Broncos have drafted better when they get defensive

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In assessing the Denver Broncos' seven NFL drafts during John Elway’s tenure as football boss, there is an argument to be made they have had more success reeling in help on defense than they have had on offense.

Especially in the prime real estate that is the draft's first four rounds.

And the Broncos do have eight picks in the first five rounds of this year's draft, with six of them being in the first four rounds. That's worth noting because many personnel evaluators around the league believe this year’s draft is fairly thin at some key defensive positions, such as tackle, edge rusher and linebacker. So the Broncos will have to do their best work in the first two days of the draft.

“This is a draft that is deep in certain positions," Elway, the team's general manager and executive vice president of football operations, said this past week. “It’s [also] a little thinner in a lot of positions, more so this year than in the past."

In his seven drafts, Elway has split the team’s picks evenly on offense and defense over the first four rounds, taking 14 offensive players and 14 defensive players. With the benefit of hindsight, his hit rate has been higher on defense, most notably the first pick of his first draft upon Elway's return to Denver in 2011: linebacker Von Miller.

Miller has been named to six Pro Bowls, has been a first-team All-Pro three times and was the MVP of the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win.

Also among the Broncos' haul of draftees on defense have been future starters Derek Wolfe, Justin Simmons, Rahim Moore, Nate Irving, Quinton Carter (before a knee injury) and Sylvester Williams. Denver also drafted Kayvon Webster, who went on to be special teams captain with situational duty at cornerback.

Several personnel evaluators in the league believe Simmons has Pro Bowl potential, and Wolfe has been considered Pro Bowl-worthy by several general managers over the past three seasons.

The two defensive players the Broncos selected in the first four rounds in last April’s draft -- defensive end DeMarcus Walker (second round) and cornerback Brendan Langley (third round) -- had limited impact. Walker was moved between outside linebacker and defensive end, and the Broncos believe that stifled his ability to find a niche in the defense. They plan to simply leave him at defensive end this time around.

Elway, despite his pedigree as a Hall of Fame quarterback, has not had as much success in the first four rounds of the draft on offense. Whether it has been because of injuries or coaching changes -- the Broncos have had three head coaches and several changes in assistant coaches over the past four seasons (Vance Joseph fired seven assistant coaches from last season’s staff alone) -- or draftees simply not turning into the players the Broncos had hoped for, drafting on offense has been a struggle.

Running back Montee Ball, a second-round pick, battled off-the-field problems that he has been public in discussing, and he played in just 21 games with the Broncos. Wide receiver Cody Latimer, also a second-round pick, never had more than 19 catches in any of his four seasons with Denver before leaving in free agency last month.

Tight end Julius Thomas is the only offensive player taken in the top four rounds in Elway’s drafts who has been named to a Pro Bowl.

Tackle Orlando Franklin was a starter on a Super Bowl team in 2013, and Michael Schofield, Brock Osweiler, Max Garcia, Devontae Booker and Paxton Lynch also started games. But beyond Osweiler's foray into free agency, when he left the Broncos after the 2015 season, none of those players has been viewed in as high a standing around the league as Wolfe or Simmons are now.

Last year’s first-round pick, left tackle Garett Bolles, had a bumpy ride as a rookie, but he did start every game and is slotted as the starter for this season.

Elway said this past week he didn’t want to publicly say where the areas of need are on his roster -- “because I don’t like giving ideas of where we believe our roster is" -- but after free agency, as well as running back C.J. Anderson’s release, the Broncos have more glaring needs on offense heading into draft weekend. Having vetted the top quarterbacks in the draft, they also have depth-chart openings at running back and wide receiver.

“We feel like there are a lot of good football players that we’ll be able to find," Elway said. “Players that will help us. I think having the picks that we have -- having eight picks in the first five rounds -- is helpful, too."