It’s fair to watch the Broncos and worry about the direction of the offense, considering that side of the ball has been the issue for Denver this season, but as the offense continues to grow and develop, it may end up being the defense that requires more maintenance this off-season.
Let’s take a look at what positions the Broncos should look to upgrade, and what players in the draft they could target.
Cornerback might not seem like the biggest need for the Broncos, considering they have Bryce Callahan and A.J. Bouye under contract, while Michael Ojemudia will be heading into his second season.
However, with how bad the Broncos’ cornerback depth looked against the Falcons, they could definitely use an upgrade on the backend of the depth chart at least. There’s also a good chance they could be looking for starting-caliber cornerback talent, as they stand to save $13 million against the cap by releasing Bouye after the season and $7 million against the cap by releasing Callahan.
With how well Callahan has played compared to the amount of money they stand to save by moving on, Callahan should return but it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the Broncos moved on from Bouye in an effort to pay either Justin Simmons, Garett Bolles, Von Miller or one of Denver’s several other high-profile free agents.
That means the Broncos could go almost anywhere with cornerback. In free agency, players like the Bengals’ William Jackson III and the Seahawks’ Shaquil Griffin could be starters, but it would be weird to cut Bouye in an effort to save money, only to sign a high-priced free agent corner.
That means the draft is much more likely, where the Broncos could either wait until later in the draft to build depth or use their first-round pick on a corner if they desire to move on from Bouye. Right now, they’re expected to be picking somewhere between the tenth and fifteenth selections, which should almost give them their pick of the litter at cornerback.
Patrick Surtain II is such a great prospect that he could go in the top seven picks, but he’s not to the point of someone like Jeff Okudah last year, where that would be a lock. Shaun Wade would be one option for the Broncos to consider, though he’s struggled this season transitioning from being a slot corner to a boundary corner, and the Broncos should be set for at least 2021 in the slot with Bryce Callahan.
That leaves Caleb Farley, who would be the best fit for the Broncos. As a larger, stronger, and more physical cornerback (6-foot-2, 207 pounds), he fits Fangio’s profile. He also knows how to use that size and strength to bully wide receivers out of their team’s gameplans. The one big concern for the Broncos is that he struggles when he plays in off-coverage because he isn’t able to use that physicality as a crutch, but that’s easily correctible and a small issue compared to all the things he does phenomenally well.
Inside linebacker is another position on the Broncos defense that could stand to see an upgrade, and on top of that, their best player at the position is headed towards restricted free agency.
That shouldn’t be too big of an issue though, as Alexander Johnson has played so well the Broncos are likely to match any offer sheet a rival team signs him too, or place an expensive enough tender on Johnson to scare said rival teams off. Josey Jewell is also under contract for next season, and the Broncos will also be getting back rookie Justin Strnad after he missed this season with a broken wrist.
While Strnad should provide an upgrade on Jewell, it would likely be a marginal one, making it fair to wonder if the Broncos should invest in finding a co-star next to Johnson.
If the Broncos decide that’s just what they need, they’ll have plenty of options to choose from in this year’s deep linebacker draft class. The elite first-round linebacker, Micah Parsons, will likely be gone when the Broncos are picking, but they could find terrific value in the second or third round with a linebacker like Chazz Surrat, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, or even Jabril Cox, who’s an interesting project with a lot of upside.
Safety is less likely to be a need for the Broncos in the draft this off-season, but it would make sense to at least draft a player who can eventually replace Kareem Jackson alongside Justin Simmons. It’s also worth noting that Simmons could leave this off-season, but that doesn’t seem especially likely.
So who could the Broncos draft that could serve as a Kareem Jackson replacement and/or a Justin Simmons replacement if things go south? Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen.
Nasirildeen is the type of prospect you watch and then start salivating over as visions of him on your team’s defense begin to dance through your head. He looks designed in a lab with his lengthy yet surprisingly thick and muscular build. He also can fly with long, gliding strides, and despite running like a gazelle, he has no problem lowering his shoulder to deliver a bone-crushing hit.
Some mental aspects of the game, like tracking the ball or using moves to shed blockers, needs some work, but his ceiling his sky high.
Because both he and Simmons are so versatile in the different ways they can be used (remember, Simmons was technically listed as the Broncos’ strong safety for at least his first season starting), that pairing them on the field together would open up a lot of creativity for Vic Fangio’s defense. You could bring them both up to the line and have neither, either, or both blitz, drop back in coverage, pick up a linebacker out of the backfield, or whatever else you would ask of him.