In the era of instant gratification, the value of the vast majority of NFL draft picks comes over time rather than as an immediate ‘jackpot.’ There will always bout outliers that come in and make massive contributions on day one, and typically those guys tend to be early ‘can’t miss’ caliber prospects.
Those elite day-one contributors tend to be selected early because, simply put, their talent is obvious. Evaluating the merit of a draft class just one year removed would be like ranking a recently planted tree just one year after planting.
Sure, we have more of an idea of what the tree will become as opposed to evaluating the young sapling as soon as it breaks the soil (just like the foolish endeavor of grading draft classes before the players even step on the field), but it still is too early to truly appreciate just what many of these players will become in their careers.
As new GM George Paton put it in his introductory interview, “It’s a draft and develop league” and the draft aspect is just half of it. That said, it is interesting to take a temperature from perspectives across the league to see where rookie classes stack up after one year in the NFL.
Unfortunately, Pro Football Focus ranked the Denver Broncos’ 2020 draft class dead-last in the NFL one year removed. Sure, PFF based most of its ranking on the site’s grades, which can be influenced based on players struggling around them, but seeing Denver being ranked dead-last after one season was a bit jarring.
Fortunately, that was just one site’s opinion. While the rookie season is but an appetizer, the main course of Years 2 and 3 in the league often are far more telling of what a player will be in their career. There is projection involved, no doubt, but just because Denver’s rookie class “struggled” in 2020 doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
One source with a far more optimistic view on the Broncos’ 2020 draft class was NFL.com. In a recent piece written by Gennaro Filice and Nick Shook, Denver’s future looks far better than what PFF laid down. Specifically, Shook had the following to say about the Broncos’ 2020 rookies:
BRONCOS RANK: 15
The receiving corps John Elway envisioned when he drafted Jeudy didn’t stick together for very long because of Courtland Sutton’s season-ending ACL tear in September. Jeudy had a dozen frustrating drops and often seemed out of sync with QB Drew Lock, catching less than half of his 113 targets, but he also recorded some highlight grabs and ultimately had a good rookie year. Jeudy can work on catching the ball and get excited about Sutton coming back in 2021. The story is similar for Hamler, who saw half as many targets as Jeudy (56) and also had a problem with drops while still making some memorable plays. Ojemudia started quicker than most expected and ran into bumps in the road but showed some promise. Cushenberry started all 16 games, made the PFWA’s All-Rookie Team and earned praise from coach Vic Fangio for improving “inch by inch” in 2020. Denver will hope his play improves by greater margins in 2021. Agim showed flashes of potential and saw more playing time after injuries and COVID-19 forced Denver’s starters (Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris) out of action, but he wasn’t quite as good as a rookie as they likely expected out of a third-round pick. Okwuegbunam was buried at the bottom of a deep tight end group headlined by Noah Fant, but he did manage to break 10 receptions and score a touchdown. Strnad missed the season due to wrist surgery. Muti shined in his one start, displaying quick feet and good power, and could end up being a steal. Cleveland is at the bottom of the depth chart and played most of his snaps on special teams. Tuszka appeared in nine games in a reserve role. Bassey went from undrafted afterthought to a promising piece in Denver’s secondary, appearing in 12 games over the course of the season and recording 23 tackles, two passes defensed and one interception before an injury ended his season prematurely. Denver found its long snapper in Bobenmoyer, while Motley bounced around a few teams before landing with the Broncos, getting significant playing time in the team’s final two weeks.
There can be no doubt that the Broncos’ pair of rookie receivers need to improve upon their drops. While both Jeudy and Hamler have explosive play-making and separation ability, both also had drop questions coming out of college.
The issue with the drops issues was compounded with the erratic accuracy on display by Drew Lock, but this is the NFL and even if the quarterback isn’t putting the ball in the best place snap-to-snap, the receiver needs to come down with it at a better clip than either rookie did last season.
Michael Ojemudia was a pleasant surprise. He was up-and-down but putting him up against Denver’s recent struggles with third-round corners like Brandon Langley and Isaac Yiadom, Ojemudia showing any sort of competency at one of the toughest positions to play gives Denver a valuable cost-controlled piece at cornerback the next three seasons.
Lloyd Cushenberry struggled tremendously early on in 2020, but in context to Denver’s preceding starting centers in Matt Paradis and Connor McGovern, both of whom not only didn’t play as rookies, the arrow is pointing up for Cushenberry.
Albert Okwuegbunam also had his arrow trending up. While he has ample work to do as a blocker and route runner, sometimes football is an exceedingly simple game and Okwuegbunam, especially paired with Noah Fant, is simply too big and fast for many players to match up. It was exceedingly unfortunate he was injured when he was because the young tight end was showing flashes and seemed to be gaining confidence.
Netane Muti flashed in limited action, but looks like he will spend another year in the fermentation chamber working with Mike Munchak as the Broncos’ interior offensive line is pretty set. However, given how injuries can occur, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Muti get a shot next year and perhaps run with it.
The Broncos shouldn’t be depending on the undrafted free agents or seventh-rounders to be much more than depth, but anything can happen. At worst, hopefully, those players will continue to provide special teams value and bottom-of-the-depth-chart talent going forward.
The two 2020 rookies Denver needs more from in 2021 are interior defensive lineman McTelvin Agim and off-ball linebacker Justin Strnad. Agim, as a defensive tackle drafted in the late third round, was likely always going to take time as the defensive line (outside of freak shows drafted in the top-20 of the draft) often are developmental players that take a few years to continue to develop their body, add strength, and improve technique to really become contributors.
However, with the uncertainty with Shelby Harris and Jurrell Casey, Agim will likely be counted on to step up and provide something next year as Dre’Mont Jones can’t get it done alone.
Unfortunately, after receiving ample hype to start last season, Strnad was shut down with his wrist injury. Perhaps Strnad would have been nothing more than a sub-package linebacker who could come in and provide better coverage ability than Josey Jewell or Alexander Johnson in passing downs, but Denver really needed that kind of player last season.
Denver goes into this offseason likely looking for a shot in the arm at the position, but do not count out Strnad as being a possible high-end contributor. Linebacker is one of those positions that it doesn’t take a first-round pick to find a quality starter.
Overall, Shook really hit it out of the park grading the Broncos’ 2020 draft clawss. With inconsistencies and promise in equal portions, the rookies will need to take steps forward if Denver is to bridge the gap on the rest of the AFC West next year and not finish last in back-to-back seasons.
A class with six selections in the top-120 should give Denver hope that brighter days lie ahead. A bit of optimism for those in Broncos Country who are simply not used to such ineptitude from their football franchise.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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