up to expectations, Cooper was a five-star recruit at Ohio State who was reasonably productive.
Most expected him to go around the fourth or fifth round until a last-second heart issue caused him to fall in the draft. Unless that heart issue holds him back, Cooper could turn some heads by carving out a decent role for himself.
Projected Stat Line: 3.5 sacks, 19 pressures, 26 tackles
Barring an outstanding training camp performance, it’s hard to see Marquiss Spencer making the final roster. The Broncos might carry as few as five defensive linemen, but won’t carry more than six, and there are six defensive linemen already ahead of Spencer on Denver’s depth chart. Spencer will be a practice squad player who will hopefully, ultimately, be able to be the new version of DeMarcus Walker.