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Way-too-early grade of Broncos' draft class

Jeudy, Cushenberry highlight haul for Lock
Posted at 1:48 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 16:03:49-04

DENVER -- The reason I advocated for Drew Lock to start came from stories.

Players told me of his practice exploits, of him making plays and throws they had never seen before. Then, I asked how Lock handled 10 weeks on the shelf with a thumb injury. The reviews remained positive, that he rolled up his sleeves, recognizing a clunky training camp indicated the need to refine his mechanics and decision making.

When Lock made his debut against his Chargers, everything changed for the Broncos. They won four of their final five games, inspiring confidence in general manager John Elway to tailor the draft around Lock's development. Why? It goes back to what left guard Dalton Risner told me in January and again last week.

"Drew is a young guy who gets a chance to play in the NFL for five games, wins four of the five. He does it in fashion and does it with swagger, and he gets a team behind him,” Risner said. “And I think that’s so huge."

Appearing on Lunch Talk Live on Tuesday, general manager John Elway echoed the importance of Lock's mindset and gravitas.

“A lot of times when the eyes get big and they start looking — where am I — and seem to be affected by the magnitude of the NFL. Drew didn’t do that at all. He enjoyed it out there. He has the physical talent. You just never know how they will handle going into the game mentally. He has done a tremendous job. The guys rallied around him, really believe in him,” said Elway, who talked with Lock before drafting his former teammate Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round. “I think we have something in Drew we can build on."

The Broncos have talked optimistically over the last five years about their quarterback position. The difference is that their actions match. The Broncos are all in on Lock – yes, he needs to continue getting better and has a lot to prove -- and last weekend's draft proved it. The days of 17.6 points per game -- 21.8 under Lock -- should be over with the addition of receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and Okwuegbunam, a tight end.

With the Zoom and FaceTime conversations over, it’s time for my way-too-early grade of the Broncos draft.

I won’t make you wait. I give it a solid B.

Anyone who has watched the Broncos over the last four years understands they were overdue to address the offense in a significant way. The Chiefs have lost twice the past two seasons when the opponent failed to score 30 points – the Colts last year and the Chargers in 2018. To compete with them, 30 remains the magic number. That helps explain why the Broncos have dropped nine straight to the Chiefs, and haven’t beaten them since Peyton Manning retired.

To reach the playoffs, the Broncos must average 23 points per game. That now seems possible even with a young core of offensive players.

Denver has added weapons – the onus is on offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to find ways to use them – to become more versatile and productive. My deeper dive into the keys of the draft:

JERRY JEUDY’S REFINEMENT
Receiver Jerry Jeudy enters the draft with more polish than Pledge. He has a tremendous feel and nuance in his route running, and explodes out of cuts, creating separation. He also is dynamic after the catch. Turning 6-yard receptions into 12 yard gains in the NFL cannot be underestimated. He has a complete skillset. Jeudy will excel, and it will take the pressure off Courtland Sutton, creating more one-on-one matchups for the future All-Pro.

HAMLER TIME
As someone who is 5-foot-6, I can appreciate K.J. Hamler’s underdog status as a 5-foot-9, 178-pounder. He is a blur, capable of running a 40 in the 4.2s. I love his attitude, his refusal to back down. He reminds me of Phillip Lindsay in that regard. For this pick to make sense in the second round, however, Hamler must start at slot receiver and run gadget plays off motion and misdirection. Just being a factor on kick returns with one short catch a game will not work. The Broncos passed on left tackles Josh Jones and Ezra Cleveland in the second round because, per sources, they didn’t believe either would beat out Garett Bolles or Elijah Wilkinson as rookies. As such, adding a backup tackle wouldn’t help this season as much as a starting slot receiver. Hamler has the explosive quickness for the slot: he can get open on option and choice routes. However, he must prove he can catch the ball in traffic, and fix the drops that tainted his final college season. If he could post similar numbers to Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman – 26 catches, 538 yards and six touchdowns – the Broncos will easily rank in the top 15 offensively.

CUSHY PROSPECT
LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry projects as the starting center from Day One. He follows the Broncos blueprint over the past three years of adding team captains, leaders. Cushenberry is a smart player, who held his own in college’s best conference. While his technique must improve, Cushenberry brings toughness and awareness that should help his transition to the pros.

TIGHT AND RIGHT
Albert Okwuegbunam boasts wild-card status. How he is different than tight end Noah Fant? Albert O, as he goes by, projects more as a flex tight end initially. Fant, while a work in progress blocking, was more polished in the run game in college. The two could complement each other if both are functional blockers. Okwuegbunam caught 17 touchdown passes from Lock at Missouri. He is a problem for defensive backs when the ball is in the air and has good hands. “He is a beast,” Lock told Denver7. While Okwuegbunam ran a 4.49 40 at the combine, he needs to improve his release off the line of scrimmage. As he improves his route running, he will become a larger threat. Having another option on third down and in the red zone is a bonus, but he must respond to the Broncos' challenge to sharpen his focus.

CORNER MARKET
Michael Ojemudia brings size and a willingness to tackle to the corner position. I like his upside, especially given his experience in zone coverage, but I am not sure if he will be able to unseat Duke Dawson and De’Vante Bausby for playing time as a rookie. He provides protection and depth if Bryce Callahan’s second foot surgery – he had a new screw inserted and is healing well – doesn’t take.

As for the remaining class, defensive lineman McTelvin Agim projects as a rotational player, but being active on game day could be a challenge early in the season. Linebacker Justin Strnad is a hybrid player. I would like to see him evolve into Will Parks role, where he could be used to cover tight ends in specialty packages. Guard Netane Muti brings brute strength – 44 reps of 225 pounds at the combine – and a series of serious injuries (ruptured Achilles, Lisfranc). He could serve as a solid reserve, if healthy. Derrek Tuszka’s versatility helps his chances of making team as a special teamer and reserve.

2020 DRAFT CLASS
1. Jerry Jeudy WR 6-1 193 Alabama
2. K.J. Hamler WR 5-9 178 Penn State
3. Michael Ojemudia CB 6-0 200 Iowa
3. Lloyd Cushenberry C 6-3 312 LSU
3 McTelvin Agim DL 6-3 309 Arkansas
4. Albert Okwuegbunam TE 6-3 258 Missouri
5. Justin Strnad OLB 6-3 238 Wake Forest
6. Netane Muti OG 6-3, 315 Fresno State
7. Tyrie Cleveland WR 6-2, 209 Florida
7. Derrek Tuszka DE 6-4, 251 North Dakota State

SIGNED UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS
1. Essang Bassey, DB, 5-10, 190, Wake Forest
2. LeVante Bellamy, RB, 5-9, 190, Western Michigan
3. Douglas Coleman III, DB, 6-1, 200, Texas Tech
4. Kendall Hinton, WR, 6-0, 195, Wake Forest
5. Zimari Manning, WR, 6-2, 200, Tarleton State
6. Riley Neal, QB, 6-6, 225, Vanderbilt
7. Hunter Watts, T, 6-8, 320, Central Arkansas