Broncos will need more from homegrown players to dig out

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos try to escape the free-fall that their season has become with eight consecutive losses and nine losses in the past 10 games, the inevitable is-it-talent-or-coaching questions have come up.

And when the Broncos eventually sift through the shattered pieces of the 2017 campaign, they will have to decide how much of their failure to be was a talent issue, a developmental issue or a coaching issue. Likely, it’s all three in some fashion.

“I’ll say this, guys, every player on this team, we’ve chosen, we’ve drafted," is how coach Vance Joseph put it this week. “We had a full training camp to pick our roster. We chose this roster. This is our roster. We were 3-1 in the first month of the season. It was a good enough roster to win with. Now that we haven’t won, I’m not going to stand here and say that it’s all roster. It’s not."

With the second of the past three rookie classes that have struggled to make real impact as starters and just one draft pick in John Elway's tenure on the current roster who has been named to a Pro Bowl (not as an injury replacement) -- Von Miller, the team’s first-rounder in 2011 -- the team’s draft selection strategy will be one of the things under the microscope in the weeks to come.

Of this year’s rookie class, only left tackle Garett Bolles is a starter, while three of the picks are on injured reserve (wide receiver Carlos Henderson, tight end Jake Butt and quarterback Chad Kelly) and four of the picks (cornerback Brendan Langley, defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Walker, wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie and running back De'Angelo Henderson) have each been a game-day inactive at least twice this season.

Overall, other than Miller, the Broncos have had no first-, second- or third-round pick from the past seven drafts named to one Pro Bowl; and nine of the players they have selected in the first, second or third rounds are no longer with the team.

There are some personnel executives who track every other roster in the league for their own pro personnel evaluations who trace at least some of the Broncos’ current woes to that. But those same executives also concede the Broncos had playoff rosters without much room for first-year players, and they lament that many rookies -- especially on offense, because of the proliferation of the spread offenses in college -- are on a far longer developmental curve overall leaguewide.

The Broncos have tried to keep their roster balance along the way in the draft. They’ve selected 54 players in Elway’s tenure: 27 on offense, 26 on defense and punter Riley Dixon.

It means they haven’t gotten caught leaning too hard toward one side of the ball. But the positions they have valued the most with those picks haven’t always played to their draft position or to the intensity the Broncos have looked at those positions, at least to this point.

While it doesn’t factor in undrafted players who go on to become starters, such as running back C.J. Anderson and All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos have six positions for which they have used at least five draft picks over the past seven drafts -- quarterback (five), running back/fullback (five), tackle (five), inside/outside linebacker (seven), safety (five) and cornerback (six).

In those groupings, the most success has come at linebacker, where four of the seven picks have gone on to be starters, including Miller and Shane Ray in the current defense. Four of the safeties went on to start at least two games, as well.

While Peyton Manning’s two-Super Bowl tenure certainly influenced how things went at quarterback, of the five quarterbacks the Broncos have drafted since 2011, only Trevor Siemian has earned the starting job coming out of training camp. And of the four former draft picks at the position on the current team -- Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly, none has received anything remotely close to earning the we’re-going-to-build-around-this-guy show of support from the team.

And the spot where the struggle has also been all too real is in the offensive line, where the Broncos are in their fourth consecutive year of trying to find a combination that doesn’t hamper their quarterbacks’ ability to play. The Broncos have used nine picks on offensive line in the past seven drafts.

To show for that are three starters: Bolles, center Matt Paradis and guard Max Garcia, but Garcia’s spot in the starting lineup has been tenuous at times.

Of those nine O-line selections, five are no longer with the team. And the Broncos do not have a former draft pick at guard, center or tackle on their current 10-player practice squad -- center Dillon Day was an undrafted rookie in 2015 -- so the developmental chain has largely been broken there. Some of it is that the Broncos have changed head coaches three times in the past four years, have had three different offensive line coaches in the past four years and have changed offensive coordinators three times in the past three years.

Each change has brought “tweaks" in the scheme and even changes in what kinds of players were desired at the position. During this season alone, two former draft picks in the offensive line -- Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield, second- and third-round picks, respectively -- were traded (Sambrailo) or released (Schofield).