Broncos need to hit draft's sweet spots to chase down Chiefs

CJ Henderson, a 6-foot-1 cornerback from Florida, could be available when the Broncos pick at No. 15. David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' ability to close the gap on the Lombardi trophy-toting Kansas City Chiefs could rest on how well they hit the sweet spots of this year's NFL draft.

With the prospect of more than $60 million in salary-cap room and a projected 12 draft picks, it is the biggest combination of cap space and draft capital the Broncos have had in John Elway's tenure as the team's top football executive.

"It's exciting looking forward to next year," Elway said. " ... We have the opportunity, with where we are in the draft, the picks we have, to get some players to be Denver Broncos for a long time."

The Broncos are slated to have five picks in the first three rounds of the draft, the most in Elway's tenure. They still have plenty of pre-draft work to do in the next three months, but the work by college scouts around the league this past season shows this draft should fit squarely with the team's biggest needs: wide receiver, cornerback, defensive line and offensive line.

Let's break down each position before we get to the combine later this month.

Wide receiver

Many teams have eight or nine wide receivers who could be among the top 40 prospects overall.

The Broncos need more speed, more playmaking, more ways to stress opposing defenses who simply converged on Courtland Sutton for much of the second half of the season. The Broncos haven't have had two wide receivers finish a season with at least 50 receptions in the past three seasons.

In fact, last season, the team's second-leading receiver was Emmanuel Sanders even though he was traded before Thanksgiving.

Elway has said, "We're always trying to upgrade," as this draft is loaded with a variety of wide receivers, speed players, quality route runners and physical players who make contested catches. The Broncos could find value here deep into the third day of the draft and even into the priority undrafted free agents.


Look, Chris Harris Jr. is an unrestricted free agent, De'Vante Bausby is a restricted free agent returning from a neck injury and Bryce Callahan will be a question mark until he plays multiple games.

There is a need, especially if Harris moves on. He was in on 1,073 of the team's 2,535 snaps played by cornerbacks last season -- 42% -- and no other cornerback played more than Isaac Yiadom's 517.

Callahan didn't play or practice after leaving the field with a foot injury during a July scrimmage. Until he strings multiple starts together, the Broncos can't completely count on him, though he is expected to be ready for the start of the offseason program.

This draft doesn't figure to be as deep at cornerback as some other positions overall, but what is somewhat unique is the number of big corners at the top of the board. Few players rise in the pre-draft process or even on the draft weekend like big cornerbacks with speed.

Ten of the top 12 cornerbacks in many teams' current rankings are 5-foot-11 or taller, and five of those top cornerbacks are 6 feet or taller, led by Ohio State's Jeff Okudah, Florida's CJ Henderson and Alabama's Trevon Diggs.

Offensive line

The Broncos' most recent swings through free agency ended up with right tackles Ja'Wuan James, Menelik Watson and Donald Stephenson getting hurt. Denver hasn't drafted a player who has started a game at right tackle since Ty Sambrailo was a second-round pick in 2015.

At left tackle, Garett Bolles has led the league in holding penalties for each of the past three seasons (including penalties that were declined) while finishing second, tied for fourth and second in penalties overall in those seasons.

In 48 career games, he has been flagged 46 times, including declined penalties, and has 34 flags for holding.

The Broncos need depth across the front, need to make a long-term decision on Bolles and will take a long look at guards and centers.

This draft will offer more immediate help at tackle over the top 40 picks or so, but the rest of the positions are more likely to be found on the second and third days.

Defensive line

Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis -- 31 combined starts this past season -- are all unrestricted free agents, while Mike Purcell (seven starts) is a restricted free agent.

Harris has made no secret he's looking to test the market, and Wolfe has said he hopes for a three-year deal but is uncertain if the Broncos will bring him back. So, the makeover is coming in some fashion.

This draft has defensive line talent with Auburn's Derrick Brown, South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw and TCU's Ross Blacklock looking at top-15 status on many team's boards. Iowa's A.J. Epenesa would also fit later in the opening round than the Broncos' current No. 15 pick.