Denver Broncos' slim draft class faces high stakes and high hopes

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos completed the 2023 draft in historically quiet fashion and must now hope their five selections can do some heavy lifting in the months to come.

Because of the trades to acquire quarterback Russell Wilson last offseason, as well as the rights to sign coach Sean Payton in February, this was the fewest amount of picks by the Broncos since 2007. It was also their latest opening pick in a draft -- they selected Oklahoma wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. with the No. 63 pick Friday -- since 1995.

“I didn’t get one call [during the first round], it was pretty lonely," Broncos general manager George Paton said. “ … It’s hard to move from the top of the third [round] to the first round."

But while the first draft of the Payton era may have been something he had seen before in his tenure with the New Orleans Saints, it was both unique in Broncos’ history and a testament to just how much work needs to be done with a team that hasn’t made the postseason for seven years under four different coaches.

In Payton's 16 years with the Saints -- he was suspended for one of those seasons as part of the Bountygate penalties -- New Orleans had six drafts with five or fewer picks. In the season he was suspended -- he was with the team until April that year -- New Orleans did not have a first- or second-round pick. And in two of those years, 2020 and 2009, the Saints had just four picks.

In short, Payton has seen this draft movie before. He went as far as to joke this past weekend that “I try to spend" when it comes to draft picks and that Paton was “the saver."

“We complement each other well," Payton said. “ … Listen, we would have been out of everything on the first day if it were me."

The Broncos did make three trades over the last two days of the draft as one of those trades included a tight end -- Adam Trautman -- that Payton had used a third-round pick to select for the Saints in 2020. But the five-player class is another example of a team that entered the offseason with yet another major roster makeover in mind with limited options to do it.

They did, however, wave a big checkbook around in free agency, signing 12 unrestricted free agents, including signing three players to deals that could be worth as much as $47 million each: tackle Mike McGlinchey (five years, $87.5 million), guard Ben Powers (four years, $51.5 million) and defensive end Zach Allen (three years, $47.75 million).

While the Broncos believe their first four selections -- Mims, linebacker Drew Sanders, cornerback Riley Moss and safety JL Skinner III -- can push for playing time as soon as they formally arrive, not many later-round picks have stuck around in Denver in recent years.

Safety Justin Simmons was a third-rounder in 2016 and linebacker Josey Jewell was a fourth-round pick in 2018. Jewell is the Broncos’ only draft pick on the current roster selected in the third round or later who played in every game as a rookie. He started nine games his rookie year and finished with 58 tackles.

It’s why the Broncos are expecting to have a long list of undrafted rookies signed -- Paton said it would be “in the teens’’ -- and they will also add on several additional try-out players at a scheduled rookie minicamp later this month. They have needs and depth issues that still need attention, including at running back and the offensive and defensive lines.

“Let’s call it four different groups of players -- draft picks, signed free agents, tryout free agents and veteran tryouts,’’ Payton said. “The first message to every one of them is the process is ending on the method of how we procure the player … once they're sitting in that meeting room, how they arrived is of no importance to us at that point. We're playing the best players.’’