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Draft board leans toward defense in first round for Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos continue to try to fill some needs with the “value’’ signings in free agency John Elway often speaks about, it’s never a bad time to turn an eye toward the draft.

And while Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board is a ranking of players and not a mock draft -- his next mock draft is expected next week -- it’s a good indicator of where he believes the strength of the draft board will be when the Broncos are scheduled to pick at No. 20 in the first round.

In his post-scouting combine rankings, the players in the Broncos’ wheelhouse -- according to his current list -- are North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky at No. 18, Washington safety Budda Baker at No. 19, Miami tight end David Njoku at No. 20, Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett at No. 21 and LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White at No. 22.

Again, this is strictly a ranking of players, not an indication of how Kiper believes the teams in those slots will make their picks in the opening round. On draft day, however, the Broncos figure to get a chance at several players ranked No. 20 or above on their own draft board because of the quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks routinely get overdrafted, especially in years like this one when there's no clear-cut 1 or 2 among the group, because the need is so great for so many teams they reach for a QB, often passing up higher-ranked players. Granted, the teams never, as in ever, admit this happened, but it happens every year.

Trubisky is the highest-rated quarterback -- at No. 18 -- on Kiper’s latest Big Board. But there figures to be at least one or two quarterbacks selected higher than the 18th pick unless teams show historical patience, the kind of patience the league as a whole has rarely, if ever, shown in any previous draft when it comes to quarterbacks.

It means the Broncos, who almost certainly will take a quarterback somewhere down the board -- they currently have 10 picks and Elway often likes to take a late-round passer as a developmental prospect -- figure to be looking at a draft board that is filled with impact players at defensive back, edge rusher and running back when their turn rolls around in the opening round next month.

The Broncos would like an impact receiver at tight end so Njoku would certainly get consideration, and they will take a running back with some big-play pop at some point in the first two days. Before the combine, Christian McCaffrey was projecting in the bottom third of the first round, but that is no longer the case.

Though some personnel executives didn’t think McCaffrey handled the whole didn’t-play-in-the-bowl-game thing all that great in Indianapolis, they certainly liked his workout. He’s likely a top 15-to-top 18 player on many teams’ boards at this point.

He would fill a lot of needs for the Broncos and also could be the best player available if he drops into the late teens. He’ll get a long look as well.

But with a slew of pro days still to go and a smattering of private visits with prospects to come for the Broncos, Kiper’s latest list, as well as a survey of personnel executives around the league, indicate the Broncos are going to be looking at a draft board leaning toward defense in the first round.

And that may test their discipline because their biggest needs are on the other side of the ball.