If there was one shred of clarity the NFL Scouting Combine revealed about the Broncos’ offseason plans, it’s that a reconfiguration of their offensive line is coming under new head coach Sean Payton.
Publicly and privately, the Broncos have telegraphed a desire to upgrade along the offensive front, a key step in helping quarterback Russell Wilson rebound from the worst season of his career. Even if the Broncos sign a new starting right tackle in free agency or land a veteran starting center, the draft presents the first opportunity for Payton to begin selecting the kind of linemen he believes will fit best with the offenses he’ll build in Denver. These players won’t be expected to be impact pieces in 2023. The Broncos, in case you haven’t heard, won’t be selecting until the third round of this year’s NFL Draft. But Payton demonstrated an ability throughout his time in New Orleans, with the help of its front-office staff, to identify talented linemen in the middle rounds and develop them into productive starters.GO DEEPERBroncos free agency shopping list: Miles Sanders, Zach Allen and 25 others to watch
In our second mock draft, and the first since the combine, that perceived desire to bolster the offensive line served as one guide. So, too, was general manager George Paton’s professed desire to add picks during the draft, something he did in each of the past two years. And we kept an eye out for opportunities to add a high-upside playmaker to an offense that lacked explosiveness in 2022. We used a combination of the Pro Football Focus mock draft simulator, Dane Brugler’s recent top 100 prospects and The Athletic’s consensus draft big board to help identify likely available players when the Broncos began selecting at No. 67, but it’s important to remember those rankings can shift significantly between now and April’s draft.
Round 3, No. 67 (from Indianapolis): Luke Wypler, C, Ohio State
Wypler was the No. 95 prospect on The Athletic’s consensus big board when it updated last month, but he’s probably going to be selected higher than that after a standout performance at the combine last week. He finished first among centers in the 40-yard dash (5.14 seconds) and was third among offensive linemen in the 20-yard shuttle (4.53 seconds). Wypler played just two college seasons after redshirting in 2020, leaving three years of eligibility on the table when he declared for the draft in January.GO DEEPERNFL combine: Official measurements and testing results for each prospect
Wypler said at the combine that he would be open to moving to guard, something that was brought up to him by several teams he met with in Indianapolis.
“I said it’s actually going to be easier (to play guard),” Wypler said. “You don’t have to worry about snapping the ball or making calls. You’ve just got to put your hand in the ground and go maul somebody.”
We’ll have a better idea of how significant Denver’s need for depth at guard and center is once free agency begins. But even if the Broncos were to re-sign free agent left guard Dalton Risner and bring back veteran Graham Glasgow on a reworked deal to be the center, they still have to add more young players to the interior of the offensive line. Lloyd Cushenberry is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and it’s still unclear whether Luke Wattenberg, a fifth-round pick in 2022, can become a viable reserve. There is plenty of room for more competition.
Round 3, No. 79 (from Indianapolis): Blake Freeland, OT, BYU
Projected trade: Nos. 79 (third round), 106 (fourth) and 237 (seventh) for No. 68.
The Broncos make a third-round trade with Colts GM Chris Ballard for the second straight season, moving back 11 spots in the third round to secure two extra picks. Again, Denver is going to make more selections than the five it currently has, and the Broncos are likely to find the best value by trading one of their back-to-back picks in the third round.
Freeland, No. 86 on the consensus big board, was another player who impressed at the combine. His 4.98-second 40-yard dash was the third fastest among offensive linemen, and his 10-yard split (1.68) was the best in that group. His 37-inch vertical leap also set a combine record for offensive linemen. Not surprisingly, he received Next Gen Stats’ top athleticism score among participants at his position.
OT Athleticism Score Leaders 📋(Video) Post Combine 2023 NFL Mock Draft with Trades! | HUGE TRADES FOR QBS!
*Excludes bench press pic.twitter.com/R9qZtEtGfW
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 6, 2023
Freeland, who measured 6 feet, 8 inches and 302 pounds at the combine, will need to get stronger as he adjusts to the NFL level, and he had an up-and-down performance at the Senior Bowl in January. This would be a bet by the Broncos that they can harness Freeland’s athleticism and help him develop into a possible starter down the road. He would be their first selection of a true offensive tackle since 2017.
Round 4, No. 106 (Indianapolis): Byron Young, DL, Alabama
If the Broncos can’t re-sign Dre’Mont Jones in free agency this week, they would likely search for a suitable replacement in free agency — perhaps a player like Zach Allen, who spent the past two seasons playing for new Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph in Arizona. But Denver’s other starting defensive end, DeShawn Williams, is also a free agent, and the Broncos are still seeing how last year’s draft picks on the defensive line — Eyioma Uwazurike (fourth round) and Matt Henningsen (sixth) — will develop. Bottom line: There is a need on the defensive line.GO DEEPERKeep Dre'Mont Jones or let him go? Either way, Broncos need more pass-rush help
Young posted a career-high four sacks at Alabama last season and was a second-team All-American, but he prides himself on his ability to stop the run. It’s an area the Broncos are trying to fix after struggling there for the past two seasons.
“Even not being the biggest person, it’s holding the point and taking up two gaps,” Young, listed at 6-3, 297 pounds, told reporters at the Senior Bowl. “I’m able to play bigger than I am. … I’m not the kind of player who wants to be in the newspaper or on ESPN every day. I’m fine with eating up blocks.”
Ironically, Tennessee edge rusher Byron Young — yes, two SEC defensive players with the same name are in this class — could be another target in this part of the draft for a Broncos team that needs to improve its pass rush, but Alabama’s Young could be a steal in the fourth round.
Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2022 (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)
Round 4, No. 108: Isaiah McGuire, edge, Missouri
Baron Browning and Jonathon Cooper, the two edge rushers Paton selected out of Ohio State during his first draft as GM in 2021, are already entering the third year of their respective rookie contracts, and both have dealt with some injury issues since being drafted. Veterans Randy Gregory and Jacob Martin also ended last season on injured reserve. The Broncos can hope for better health in 2023, but they still need to take some swings at outside linebacker.
McGuire checked in at 6-4, 268 pounds at the combine. He closed his career at Missouri with 14 1/2 sacks and 28 tackles for loss over his final two seasons and was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2022. His pressure rate increased from 5.8 percent as a sophomore in 2020 to 13.7 percent in each of his past two seasons. Though McGuire is certainly not as explosive as former Broncos edge rusher Bradley Chubb, he has similar size and was a strong presence against the run in college.
Round 5, No. 139: Dorian Williams, LB, Tulane
The Broncos have an interesting situation at linebacker this offseason. Josey Jewell is entering the final year of his deal after signing a two-year, $11 million contract in free agency last year. Alex Singleton, a player Paton called “a baller” after his breakthrough performance in 2022, is an unrestricted free agent and should have a decent market. The Broncos also have an exclusive rights free agent in Jonas Griffith, who began last season as a starter but missed eight games due to injuries. Justin Strnad, a 2020 fifth-round pick who played primarily on special teams last season, is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
Denver has a future need for young, developing talent with high upside at the position, and Williams could fit that bill. He ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which ranked third among linebackers, a time that was unsurprising if you watched tape from his memorable senior season at Tulane. Williams finished with 132 tackles (8 1/2 for loss), five sacks, seven passes defensed, two interceptions and two forced fumbles, demonstrating a consistent ability to make plays at all levels of the field. He capped it with a career-high 17 tackles in Tulane’s upset win over USC in the Cotton Bowl.
Though wide receiver isn’t a pressing need for the Broncos, a player like Bryce Ford-Wheaton could add speed at the position. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)
Round 6, No. 195 (from Pittsburgh): Bryce Ford-Wheaton, WR, West Virginia
From a pure numbers standpoint, wide receiver does not look like a glaring need for the Broncos. They have three players under contract for 2023 who have had at least two seasons of 50 catches and 730 yards. They have other players who haven’t hit those markers but have still been impactful at times (KJ Hamler, Kendall Hinton), and they recently signed another veteran reserve in Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
But Payton is examining the roster through his own lens as he tries to construct an offense with similar firepower to the units he built in New Orleans, and that could mean opting to bring in some of his own offensive weapons. Ford-Wheaton has the kind of speed Payton likes; he ran a 4.38-second 40 that ranked fourth among wide receivers at the combine and a 41-inch vertical leap that was tied for first. He had career highs in catches (62), yards (675) and touchdowns (seven) in 2022.GO DEEPERDane Brugler's NFL mock draft, 3.0: Bears move down twice and Colts land No. 1
Round 7, No. 238 (from Indianapolis via Tampa Bay): TJ Bass, OL, Oregon
Bass played left tackle and left guard at Oregon and was named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection by the conference’s coaches in each of the past two seasons. He allowed only one sack in 2022 in 435 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s probably more suited to play on the interior of the line at the NFL level, but this selection would give new Broncos offensive line coach Zach Strief, a seventh-round pick of the Saints in 2006 who eventually became a starter, a developmental prospect of his own to mold.
A tempting option with this pick that we ultimately opted against: University of Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, who put up big numbers in a pass-happy system in college and impressed with his athleticism at the combine. It will be interesting to see whether the Broncos draft a quarterback to develop behind Wilson.
(Top photo of Luke Wypler, center: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)