The old adage that defense wins championships may or may not be true, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a title-winning team that didn’t build heavily through the draft. Rookie classes, naturally, are evaluated on the perceived upside of the NFL newcomers, but which rookies are ready to contribute right out of the gate? And, how do they fit in with their new team schematically?
To help us forecast the immediate future of these NFL neophytes, we enlisted the help of draft guru Dave-Te Thomas who has served as a scouting personnel consultant to NFL teams for multiple decades.
Today, we continue PFR’s Impact Rookie series with his insight on the Denver Broncos’ draft class:
Even though Denver won the championship last season, you expect to see a great deal of changes for a team that relied heavily upon their defense to carry them into the playoffs. That unit, which ranked as the NFL’s leader in total defense (allowed 283.1 ypg) and pass defense (199.6 ypg) while ranking third against the run (83.6 ypg) lost two big contributors via free agency, including rush end Malik Jackson.
Speaking of the D-Line, the team made a strange move in the second round of the draft by taking Australian Adam Gotsis out of Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jacket’s technique failed to develop in college and he was viewed by most teams as just a strong man who can help support vs. the run, but also as a player with obvious pass rush deficiencies.
Gotsis, despite his power, was often stalled by combo blocks and reach blocks, rarely using his arms to escape from an offensive lineman’s clutches. He never really demonstrated much lateral agility and more often than not, he would lose sight of the ball carrier before the opponent hit the cut back lanes and showed marginal wrap-tackle skills. Gotsis has not played football since late October due to a torn ACL, making the selection even more puzzling.
Harder to replace is defensive tackle leader, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (109 hits, two pass thefts, eight break-ups) who bolted for Chicago, where he is reunited with some of his former coaches from past Broncos seasons. Todd Davis is penciled in as his replacement, but he comes to the first unit with just 21 tackles and two career starting assignments. A former blue chip prospect whose off-field exploits resulted in a suspension while at Oklahoma, could rookie free agent Frank Shannon be the “wild card” to squash Davis’ first unit aspirations? It’s something to keep an eye on.
The offensive line was a constant problem and three of their Super Bowl starters – left tackle Ryan Harris, left guard Evan Mathis ,and right guard Luis Vasquez were jettisoned after the season. The team also traded away former left tackle starter Ryan Clady, bringing in Seattle’s Russell Okung to play the demanding position. Max Garcia, a 2015 fourth round find, takes over at left guard, but the team has a big question mark that they hope this year’s fifth round pick, Connor McGovern, could fill at the right guard position. Ouch!
I wasn’t thrilled with every pick the Broncos made this year, but these rookies could be contributors right off the bat:
Fourth Round – Devontae Booker, RB (Utah, No. 136 overall)
Ronnie Hillman led the team in rushing last year but he had to share time with C.J. Anderson, starting ten times against Anderson’s six starts. Hillman might be seeing the writing on the wall, as the front office determined that Anderson was worth a four-year deal. Still, neither player should rest easy with the training camp depth chart now that Booker is in the mix. Until he suffered a knee injury during the second half of the 2015 schedule, Booker was considered to be the best senior running back prospect in the draft. If he can return to form, the Broncos could have their most powerful runner since Terrell Davis suited up for the Orange Crush.
In two seasons at Utah, Booker earned All-Pac 12 accolades. He became just one of just two Utah players ever to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and one of three to rush for 1,000 yards twice in his career. He set the school record for career rushing average (120.6) and tied the school record for career 100-yard rushing games (14). He also finished third in career rushing yards (2,773), fourth in career carries (560) and tied for sixth in career rushing touchdowns (21).
A few weeks after earning Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for his performance against California (267 all-purpose yards), Booker was forced to miss the final two regular season games and bowl action when he suffered a torn meniscus and bone bruise in his left knee against Arizona. Their was hope that Booker would at least be able to participate in the Senior Bowl on January 30th, but he did not gain medical clearance and was also an observer at the NFL Scouting Combine and Utah’s March 24th Pro Day.
Booker runs with very good balance, body control and loose hips. He has a quick short area burst and good footwork, doing a nice job of shifting his weight and staying low in his pads to slip through traffic into the second level. He generates good body lean, moves and fakes to con the defender and is very effective using his outstanding change of direction agility. In isolated coverage, he will generally win the foot race vs. second level defenders. He has swivel hips, rather than veer and weave, doing a nice job of picking and sliding trying to find daylight.
Booker is the type that can generate an explosive and sudden burst into the crease, as he has that low center of gravity that remind old time scouts of former Jets tailback Freeman McNeil. He has outstanding vision and stop-and-go action to freeze the defender and is a slippery runner through the holes. He runs with great balance and flashes good quickness on the move. He might not be able to simply fly past an opponent, but he can quickly pick and slide through trash and is a fast-twitched type who has no problem negotiating through even the tiniest of creases.
Booker has excellent change of direction agility and body control. He is very effective when taking the pitch and having time to scan the field. He is the type that can create quite a bit on his own, but also is patient following his blocks. He does a very good job of adjusting on the move and with his shiftiness in and out of his cuts, he can get past the second level consistently. He has good lower body strength to break tackles and it is rare to see him go down on the initial hit.
Booker bounces outside with good urgency. He has superb outside vision and can get to his top-end speed to take the ball to the house turning the corner. He moves well as an option running back, also, where he is able to capitalize on his balance and foot work. He has a very good feel for the cutback lanes, getting the bulk of his yardage when doing so. He might not have the timed speed to beat secondary defenders, but takes good angles and shows the head and shoulder fakes to take those opponents out of the play. With his body control, he excels at turning it up with his outside run.
Booker shows good hands for the passing game. He is fluid when trying to extend his hands away from the framework, especially when attempting to get to off-target tosses. He shows good concentration to look the ball in and is quick to turn and head up field after the catch. He has the body control to adjust to the ball in flight and has a very good feel for getting open on the screens.
Continue reading about the Broncos’ rookie class..
Fifth Round – Connor McGovern, OG (Missouri, No. 144 overall)
For the sake of the Broncos’ quarterbacks, let’s hope that the Missouri Tiger quickly acclimates to the professional game. With Evan Mathis and Luis Vasquez gone, the team’s limited options at the guard position show them penciling in McGovern as the starting right guard and Max Garcia on the left side. Also joining the competition are two college rookie free agents, Justin Murray and Aaron Neary, both lining up behind Garcia. McGovern will face off against former Raven Robert Myers and 2015 street free agen Cameron Jefferson. With 2014 sixth-round pick Matt Paradis as the starting center and Houston waiver wire pick-up James Ferentz backing him up, the interior line positions are all up for grabs.
For McGovern, he will be returning to a position he manned for Missouri back in 2014. He began that year as the starting right tackle before moving to guard. At the interior spot, the Tigers posted an 8-2 record in the ten games McGovern played with the first unit. Boasting a team record 690-pound squat, he took over left tackle duties for Missouri in 2015, finishing with an 85.4% blocking consistency grade that saw him deliver 74 knockdowns during the team’s losing campaign.
With some of the best strength performances leading up to the draft (33 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the Combine), McGovern also has good foot speed (5.12), evident by his ability to mirror defenders in pass protection. He possesses more than enough strength behind his anchor to keep quarterbacks upright and he is very quick to reset his hands to get leverage, even when he might appear a bit off balanced coming off the line. He’s the type that consistently keeps his feet moving and places his head on a swivel to stay in front of his assignment.
McGovern is capable of blocking down with one hand before sliding to help in combination with his tackle on the same play. He’s displayed good field vision and responds well when locating the blitz, taking advantage of his power to lock on and steer the defender away from the play. He works hard to keep his arms extended and feet shuffling in pass protection and, while he may not have been required to trap much at Missouri, he has the balance and foot speed to get out in front in attempts to stalk the second level defenders.
The Denver coaches seemed impressed in McGovern during minicamp, as he displayed those quick feet that their scheme requires from their guards when leading the way on pulls outside and traps inside. He can reach the second level in a hurry, and has the natural bend and flexibility to get the correct angle on target. He easily dominates smaller defenders after initial contact, latching on with force, as he also utilizes that strength to take out multiple targets with strong glancing blows. Yes, there are times when he will miss the inside target, but you know that he will give you maximum effort to cut or reach the linebacker as he goes by.
Undrafted Rookie Free Agent – Frank Shannon, ILB (Oklahoma)
Prior to the 2014 season, the former Sooner was the subject of a sexual misconduct allegation report in April, in which a female Oklahoma student accused Shannon of sexually assaulting her at an off-campus apartment in January. The alleged victim did not want to press charges, which is why the Cleveland County district attorney’s office did not prosecute the case. However, the university was obligated by federal law to conduct its own internal investigation and concluded that Shannon should be suspended for a year.
Shannon led the Sooners in tackles in 2013, a season that ended with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. He would not play again until the 2015 season opener after the alleged incident. He split inside linebacker duties with Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, starting three times last season. He would record 177 tackles with five sacks and 11.5 stops-for-loss in 37 career games, but was still a bit rusty from his 2014 lay-off, posting just 36 hits and a sack during his final college season.
Shannon is the type of player that has better success from quick reactions rather than displaying great instincts. He can explode into the running lane and smother underneath throws in zone coverage, but all too often, he will get sucked in by play-action, even though he is fast enough to recover from a false step. He has a good straight-line burst when hustling down field or when giving chase to the sideline.
While Shannon can attack and slide by lead blockers coming out of the hole, he will also lose the ball or over-pursue the play. He has the ability to knife through holes when attacking stretch plays, as his arms help him bring down backs when he doesn’t break down, but he seems to prefer running around blocks inside and that makes him inconsistent taking on linemen in the trenches and using his length to get free. He is still untested as a pass defender, but for some reason last year, he tended to get too upright when dropping into zone coverage, even though he did demonstrate good sideline-to-sideline range.
In order to earn playing time at the next level, Shannon will need to prove in camp that he is able to identify and stay with receivers in his zone and run with tight ends and slot receivers down the seam. His lack of height will not make it difficult for quarterbacks to throw over him, as he does not show great timing going up for jump balls and even when he jumps the pattern, the ball is likely to bounce off his marginal catching hands. As a hitter, he must learn how to sink his hips instead of tackling with shoulder pads. He also must improve his angles to the ball or the quicker NFL ball carriers will have a field day cutting back against him.
Dave-Te Thomas owns and operates The NFL Draft Report, a service providing insight to league scouting departments for over 40 years. All year round, you can read Thomas’ in-depth reviews of both blue chip prospects and diamonds in the rough by visiting the NFL Draft Report blog.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.