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Broncos 2024 NFL Draft takeaways: Will Bo Nix and new weapons lift the offense?

Written by on April 28, 2024

The Broncos drafted quarterback Bo Nix on Thursday night, sending a jolt of excitement to a fan base starving for excellence at the position. But between that selection, at No. 12 overall, and the 100th pick that capped the end of the third round Friday, the Broncos made just one more pick, selecting Utah edge rusher Jonah Elliss at No. 76.

It was a lot of waiting, but Broncos general manger George Paton promised Day 3 would be a reward for the lulls.

“Tomorrow is going to be fun,” he said late Friday night.

It certainly wasn’t dull. The Broncos traded to the top of the fourth round right away to draft Nix’s top target at Oregon. Then, after making a cluster of picks in the fifth-round, they swung a trade for John Franklin-Myers, who will become a new anchor piece of Denver’s defense. It all wrapped a critical weekend in Sean Payton’s tenure as the Broncos’ head coach, a draft he hopes will be able to jump-start the team’s reconstruction following an offseason of upheaval.

Here are the takeaways:

The picks

Round Pick Player Pos.

1

12

Bo Nix

QB

3

76

Jonah Elliss

OLB

4

102

Troy Franklin

WR

5

145

Kris Abrams-Draine

CB

5

147

Audric Estimé

RB

7

235

Devaughn Vele

WR

7

256

Nick Gargiulo

C

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Best value pick

Troy Franklin. The wide receiver who broke a number of Oregon records last season was the 58th-ranked player on Dane Brugler’s big board, and Denver was able to get him with the second pick of the fourth round. The 19-spot jump to select Franklin 102nd overall cost Denver one of its three fifth-round picks, and it also sent a sixth-rounder to Seattle while taking back a seventh-round pick. But the Broncos are in need of productive, fast playmakers. Franklin ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the combine and has quickness in space. The pick wasn’t simply about the Broncos reuniting Nix with his favorite college target, but any move that enhances the environment around a rookie quarterback never hurts.

“We thought he was going to be taken in the second round,” said Payton, who texted general manager George Paton at 6 a.m. Saturday to say he wanted to search for a trade partner to move up when the fourth round began. “We think he’s really good at the line of scrimmage. He’s quick in and out of his cuts and he can really run. We saw a lot of explosive plays.”

The Broncos traded Jerry Jeudy in March, but they’ve now added two players in Franklin and former Lions receiver Josh Reynolds who should be able to collectively fill that void. If Marvin Mims Jr. can take another step forward in his second season — while continuing to provide pop as a returner — the Broncos could suddenly have a much-improved pass-catching group, particularly if Tim Patrick returns healthy after two seasons on the sideline due to injury.

The big question that remains at the position is Courtland Sutton. The veteran who led the Broncos with 10 touchdown catches last season has not attended the team’s voluntary offseason program and is seeking a new contract because he has no money remaining on the final two years of his deal. Sutton, of course, is not required to be with the team until a mandatory minicamp in the middle of June, and general manager George Paton emphasized last week that participation in the offseason program is “100 percent voluntary.” Still, Sutton’s status is worth keeping an eye on as teams evaluate their rosters after the draft, and it was critical Denver added a playmaker early on Day 3.

Most surprising pick

Kris Abrams-Draine. The part that qualifies as surprising is that Denver was able to get him in the middle of the fifth round. The Missouri cornerback was rated as the No. 114 overall prospect on Brugler’s board. Longtime draft analyst Jeff Legwold of ESPN had him slotted even higher: No. 64 in his top 100. Abrams-Draine is a fierce competitor who makes up for his lack of size (5-11, 179 pounds) with a willingness to fight for every ball. He had seven interceptions (four of them in 2023) and 40 passes defended during his three seasons as a defensive back in the SEC. He’ll be a fun developmental project for new secondary coach Jim Leonhard, whom Payton hired this offseason to replace Christian Parker, who joined Vic Fangio’s defensive staff in Philadelphia.

Not bad for a player who showed up to Missouri as a receiver in 2020 before making the transition to the other side of the ball.

“I feel like DB is more (of an opportunity to) show my athletic ability and stuff like that,” Abrams-Draine said of why he made the positional change. “I just feel like it was an easier transition for me because I’m a competitive person, so I just never turn down a challenge.

The Broncos have set up a good competition at the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite All-Pro Patrick Surtain II. They signed veteran Levi Wallace last week and also have rookie-contract players Damarri Mathis and Riley Moss. We’ll have to see where Abrams-Draine ultimately ends up. He could give the team nickel depth behind Ja’Quan McMillian, who had a breakout year in 2023. Either way, he’s a talented defensive back the Broncos were probably surprised to see available when their pick approached in the fifth round.

Biggest question mark

When will Nix be ready?

Payton said Thursday the biggest things a rookie quarterback needs to succeed are a strong running game and a stout defense. By Saturday, the Broncos added an intriguing pass rusher in third-round pick Jonah Elliss, a proven veteran standout at defensive end in John Franklin-Myers (two-year deal) and a new running back in fifth-round selection Audric Estime, who rushed for 1,341 yards and 18 touchdowns at Notre Dame last season. And don’t forget the familiar target in Franklin.

It is easy to see the work the Broncos are doing to build the kind of supporting structure around their first-round quarterback that can most help him succeed. But Denver should still not feel a need to rush the 24-year-old’s experience under center. Perhaps he wins the starting job. Jarrett Stidham is still unproven despite entering his sixth season in the NFL because he’s started only four games. Zach Wilson, acquired in a trade with the Jets two days before the draft, has 33 games of starting experience, but the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft won only 12 of those and will need to go through a reset in Denver. The opportunity for Nix to prove he’s the top option is certainly there.

But Payton doesn’t appear to be in any rush to make a decision.

“Bill (Parcells) taught me a long time ago, ‘Just let them play,’” Payton said. “We have to maximize the reps that we have and let them develop, and that (depth chart) stuff will sort itself out.”

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Remaining needs

Arguably the biggest need the Broncos had outside of quarterback before the draft was at tight end. Now, with Nix on board, finding him a tight end target should be the new top priority.

Brock Bowers loomed as an option if Denver had not selected a quarterback, but the Georgia All-American was taken by the Raiders one spot after Denver drafted Nix. There was a significant gap between that selection and Ben Sinnott, who was the second tight end off the board when the Commanders took him at No. 53. There was another long gap before the real run on tight ends began in the fourth round, and Denver’s wait between No. 102, where they selected Franklin ,and No. 145, where they grabbed Abrams-Draine, left them on the outside.

The Broncos re-signed Adam Trautman in free agency. They’ll bring back Greg Dulcich and hope the talented third-year player can finally get past the hamstring injuries that have plagued him thus far in his career. Lucas Krull is a young pass catcher at the position who made strides late last season. But this position is still incomplete from a pass-catching perspective, with no changes at this point from the group that had fewer receiving yards last season than any team in the NFL. It would be a surprise if Denver didn’t make another veteran addition at the position by way of trade or free-agent signing at some point before training camp.

Post-draft outlook

Payton said at the combine he was embracing the challenge of ending the constant shuffling at quarterback in Denver. He and Paton both expressed a need to improve the team’s run defense, a huge reason they stumbled to the finish line in an 8-9 season. They wanted to improve a running game that was especially feeble near the goal line.

In the months to follow, the Broncos drafted Nix, a possible long-term answer whose schematic fit with Payton is evident. They added disruptive defensive linemen in Malcolm Roach and Franklin-Myers. They drafted Estime, who rushed for 18 touchdowns last season and “has really good contact balance,” Payton said. What it all amounts to in 2024 is unclear, but say this for Broncos: They have been deliberate and methodical in identifying needs for improvement, outlining a strategy — one far different than the free-agent splurge of the previous offseason — and staying disciplined while pursuing that plan.

The Broncos’ roster has changed dramatically since Payton was hired. There could be as many as 15 starters when Week 1 rolls around in September who weren’t on the roster at the end of the 2022 season. He has changed the complexion of the team, but reconstruction is still in its early stages. The Broncos entered the draft with the longest odds to win the AFC West. Those aren’t changing now, even as they leave the draft with a new quarterback and new starting defensive end. Denver still has a long way to go.

But you don’t have to squint hard to see a plan forming. The only question now is how long it will take to be realized.

“It’s ongoing,” Payton said, “but there has to be that clear vision.”

(Top illustration photos: Rob Schumacher, Ben Lonergan, Denny Medley / USA Today)

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