There’s a reason why Denver’s roster was recently ranked by ESPN and Pro Football Focus as the deepest in the league. The team is stocked with solid-to-great veterans at nearly every position, and much of its young talent from recent drafts are starting to shine.
So the popular opinion is that Denver just needs to add a star quarterback to vault back into Super Bowl contention. (Remember the Aaron Rodgers-to-Denver rumors?)
But, aside from quarterback, question marks are on the horizon as several key players will be free agents at the end of the season, including linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Kyle Fuller, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick.
Will Denver go after a QB in the 2022 NFL draft? Maybe not – and here’s why:
With Bridgewater set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. quarterback would seem to be the biggest need here. But even if Denver could put together a big enough trade package to move up in the draft, what QB moves the needle enough to do so? Most evaluators have at least one QB going in the top-10 – at this point, that would be Ole Miss’ Matt Corral – but he’s unlikely to fall to Denver should the Broncos draft somewhere in the teens to 20s. This is also considered a relatively weak QB class, so trading up for Corral or another signal-caller seems unlikely. Instead, the team could decide to strengthen both sides of the line, starting with the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Leal. Leal gets most of his snaps at defensive tackle for Texas A&M, but the Aggies have used him at defensive end, too, with mixed results. Alabama’s Evan Neal, for example, faced Leal one-on-one for 13 snaps, according to PFF, and kept Leal in check. Leal finished with seven tackles, but only one was a solo stop, and he failed to record a tackle for loss or a sack. Still, Leal is an enticing talent — his six pressures against Alabama last week tied him with teammate Michael Clemons for the most in the SEC — and he would likely play opposite Dre’Mont Jones at defensive end in the Broncos’ 3-4 front, a position that may be Leal’s best at the next level. “Honestly, I think (Leal) is probably like a Trey Flowers, where he heads up over tackles maybe, like an old-school 3-4 defensive end, kind of the base or strong-side end in a 4-3 or one of these hybrid ends,” PFF’s Mike Renner said during a recent podcast. “Obviously, no one has that true one-position player anymore … (and) he’s not going to be the guy who is three feet outside your tight end with his hand or with both his hands in the air. He’s probably your guy who’s kicking inside when you need him.”
Blessed to have moments like these 🙏🏽⬆️ pic.twitter.com/FFvm831OYw
— DeMarvin Leal (@boimarv9) October 12, 2021
What? Still no QB? That may be Denver’s thinking, as the position is just too important to waste another high pick when the team is so close to contending. In this scenario, Denver either tries to resign Bridgewater or goes with Lock for another year. Not to fret, getting Penning here would be quite a coup for Denver, as the 6-foot-7, 329-pound redshirt junior has been projected to go in the first round by many draft evaluators. He was the only FCS prospect to make The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s preseason top-50 draft board and held his own against Iowa State. Penning also checked in at No. 69 in The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks List. Here’s what UNI offensive line coach Ryan Clanton told Feldman: “We treat him like a mythical creature. … He watches ‘Saw’ on his phone before games. … We treat him like Bigfoot and we don’t look him in the eyes.” Feldman also points out Penning’s weight room feats: Penning squats 625 pounds, cleans 385 and has a size 17 shoe. If Penning isn’t available, Denver may be interested in other tackles, like Penn State’s Rasheed Walker, Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann or Miami’s Zion Nelson, who could all be available in the second round.
This is what a 1st round left tackle looks like.
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) September 16, 2021
While it’s still early in the season, Fuller has not impressed thus far. Not only does Fuller have a 44.5 overall PFF grade, he was also the lowest-graded CB in Week 5 with a 26.4 score. So even if Fuller wasn’t a free agent at the end of the season, the Broncos might be looking to replace him. Would the Broncos consider going back to Virginia Tech for Fuller’s replacement? Fuller was a first-round pick (No. 14 overall) of the Chicago Bears out of Virginia Tech in 2014, and both players have similar measureables (Fuller was 6-feet, 194 pounds compared to Waller, who’s listed at 6-1, 180). Waller has been a better ballhawk, with 7 INTs in 25 games and counting compared to Fuller’s 6 INTs in 46 games at Virginia Tech. So why isn’t Waller rated higher? Teams may be concerned about his weight, footwork and injury history (Waller missed all but two games last season while battling various injuries). From Pro Football Network: “Yes, he has some issues with some inefficient footwork and certainly needs to bulk up to get stronger as a cornerback against more physical wideouts. However, Waller’s physical tools are all there. The length, ball skills, fluid hips, and tendency to get physical show a player that is only scratching the surface of what he could become.”
Virginia Tech CB Jermaine Waller with a PICK SIX 🔒 pic.twitter.com/1mKjTjiZq6
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) October 10, 2021
Recent high picks Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler are both on injured reserve, and two of Denver’s current starting wide receivers will be unrestricted free agents next season in Sutton and Patrick. Expect the Broncos to re-sign Sutton, but the injuries to Hamler and Jeudy are a bit more concerning. Hamler is out for the year with a knee injury suffered against the Jets, and Jeudy’s return from a high right ankle sprain is still unknown. By season’s end, Hamlin will have played in 16 out of 33 games. So adding another big-play receiver in Demus is not out of the question – but Demus comes with his own injury history. In fact, that could be the only reason why the 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior is still available in the fourth round. Demus suffered a knee injury against Iowa on Oct. 1 and will miss the rest of the season, which means he will have played just 10 combined games the past two seasons. Still, when Demus has played, he’s been dominant, averaging at least 15.2 yards receiving every season. Demus has 106 receptions for 1,775 yards and 13 TDs for his career.
Maryland's Dontay Demus is a DUDE — great year to want a big WR.
Dontay Demus (6'3", 215)
Treylon Burks (6'3", 225)
Drake London (6'5", 210)
Justyn Ross (6'4", 210)
George Pickens (6'3", 200)pic.twitter.com/KYpKhtAaEB
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 5, 2021