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Every week during the 2021 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field for a different NFL team and begin projecting NFL draft prospects at positions of concerning need.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Rounds 5-7) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is for the Denver Broncos.
Monday's trade of Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams was viewed in Broncos country as the team waving the white flag for 2021 and an early shift to the offseason mode for a team that currently carries a 4-4 record but sits nowhere close to contending.
That's largely accurate, although we suspect GM George Paton had seen this day coming for a bit now. Paton knew that Miller, an unrestricted free agent in 2022, wasn't going to net the Broncos more than a fifth-round compensatory pick in 2023, per league rules for veterans with 10 or more years of service.
That's why the return of the trade — second- and third-round picks in 2022 — made it impossible for Paton to say no. This is where a team's primary decision-maker must detach emotion from the equation, and Paton should be commended for the move, even as tough as it is to say goodbye to the beloved star pass rusher.
The obvious void is at quarterback. There's a case to be made for the Broncos going the veteran route, chasing a ready-made star at the cost of draft picks and money. But Paton also well knows that the draft remains the most tried and true method, albeit the more gradual route, to building a winner.
Paton arrived from the Minnesota Vikings, a team that routinely stockpiled draft picks and forged its way into the playoffs with well-built rosters but often with quarterbacks who were not true difference-makers. They made the postseason during Paton's Vikings tenure six times with six different quarterbacks. Of them, only Brett Favre — in his age-40 season — was a true star QB.
Will the Broncos use their draft-pick capital chase another veteran QB, or use them to draft and groom a young one? That will be the million-dollar offseason question. They'll be armed with five Day 1 and 2 picks in 2022, plus five more on Day 3. They also could move more veterans for additional picks.
Here's a big-picture look at how Denver's draft plan could be set into motion this coming offseason.
Oklahoma EDGE Nik Bonitto
In our first attempt at a 2022 mock draft, we pegged the Broncos with an intriguing first-round quarterback. It's certainly one possibility. The Broncos will have one of the younger rosters in the NFL next year, we suspect, so one approach would be to pair that with a young QB and let the two elements mold together.
However, another would be to go for broke with the veteran QB and let them lift the young talent up. It would be the faster road to relevance. Each approach has its merit. Paton must decide which route gives the Broncos a best chance to compete for a Super Bowl — both in 2022 and beyond.
For the purposes of this exercise, we're going to veer away from quarterback. We suspect they'll "be in every deal" (a well-worn Patonism in his first nine months on the job) for available QBs and will be one of the more likely destinations for, say, Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers next year, perhaps depending on who the head coach and offensive coordinator are.
Instead, we'll focus here on another key need: pass-rush help. With Miller gone and Bradley Chubb currently nursing an ankle injury that could keep him out another few weeks, the Broncos are now a bit barren here. Malik Reed has some utility, and 2021 seventh-rounder Jonathon Cooper has outplayed his draft status to date.
But more is needed, and the 238-pound Bonitto has some Miller-esque traits in his game to help fill that void. Bonitto is a fluid athlete who can readily drop in space as well as rush the passer, able to win up front with his speed, burst, pop in his hands and urgency. His pass-rush effectiveness has dipped a hair of late, but Bonitto routinely makes his presence felt with pressures and hits when he's not collecting sacks.
Although his grades and scheme fits will vary team to team, Bonitto appears to us to be a prospect who projects to the top-40 range. He could end up a first-round pick depending on testing and other factors. Can the Broncos somehow land him and a quarterback with their first- and second-round ammo? We shall see.
Louisiana OT Max Mitchell
Another problem area that could be addressed is right tackle. Bobby Massie has been fine as a stopgap, but Denver must find a better long-term solution.
Mitchell entered the season earning mostly Day 3 grades but appears to be in the top-100 discussion now. He's really had a terrific 2021 season for the 24th-ranked Ragin' Cajuns, which includes some quality tape of him playing right and left tackle against Texas in the season opener.
At nearly 6-foot-6 and 302 pounds, with 34-inch arms and an 81-inch wingspan, Mitchell fits the mold of the type of tackle Paton and the Vikings favored for years. Mitchell might not be quite as spry an athlete as the ones Paton and the Vikings typically sought, but he's a long, powerful OT prospect with experience on both sides, improved technique in pass protection and good recovery ability when he's not lunging and leaning.
Whether or not the Broncos can find a franchise pocket passer, they'll be very interested in a wide-based people mover in the run game. For now, that's Denver's best offensive approach, and it fills a need.
Nebraska LB JoJo Domann
The Broncos traded for Kenny Young but could use more reinforcements at linebacker. It's a position the Vikings often sought on Day 3 during Paton's run up there, with the team drafting a whopping 17 linebackers, with 15 of them coming in Rounds 4 through 7.
Typically, Paton's Vikings sought three different molds of linebacker: big, rangy, versatile linebackers, a la Anthony Barr; interior run thumpers; or instinctive or highly athletic specimens.
The Broncos took Baron Browning, who fits the Barr mold, in 2021. He remains in the picture, but Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell and Young are prospective free agents who may or may not be in the picture for 2022.
Projecting which type they'll go after here is very difficult. The Broncos are flush with cap space next year and could return the bulk of the lot or spend on outside free agents. We also don't know what type of defensive system they'll be running next season, with head coach Vic Fangio remaining on the hot seat.
But even still, adding a useful player such as Domann makes sense irrespective of changes made. He's a hybrid linebacker-safety who often covers the slot and is the Huskers' best all-around defender. Domann is a tweener, size-wise, and is a sixth-year "super" senior (same high-school class as 2019 first-rounder Devin Bush) who returned to school.
But his coverage ability, versatility and special-teams value could make him a Day 3 prospect who can stick on a roster. Plus, in this scenario, the Colorado Springs native returns home to compete for his hometown Broncos.