Struggles of youngest Broncos a developing situation

Jake Butt could figure heavily in the Broncos' offense in 2018. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway has said, often, the Denver Broncos "don't draft All-Pros, we have to develop them."

One of the most sobering football lessons the Broncos could take away from their 5-11 finish is that their younger players have not contributed as much as the team has either hoped or predicted over the past two seasons.

The team has arrived at a point where it will take honest assessments of its own work to halt an uncomfortable trend.

For the first time in his tenure as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker -- he was hired in 2011 -- the developmental job ahead is big enough Elway has hinted it may take some time to bounce back. He also hinted the Broncos, who are expected to be active in free agency, may be pointed toward a bit of a youth movement as well.

"I think that when you're 5-11, there are obviously some issues that we have to get handled," is how Elway put it earlier this month. "I think (returning to the playoffs) is our goal. That's our mindset. Whether we can get there or not, I don't want to raise the expectation level by saying, 'Yes, automatically we're going to get back there.' ... Now, we have to build towards that process. … Hopefully, we can get back to where we're very competitive."

When coach Vance Joseph fired six assistant coaches the day after the season finale, he also showed the Broncos' issues were on his mind, especially the ones on the offensive line and on defense. Joseph has now split duties among two assistants on the offensive line as newly-arrived Sean Kugler will work with the team's guards and centers while Chris Strausser, who was the assistant offensive line coach this past season, will work with the tackles.

The Broncos will have a similar structure with the defensive backs and with the linebackers. Marcus Robinson will continue to oversee the secondary, but will work primarily with the safeties, while newly-hired Greg Williams will work with the cornerbacks. Reggie Herring will continue as a linebackers coach -- Herring was also on Gary Kubiak's staff -- but the Broncos' last unfilled position will be an assistant coach who works with the team's pass-rushers.

During his interviews with prospective assistants, Joseph emphasized to the candidates he was seeking teachers first.

"There's a draft every year and there's young guys every year," Joseph said after the season, "so we have to do a better job of keeping those guys up to speed so they can help us win."

To that end, the 2017 draft class was certainly a riddle for the Broncos. When the Broncos concluded the three-day affair last April they had plenty of optimism that at minimum tackle Garett Bolles (first-round pick), defensive end DeMarcus Walker (second round), wide receiver Carlos Henderson, cornerback Brendan Langley and wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie would all be regular contributors or starters.

Bolles did start, but consistently struggled with penalties and rebounding from and his mistakes, while Walker, Langley and McKenzie didn't deliver on their potential. Henderson spent the year on injured reserve (thumb) before being arrested in Louisiana this past weekend on a charge of marijuana possession.

Tight end Jake Butt, a fifth-round pick who spent the season on injured reserve (knee), will certainly figure heavily in the Broncos' plan on offense in 2018, but how the Broncos find a way to get the rest of the '17 draft class into the mix will be a question mark.

McKenzie got benched twice as a punt returner and ended up playing just 131 snaps on offense all season, while Walker played just 99 snaps on defense and Langley had 108 snaps. By season's end Langley and McKenzie were game day inactives, while the Broncos were playing other players who had passed them in the rotations.

"Can we get back there? Sure we can," Elway said of the Super Bowl conversation. "That's our goal. That's what our fan base expects. That's what we expect of ourselves. That's what we expect of the coaching staff. We're working to that. Hopefully we can get there."

But it all leaves the Broncos trying to decide whether they're picking the right players up front or not doing enough to see what those players can do once they get them.