What Might Have Been: What if the Broncos took the Bills’ draft-day offer?

Jan 1, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley (3) celebrates his touchdown during the first quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2018 Sugar Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft, the likelihood of the Denver Broncos trading down from the No. 5 overall selection seemed to increase daily. As general manager John Elway intimated that the pick was available in the right deal, and with a slew of potential franchise quarterbacks that were sure to be available when the Broncos were scheduled to pick, quarterback-needy teams started making calls.

None of those teams were as aggressive as the Buffalo Bills, who eventually ended up with Wyoming product Josh Allen at No. 7 after a flurry of trades. But according to the Buffalo News’ Jay Skurski — who had an opportunity to discuss the Bills’ draft approach with general manager Brandon Beane — the Bills had a deal in place with the Broncos prior to the draft.

“Literally about 8 o’clock, John [Elway] calls me and says, ‘all right, here’s what we’ll do,'” Beane told Skurski. “We finalized the deal, but it’s contingent on his guy not being there.”

“His guy” was reportedly either USC quarterback Sam Darnold — who wasn’t expected to last until No. 5 and didn’t; landing with the Jets in pick No. 3 — or North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who many considered the best overall player in the draft.

When the Cleveland Browns picked Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward at No. 4 to pair with top overall selection Baker Mayfield, Chubb inexplicably fell squarely into the Broncos’ lap, and just like that, the deal was off.

The Broncos, of course, are elated with Chubb, who they intend to convert to outside linebacker despite the fact that all his college starts are at defensive end, and to prove their commitment, the team declined outside linebacker — and former first-round pick — Shane Ray’s fifth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent after the season.

But what if that wasn’t the way it went? Beane told Skurski that the agreed-upon deal had the Broncos surrendering the No. 5 pick and one of their third-rounders for two Bills firat-rounders — Nos. 12 and 22 — and one of their two second-round selections. By the traditional measurements, the desperate Bills offered the Broncos a lopsided deal in Denver’s favor, but one that Elway and the Broncos eventually turned down.

The Broncos’ lower of their third-round picks was at No. 99, where they picked Boston College cornerback Isaac Yiadom, who should become and important special-teams player at the very minimum. The Bills’ lower of their second-round picks was at No. 56, which they traded to the Patriots, and watched Bill Belichick select scrappy Florida cornerback Duke Dawson instead. Prior to that, the Bills dealt both of their aforementioned first-round picks; Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea and Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans were selected in those spots by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans, respectively.

The Broncos, coming off a disastrous 5-11 season, certainly saw value in stockpiling early-round picks, or Elway wouldn’t have conditionally agreed to the trade. But for the sake of argument, let’s consider what might have happened if the Browns selected Chubb fourth overall, like everyone expected when Penn State runner Saquon Barkley was selected by the New York Giants with the second overall pick — how different would things have turned out?

Since the Bills eventually maneuvered their way to No. 7 to select Allen, it’s safe to see that he would have been the Bills’ pick at No. 5 as well. The Colts wouldn’t have changed their selection — Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson — and Ward likely wouldn’t have slipped past Tampa Bay at No. 7, who used their No. 53 selection on a cornerback (North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart). From there — with Allen and Ward essentially swapping spots — it’s reasonable to assume that the rest of the draft prior to the Broncos’ hypothetical No. 12 selection would have remained the same. Vea went No. 12 to the Bucs, and would have probably gone to the Broncos here as well. A freakishly strong and talented player, Vea would have at least eased the eventual transition from 33-year-old Domata Peko — and perhaps started in his place immediately.

Elway and the Broncos clearly focused on upgrading the wide receiver position in the draft, beginning with second-round pick Courtland Sutton. They might have done the same if they had the No. 22 pick as well, but instead of Sutton, they could have grabbed the draft’s best wide receiver in Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who went to the Atlanta Falcons only four picks later in March.

Without the need to select Sutton at No. 40 overall, the Broncos could have dealt that pick, the fifth-rounder that netted them Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli, and the sixth-rounders that became Arizona State guard Sam Jones and Washington linebacker Keishawn Bierria to move up six spots and select UTEP guard Will Hernandez, who instead went to the New York Giants. Hernandez, a bulldozer of a blocker, would have immediately started for the Broncos at right guard, completing the overhaul of the Broncos’ offensive line.

In the the third round, the Broncos went with Oregon’s Royce Freeman, a tough runner that might compete for the starter’s job. But at No. 56, Denver could have addressed the same concern with a more explosive runner: LSU’s Derrius Guice, perhaps the second-best runner in the draft behind Barkley, and a player that would have been a lock to start in Week 1.

By adding Guice in the second, the Broncos wouldn’t have had to pick Freeman in the third. Instead, the Broncos could have made another effort to solve their long-term quarterback question with Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, a borderline first-round talent that Denver could have scooped up at No. 71 instead of letting him fall to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 76.

In the end, the Broncos walked away from March’s draft with the best player available to either Denver or Buffalo — Chubb — and perhaps that’s the best reason to like the fact that Elway called off the deal. Consider, however, what the Broncos’ draft did look like, and what it could have looked like, and even the most ardent fan might reconsider.

WITHOUT TRADE: WITH TRADE:
(5) DE Bradley Chubb (12) DT Vita Vea
(40) WR Courtland Sutton (22) WR Calvin Ridley
(71) RB Royce Freeman (34) OG Will Hernandez
(99) CB Isaac Yiadom (56) RB Derrius Guice
(106) LB Josey Jewell (71) QB Mason Rudolph
(113) WR DaeSean Hamilton (99) CB Isaac Yiadom
(156) TE Troy Fumagalli (106) LB Josey Jewell
(183) OG Sam Jones (113) WR DaeSean Hamilton
(217) LB Keishawn Bierria (226) RB David Williams
(226) RB David Williams

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