Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
The Broncos finished the 2019 season on a bittersweet note. Although they failed to reach the playoffs for the 4th year in a row, their last trip claiming the ultimate prize in 2015 with a Super Bowl victory, there is a glimmer of hope for the future. One of the big reasons the Broncos have struggled over the last few years is a lack of consistent and proven quarterback play. Losing one of the best QBs of all time in Peyton Manning was never going to be easy, and then failing to capitalize on the rebound by drafting Paxton Lynch 26th overall in the 2016 draft only made the rebuild more time consuming.
However, with a recently anointed QB of the future in Drew Lock, there’s some optimism that he’ll lead the Broncos back to the promised land. Flacco was an uninspired option for the team at this point in his career, and Lock filled in nicely, showing at least a modicum of potential. Lock was 4-1 as a rookie in his only five starts. He was drafted in the 2nd round, so his pedigree isn’t that of a Murray or Mayfield, but for now he’ll carry the hopes of the offense forward. In that regard, let’s take a look at the state of the Broncos’ offense going into 2020.
Denver’s offense in 2019 wasn’t particularly effective, efficient, or explosive (the three “Es” of scoring dynamics). Their point differential of -34 isn’t all that alarming, but it is mostly bolstered by a modestly above average defense. The 282 points they scored was good for 3rd fewest in the AFC, ahead of only Cinci and the Jets. It generally isn’t great news when you manage to score just three more points than a team that lost 14 games. League-wide, their 17.6 points per game was 28th overall. Unsurprisingly, the Broncos struggled mightily moving the ball, ranking 28th overall in yards per drive.
Most of the blame for the offensive struggles can probably be lobbed at Joe Flacco, individually, and the passing game, together. He was undeniably poor for his eight-game stint. Flacco was not benched, though, like he was in Baltimore the previous year. Instead, it took an injury to knock him out of his starting spot. During his tenure, he was 29th in DVOA and DYAR, as well as 23rd in QBR. Lock’s sample size is small, of course, but he managed positive figures in both DVOA (2.2%) and DYAR (138), which is more than can be said for Flacco.
Denver’s struggling passing game was 28th in the league in yards and dead last in touchdowns. On the efficiency side, they finished 25th in expected points from the pass attack. The offense as a whole was 26th in league efficiency, held afloat only slightly by the run game. That rushing attack was 19th in DVOA and 17th in expected points. On a more positive note, the line managed to stitch together a cumulative effort that led to an 11th ranking in adjusted line yards (ALY). The line was, however, 25th in graded pass protection. Having Flacco as a statute probably doesn’t help that figure, although the 41 sacks allowed was middle of the road.
Given this overview, it would seem Denver’s most pressing concerns on offense are to create a more dynamic and potent threat. With the passing game being so important in today’s NFL, it only makes sense that a struggling passing team couldn’t score points or scrape together enough wins for a playoff push. The running game wasn’t great, either, finishing 20th in yards per game while being 14th in attempts.
Drew Lock seemed to provide at least a small boost to the passing game. That could be something to build off of next season. Meanwhile, the running attack has only gotten better with the addition of Melvin Gordon through free agency. Denver had a balanced attack with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, but adding Gordon gives them a higher ceiling and more for the defense to worry about. The bigger points of contention are what to do with the receiving corps and the offensive line.
Courtland Sutton emerged last season as a possible long-term contributor. Even DaeSean Hamilton seemed to develop a rapport with Drew Lock. The question is whether either of these guys are true #1 receivers, and if not, where can the Broncos find one. Neither receiver had a particularly strong catch rate, 58% and 54% respectively, but that’s at least partially attributable to poor quarterback play and doesn’t take into account drops (or lack thereof).
Meanwhile, the offensive line put up a mixture of good and bad. PFF graded the Broncos line as 12th best in the league despite its struggles on the right side. Ja’Wuan James managed to play only three games, the third time in his six-year career he missed at least half a season. The Broncos gave him a lucrative contract last offseason, a move that came with plenty of risk. So far, that risky maneuver hasn’t seen expected returns. His fill-in, Elijah Wilkinson, was a real weak link. He allowed 10 sacks on the year, good for 4th most in the NFL for a tackle.
The rest of the line seems in good hands, although that, too, isn’t without drawbacks. Garett Bolles, Denver’s first-round pick from 2017, was the 8th most penalized player in the league (accepted penalties only), and ranked 2nd in terms of total flags thrown. He’s shown durability, though, along with tremendous athleticism. The Broncos did lose their starting center to the Jets, Connor McGovern. They replaced him with Detroit’s former center in Graham Glasgow. Speculation seems to point to the idea of Glasgow moving to right guard, however, while Dalton Risner, a promising sophomore, maintains his anchor at left guard. Moving into the center spot could possibly be Patrick Morris, as rumors abound the Broncos like what they see in him.
For now, absent the speculation, the Broncos are mostly set on the offensive line. They need an upgrade at right tackle potentially, but the team would be paying Ja’Wuan James a lot of money next season to not see the field as a starter (or worse, he again ends up injured). Wilkinson should be fine for guard depth, but the Broncos did also lose their former starter on the right in Ronald Leary. Depending on where Glasgow plays, the team will require additional depth at perhaps more than one position.
With this overview, we’ve determined the biggest needs on offense are at wide receiver (WR) and along the offensive line, though perhaps mostly at tackle (T). Next up, we’ll see how the defense fared in comparison.
Relative to the offense, the defense for the Broncos was the clear bright spot. It certainly wasn’t without its flaws, but it managed a much stronger campaign than its counterpart and can almost certainly be considered the reason Denver didn’t lose more games. On counting stats, the defense ranked 10th in points-per-game allowed. They were 12th in yards allowed. The passing defense was a bit of a mixed bag (24th in completion percentage, 11th in YPG, and 5th in TDs), but more good than bad. The real bright spot there was in the red zone, where the Broncos led the league in allowed touchdown percentage (39.1%).
The rush defense was similarly decent. Although they were middling in YPG at 111.4 (16th), they allowed only 9 rushing touchdowns on the entire season, 3rd best in the NFL. From an efficiency standpoint, the two units were quite comparable, with the run defense ranking 16th compared to 14th overall on the passing side. The Broncos were 13th in defensive DVOA. The one place they seemed to really struggle was in generating turnovers and big plays.
Denver had 10 interceptions all season, which was near the bottom of the league (25th). Their 8 forced fumbles would also rate near the basement (27th). Forty sacks on the year was middle-of-the-road (17th), so not a total loss, and being 11th in adjusted sack rate actually looks fair. However, they were also 19th in pressure rate at 22.9%, although they also didn’t blitz all that often (just 24.1% of the time in Vic Fangio’s first season as head coach).
Being a defensive-minded coach, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the unit wasn’t a total loss in transition under Fangio. Thus far, many of Denver’s players have had nothing but good things to say about his overall architecture. If you’re not familiar, Vic cut his teeth as a coach under Jim Mora with the Saints. It wasn’t technically his first job, but he spearheaded the notorious “Dome Patrol” in New Orleans during the late 80s / early 90s.
The team has only improved since the end of the season, as well, or at least on paper. They traded for corner A.J. Bouye from Jacksonville for a measly 4th-round pick. The Broncos also acquired Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey from Tennessee. Casey is a do-it-all lineman that can play any spot and any technique. While he would traditionally line up as a 1-or-3-tech with Tennessee, he’ll see a lot of 5-tech with Denver, which allows them to also keep their big nose tackle Mike Purcell on the field in Fangio’s modified “4-3 under” scheme. According to PFF, Purcell was the league’s best interior run defender. That will give the Broncos some schematic versatility, a boon considering that’s what Fangio’s plans require.
In the trade-off, however, Denver did lose their long-time, productive defensive end in Derek Wolfe. They also lost corner Chris Harris Jr. to the Chargers and safety Will Parks to our beloved Eagles. While the Broncos clearly lost production and value all over the field, they did well to replace most, if not all of it. They’ll also hope young guys continue to step into bigger roles. Along the defensive line, Dre’Mont Jones and Demarcus Walker are draft picks from 2019 and 2017, respectively. Isaac Yiadom on the outside and Josey Jewell in the middle of the defense are both 2018 draftees. That doesn’t even include 5th overall from that year, Bradley Chubb, who is still adjusting a bit to new schemes and assignments.
Von Miller continues to carry the flag for this defense. Although his production dipped a little in 2019 and he’s now on the wrong side of 30, he’ll continue to command attention from opposing offenses. Re-signing Shelby Harris and Joel Heath means the Broncos are fully set along the defensive line with both veteran depth and intriguing young prospects. At the next level, their linebacker situation is a little more tenuous, although they have a fair amount of options thanks to the emergence of Alexander Johnson. They’ll have to hope the same happens for Josey Jewell in 2020.
The Broncos’ secondary is their most questionable unit. Nabbing Bouye from Jacksonville fills a huge need on the outside. Thought to pair at the other outside spot was either Kareem Jackson or Bryce Callahan. However, last season, the Broncos moved Kareem Jackson to strong safety and Callahan broke his foot late in 2018, with a complication ending his 2019 season before it even began. Denver has a number of young bodies to attempt to plug that hole. It is probable Callahan moves back to the slot where he attained strong grades with Chicago (under Fangio). Jackson is also 31 now and has (at most) two years left on his deal. Justin Simmons is firmly entrenched in the free safety role. Depth here is razor thin for Denver, at best.
Depending on how the Broncos view their young corner talents, this position (CB) and safety (S) are by far the two biggest needs on defense. They also have a less glaring need in the middle linebacker positions (LB).
Now that we have a functional understanding of the Broncos needs heading into 2020, we can advance to their potential draft strategy and players they may be targeting.
The Broncos currently own ten picks in the upcoming draft. This gives them a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to draft day maneuvering, which seems to be somewhat of a specialty for General Manager John Elway. Elway has been the GM for the Broncos since 2011. In that time, he’s made at least one draft-day trade each year. Twenty trades in total over those nine drafts. Between them owning ten picks and Elway’s propensity for moving up and down, it seems quite likely the Broncos will make at least one trade during the 2020 draft.
From a strategic standpoint, knowing this information gives us a better idea as to what Elway may be thinking. The next determination to make is whether we would expect the Broncos to move up or down during the draft, perhaps targeting a specific player that would otherwise be out of their reach due to draft position and/or other teams’ needs.
Out of those twenty trades under Elway, twelve would be considered a move “down” in the draft. The Broncos traded a higher pick for a combination of lower ones (or future picks). The other eight trades can be considered trades “up” in the draft (lower picks for a higher one). It’s almost an even split for what Elway prefers, but there’s a slight preference for trading down (60%). Still, considering the Broncos generally limited team needs and desire to fill particular roster spots, it is probably unlikely they use all of their picks this year, instead using some of their ten total selections to move up when it becomes advantageous (or necessary).
The Broncos ten picks consist of their own first and second rounders (15 and 46), three third rounders (77, 83, 95), a fourth (118), a fifth (178), a sixth (181), and two compensatory seventh rounders (252, 254). They added two additional third-round picks via trades, one with the Steelers in the 2019 draft (so the Steelers could move up and grab Devin Bush), and the other with the 49ers when the Broncos traded Emmanuel Sanders. Denver had additional picks, as well, that have since been traded (a 4th for Bouye, a 7th for Casey, their original 6th to New England for Duke Dawson, a 5th as part of the Sanders trade). It is clear Elway likes to make moves.
With that all in mind, let’s consider the possible trade scenarios the Broncos may deploy.
As previously mentioned, during the draft under Elway, the Broncos have traded down 60% of the time while moving up 40% of the time over twenty different trades. Since this is a relatively even split, it’s only fair to consider both alternatives.
TRADING UP – Due to Denver owning ten picks in this year’s draft, they appear more likely to move up, perhaps as early as the first round. The Broncos have made five draft-day trades involving first-round picks, so Elway certainly isn’t shy about making use of premium selections. Of those five trades, three have been moves down while the other two were moving up. In 2012, the Broncos traded down twice, from 25 to 31, and then again from 31 to 36 (out of the first round entirely). Last year, of course, the Broncos traded down from 10 to 20 with the Steelers.
In 2015, the Broncos moved up five spots (28 to 23) to grab Shane Ray (a move that looked promising before Ray injured his wrist, which has effectively ended his career for the time being). The Broncos also moved up the following year in 2016. It was to grab the potential Peyton Manning replacement in Paxton Lynch, another move that unfortunately didn’t pan out long-term. That move from 31 to 26 cost them a single third rounder.
Where the Broncos sit this year, a move up into the single digits would cost them a good amount of capital. Trading up a couple spots into say the 12th pick wouldn’t be as expensive, and it all largely depends on who the Broncos may be targeting and how the board falls. If I suspect they are looking for a tier-1 offensive tackle or wide receiver, they may not have a choice but to trade up. Given those two needs and the possibility of those seven targets being gone by 15, I think it is likely the Broncos trade up in the first round. Against the other two options, I’ll give it a 50% chance.
TRADING DOWN – The Broncos seem unlikely to move down absent other moves. It is certainly realistic they could move down if they at first move up in the draft, but if they were looking at an either-or possibility, it is more likely they move up than move down. The Broncos already own ten draft picks. Acquiring more seems redundant, unless they move picks from this draft to the 2021 draft. That’s never out of the realm of possibilities. Still, the Broncos have relatively limited needs on their roster, a couple spots on offense and defense. It is probably better for them to go after quality over quantity during this draft.
The Broncos do have a good amount of cap space, 12th in the league with about $20 million. That will give them enough to sign any amount of picks they draft, but that’s not the only consideration, especially with certain contract extensions looming on the horizon (most notably Garett Bolles). Having Lock on a cheap salary for now saves them some headache, though if he doesn’t work out, it also means the Broncos will have to go back to the draft to find a replacement for him.
For now, I give the Broncos only a 10% of trading down, but that number goes up if the Broncos make other moves first.
STAYING PUT – The final possibility is simply staying at the 15th spot and taking the best available player. It is possible, perhaps even likely, one of the Broncos primary targets is still on the board if they don’t make any trades. However, the Broncos are also competing against other teams that may be interested in trading up and taking away one of their targets. If other teams get aggressive, Denver may have no choice but to do the same.
Even if other teams trade up and snake away their targets, Denver trading down from the 15th spot to add more picks when they already have ten appears excessive. Instead, it is perhaps more likely they stand pat and take the best available choice left on their board, even if that player isn’t necessarily deemed an immediate starter. They can get a good player at 15 regardless of position.
I give the Broncos a 40% chance of staying put in the draft and taking their top player. All-in-all, at least in the first round, I do think the Broncos are more likely to trade up than do anything else, only because there are few tier-1 players at positions where the Broncos and plenty of other teams share the same needs. They’ll have to compete against the other teams behind them for a few choice players, if they so desire.
As for how this relates to the current mock draft, I have no such choice to make. I must stay put at 15 and take the best player. With that, let’s get to the selection.
THE 15th PICK
As I mentioned previously, the Broncos true team needs are as follows: WR, OT, S, CB, LB
For this particular mock, I chose to employ a strategy of, “what would the Broncos do in this situation?” This doesn’t necessarily mean I would personally make the same decision. I’m putting myself in Elway’s (and Fangio’s) shoes, approaching this pick from an angle of: if the Broncos had to pick in the same context, what’s their most probable selection?
When it came down to it, a number of factors led to my selection at this spot. First, I do think picking the best available player regardless of roster need is the most effective strategy in almost every instance. Second, because there are no trades during this mock, I had limited options in how I could strategize. When runs happened for the needy positions, I was left holding the bag. At that point, the options are either (1) reach for a need position and get what is (subjectively) a lower-tier player, or (2) take the best player I can find that also fits what the Broncos are trying to accomplish.
To help explain the selection process, my Big Board Top-15 looked like this at the start of the draft:
I only mention the top-15 players because there are no trades. Thus, I am assured to get one player from this list. I should also disclose this is my own personal big board and not necessarily one tailored to the Broncos and their team fit and needs.
The Broncos’ top offensive needs, OT and WR, both saw early runs. My Tier-1 players at those two positions were all gone (Lamb, Jeudy, Ruggs at WR, and Becton, Wirfs, Wills, and Thomas at tackle). While I previously acknowledged the Broncos’ offense was in more dire need of improvement, I can’t control how the draft fell.
As such, I was left in a position of sticking to my board (at least if it fits with the Broncos) or going down the board and taking a player that isn’t necessarily “best available.” Truthfully, I labored a bit over which way to proceed. This is a difficult decision for Elway and Fangio. Do you ignore the offense for the sake of improving the defense, despite the defense needing less overall improvement? Do you look down the board and forsake your BPA strategy to “reach” for an offensive player? In the end, I stuck with the best player available, in my mind. I will discuss the alternatives later.
That all said, with the 15th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos select . . .
Xavier McKinney, Safety, Alabama
Why McKinney? The most obvious reason: he’s the best player available on my board. That alone is probably good enough, but since I’m supposed to be picking with Elway, Fangio, and the Broncos in mind, let’s dive into why McKinney is a fantastic fit for the Denver organization.
It is, of course, an added benefit that the Broncos are paper thin at the safety position. My team analysis from above discussed that the Broncos only have one true safety on the roster, Justin Simmons. He played free safety at Boston College extensively, along with a few scattered starts at corner for various reasons. Kareem Jackson was moved to strong safety last season after playing nine years at corner for the Houston Texans. His first position in football was as a running back in high school, but he had no real previous experience at either safety position.
Going down the rest of the Broncos defensive backfield, no one else has experience as a safety, either. They have a thick group of corners, but it sounds more like a case of quantity over quality. Still, at safety, they essentially have only one player after losing Will Parks to the Eagles in free agency. That’s where McKinney comes in.
While Jackson did play well in his new spot last year, he’s now 31 and none of his salary for the 2021 season, the last year of his contract, is guaranteed. The Broncos could save $10 million on the cap by cutting him before then. Even if they don’t, they will need a long-term solution next to Justin Simmons.
McKinney is a swiss army knife on defense. He can play just about any defensive back position, although I’d expect most teams aren’t toying with the idea of putting him on the outside. At Alabama, he played all over the field1:
- Box safety – 285 snaps, 34.5%
- Free safety – 271 snaps, 32.8%
- Slot corner – 227 snaps, 27.5%
- Defensive line – 38 snaps, 4.6%
- Perimeter corner – 5 snaps, 0.6%
1Stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.
He recorded five interceptions and forced six fumbles (four last year) during his ‘Bama tenure, two years as a starter. For a team that struggled to make plays on defense, a team that didn’t create turnovers, McKinney would offer strong potential to create results.
It isn’t all physical with McKinney, either. He was a film buff and would offer insights to the Alabama coaches on new ways to use him, varying coverages. A true tactician. The kind of guy you want sitting in the middle of your defense and leading them. For these reasons, he reminds me a lot of Malcolm Jenkins. A safety you can place all over the field, down in the box, blitzing, leading, and he excels no matter what. We’ll get into it a bit later why his proficiency as a communicator is all the more important in Denver’s defense.
While Jenkins had more initial experience as a corner, McKinney got plenty of experience in the slot, a good guy to matchup against backs or tight ends. He put in more than a quarter of his time there as a junior.
It must also be stated that, as a defensive-minded coach, it is almost certain Vic Fangio would love a guy like McKinney. Fangio excels in using multiple defensive sets to confuse offenses. As McKinney already has experience playing as a multi-tool in various roles, he shouldn’t have much problem continuing the trend in the professional ranks.
VIC FANGIO’S DEFENSE
The offensive game has evolved. As Fangio himself has said, “You’ve substituted either a fullback or a second tight end with a third wide receiver. The game has trended towards the speed of the wide receivers and spreading it out.” For that reason, defenses are forced to offer multiple looks and defend against extra receivers 80% of the time. In doing so, you need the personnel to counteract those offensive changes.
Justin Simmons described the defense as one that is, “always a mix and match. We’re always moving around. We try to make it as tough as possible on everybody and spreading the equal plays around.” When the defense “passes the burden around” according to Von Miller, you need guys that can work together and communicate. What this sounds like is a combination of man-zone hybrid concepts.
This brand of defensive strategy started back in the mid-90s at the pro level and has mostly continued at the college level, initiated by none other than Nick Saban, McKinney’s old coach. If you want to learn more in-depth about this style of defense, you can read a great article about it by clicking here. As Louis Riddick explained, “You have to practice it because it requires communication between the second- and third-level defenders.”
For this piece, I’ll keep it simple and explain why McKinney slides right into Denver’s defensive scheme. Basically, the defensive backfield starts in zone coverage and then pulls into man as the offensive player makes his move, or in other instances the opposite happens. It is a similar style to “palms” defense that’s perhaps a bit more well-known (for you high school players). Fangio uses these “match cover-3” or “pattern matching” ideas, even more often he uses “cover 7” principles (based more out of quarters) in his defense, principles that Saban has used extensively at Alabama.
Because McKinney is already familiar with these concepts from his time at Alabama, even helping to develop his own coverages, he should be intimately familiar with what Fangio is trying to accomplish in Denver. He can slide into the scheme without dealing with a steep learning curve on how to communicate in cover-match, where players have to constantly call out their job and trade-off with teammates, and he can play multiple positions within it, so it doesn’t matter nearly as much where he ends up on the field. McKinney is exactly the type of defender that Fangio needs for his system. He’s perhaps uniquely compatible, and that’s a big reason why he is the simple choice.
To better assess McKinney’s strengths and weaknesses, let us examine the tape. At the forefront, let’s analyze what a box safety prototype needs in spades: tackling prowess. How does McKinney look there?
We can see despite playing deep, McKinney is able to aggressively pursue his target with direct angles and force, a robust display of range. How about closer to the box or against more powerful running backs?
We see a similar approach. McKinney displays strong fundamentals in tackling form (wrap and drive), as well as good mechanics and approach angles. He’s also unwilling to cede field to an attempted trucking. Now that isn’t always the case, of course, as McKinney can sometimes take a bad approach or lose his target and is unable to recover, at least in part due to less than elite physical or athletic traits.
On the plus side in this play, McKinney uses his tactical edge to hold then pass off the vertical threat and revert to the underneath motion route. In going for the tackle, however, he initially takes too wide of an angle, and he also oversells his hips, leaving the inside open for Jefferson to cut upfield. McKinney gets burned because he doesn’t have equivalent quickness to recover.
Xavier was forced to cover Jefferson in the slot for a good portion of this game, and Jefferson had one of his relatively weaker performances in the SEC Championship, at least partly due to Xavier’s cover skills. The 79 yards were his 5th-fewest, and one of only four games he didn’t score a touchdown.
Here, McKinney finds himself matched up in the slot against Duke’s Scott Bracey and is plenty outsized. Aside from cheating a little to the outside expecting perhaps a quick-out, McKinney sticks close to his man and shows tremendous power by bringing down the receiver from behind, generally out of position. McKinney slams him to the ground and forces a near-fumble in the process.
Next, also mostly from the box, we can judge McKinney’s blitzing technique. Although Fangio doesn’t call on the blitz a ton within his scheme (24.1%, 23rd in the NFL), what he’ll need are effective blitzers, nonetheless, to make those few blitzing opportunities effectual, thus efficient. How does McKinney measure up there?
McKinney’s proper tackling mechanics play a large role here. It makes him a fully effective blitzer. His ability to “lay the wood” can render quarterbacks hyperaware of his existence when he approaches the line of scrimmage. It is clear the kind of punishment he can provide, and he has the speed to get to the QB with limited delay.
In this last example, he’s a bit more patient in letting his linemen engage in their blocks, then he picks his spot and attacks, showing ample burst and acceleration. Obviously, McKinney won’t be tasked with simply blitzing and playing the run in the box. How does he matchup in coverage? What do his ball skills look like? Here’s a few examples.
From these samples, we can glean that McKinney can, at the very least, adequately cover matchups of varying caliber and position. In the second clip, McKinney shows us the classic ‘feel-and-lean” and uses the sideline as an extra defender, also getting his head around to locate the ball in flight like a corner. In the last excerpt, McKinney motions with his assignment, slides through any possible picks or screens, and attacks with decisiveness before Edwards-Helaire can get upfield.
Here, McKinney is playing the slot, where he spent more than 25% of his time as a defender. This is more a testament to how he operates in space and in off-man coverage. He generally shows solid awareness and foot movement, though he’s not as tight as he could be. He initiates this tackle a little high against the shorter opponent, but his burst is still evident.
Finally, while we’ve seen a little of his ball skills already, how does it look when McKinney has to play center field?
In the first clip, Xavier shows good body control and ball tracking, able to maneuver his body into position to make the interception despite being awkwardly situated prior to its arrival. In the second clip, McKinney begins his back-pedal and is forced to hedge between two deep routes. He demonstrates fluid control and transitions from a back-pedal, to open hips, then back again on the opposite side. As the ball arrives, we see him in perfect position to high-point the ball and make the pick. It isn’t the highest jump, but it also doesn’t need to be.
- Versatility and leadership all over the defensive backfield are two primary selling points.
- He’ll typically keep in a wide and even base when initiating the tackle. When he doesn’t, he can find himself out of position and lacks elite athleticism to make a full recovery.
- McKinney could be mistaken as a linebacker given his gap discipline, run fits, and tackling prowess, and that makes him a more intriguing draft option than a pure LB for a team that is looking for both, like Denver.
- Prototypical box-defender physicality, along with adequate front-to-back range from a more traditional strong safety position to make plays along the line of scrimmage. Side-to-side and deep range will be limited by his top-end speed.
- Won’t wow anyone with elite physical traits, length, or athleticism, but his tape shows more than enough effective burst and power to assuage any concerns over combine numbers.
McKinney’s weakest point may be his overall athleticism. Let’s address that now.
We were robbed of pro days this year, so McKinney never got a chance to improve his own testing numbers. He pulled up at the Combine with a hamstring injury and was possibly operating at less than full capacity. Clocked in high school at 4.59 (with a 4.21 short-shuttle), it is unlikely he got considerably slower. It is also possible he bulked up extra for the Combine and that temporarily hampered his speed and agility. An RAS of 5.90 won’t impress anyone, but we also don’t have the full picture. Based on the tape, I think it is safe to say Xavier has – at the bare minimum – slightly above average athletic ability with an emphasis on power and explosion over pure speed and agility. His physical measurements may also deter pure “size” analysts, but it isn’t something that’s hampered his play up to this point.
While I have attempted to make the case for the Broncos selecting McKinney, it is also possible that: (1) he is not actually available when the Broncos pick, or (2) the Broncos like someone else more, or (3) all else being equal, they would rather attack one of their other weaknesses on the field. Always have a “Plan B.”
If the early run on offensive linemen or receivers doesn’t happen, it is quite possible that’s the direction I would have gone. It goes without saying you never can be sure which way the draft goes, so let’s look at some other prospects the Broncos could target on draft day.
- Andrew Thomas, T, Georgia – Truthfully, just about any of the top-tier offensive tackles could go here. I consider the top four tackles as being on their own level, while farther down the list are Josh Jones out of Houston and Austin Jackson out of USC (the second tier). These latter two were available in our mock, but I don’t believe either is strong enough a prospect to take at 15 overall. Arguably, the Broncos only need help on the right side of their line, as they can’t rely on James to remain healthy all season, and they have no current backup plan. I have some reticence about Thomas’s athleticism and kick step, and that’s why I think he’s better suited for the right side. If for some reason Bolles isn’t in the long-term plans, then the Broncos will need help quite urgently. Thomas is skilled and long enough he could play either end if needed. He may only require a bit of technique work. I think he’s the most likely of the four to make it to #15.
- Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama – Ruggs is a popular pick among Broncos’ mock drafters. The Broncos need serious help on offense. Outside of protecting Drew Lock, the most important task to accomplish is surrounding him with weapons. Ruggs would be useful on most any team that needs dynamic athleticism, but there is some concern because players with his size and speed profile haven’t fared well in the NFL. That said, it’s a bit unfair to Ruggs to hold what others have (or haven’t) done against him. He was the 16th player on my board and taken early. The Broncos may have to trade up for him. They could conceivably get jumped by another team for his services. Again, any top receiver could go here, but Ruggs is the most likely in my mind to make it to #15.
- Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma -Vic Fangio, the man coaching the “Dome Patrol” with the Saints, loves him some linebackers. It is certainly conceivable he takes the second-best linebacker in this draft class if, like in our case, the offensive side of the ball is cleaned up early. I, too, considered Murray for this pick, but I felt the Broncos had a bit more depth at linebacker as compared to safety. Also, someone like McKinney can theoretically fill in a quasi-linebacker role because of his experience up in the box. However, the opposite is not true; Murray cannot play safety or the related spots, therefore his versatility as a prospect in comparison is more limited. Still, he has the athleticism to drop into coverage on mismatches and simply makes plays. For a team needing linebackers, Murray is an intriguing prospect.
- A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa – I don’t love the edge talent in this class on the high-end, but someone like Epenesa could be a versatile end that helps the Broncos up front almost immediately. Obviously, they are deep along the defensive line already, so it might be difficult for Epenesa to find time right away. Perhaps that’s okay as ends often have trouble transitioning to the NFL game. He’s got the length and strength to play a 5-tech in Fangio’s 3-4/4-3 hybrid scheme, but he could also slide closer inside to a 3-tech if needed with his power. His athletic scores are a tad worrying, posting an RAS of only 4.09; maybe he projects better as a run stuffer than a sack machine.
- C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida – The “next man up” on my big board, given the Broncos’ needs in the defensive backfield, corner was another position I considered with the 15th pick. Henderson has attractive cover-man qualities and experience. He also has the athletic attributes every NFL team craves, posting an eye-popping RAS of 9.97. A decent combination of length, speed, and strength. However, I’m not sure he’s a natural fit for the Broncos scheme and what Fangio prefers out of his defensive players. A bit too “finesse” and not enough grit. The latter of which translates into tackling and run support. That’s a big reason I ultimately decided against Henderson, but maybe Elway bucks Fangio and takes him anyway because of those positive traits. The Broncos also have an already crowded cornerback outfit, even if it’s a matter of quantity over quality, there is such thing as too many cooks. Maybe one or two of the rostered players can break out this season. The Broncos will at least have to give them a chance.
These are a handful of possibilities I considered with the Broncos’ selection. As I said, the Broncos could certainly target any of the Top-4 offensive tackles but may have to trade up to get one. They could also target any of the Top-3 receivers with the same caveat. It is also possible, if all are taken, the Broncos move down the board and stick with wide receiver, anyway.
I considered “reaching” for someone like Justin Jefferson or Brandon Aiyuk because Denver really does need a receiver or two. However, due to the depth of this year’s receiver class, I felt the Broncos could stand pat and get a good-to-great receiving talent in the 2nd round while also getting a bona fide player and fit in McKinney. To me, that presented itself as the better trade-off for not getting a receiver right away in the first round. This is not a very deep safety class. Get one while you can. The Broncos also have those extra picks to maneuver themselves around the draft, potentially trading back into the 1st or somewhere else in the second round.
After signing Melvin Gordon in the offseason and selecting Noah Fant in the first round last year, wide receiver is the only skill position that needs much addressing. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman provide plenty of depth in the backfield (goodbye fantasy value for all).
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE EAGLES
Because this is an Eagles blog, first and foremost, as I did last year, I figured I’d address any possible drafting overlap between the Broncos and Eagles during the 2020 draft. For starters, let’s talk about possible team similarities, depth, and needs.
Both the Eagles and the Broncos are in similar stances, offensively. They have young quarterbacks poised to continue their growth, although Carson Wentz is plenty more established, while Drew Lock is still relatively unknown. It is possible the Broncos will need a QB in the near future, but for now, we’re operating on the assumption that Lock is a long-term fixture. At running back, the Eagles are in a situation where they’ll probably look for more depth after letting Jordan Howard walk. They might be happy with a Scott/Holyfield package, but Holyfield hasn’t seen a regular season NFL snap yet, so he remains a longshot. The Broncos, meanwhile, have three fully established players in Gordon, Lindsay, and Freeman, and likely won’t consider using draft assets on another back.
The biggest possible overlap is at the wide receiver position, where both teams need some immediate help. The Broncos have a couple up-and-comers in Sutton and Hamilton. Provided both receivers continue their growth, that’s a healthy start, but depth beyond those two is lacking. Some may also argue Sutton isn’t a true #1 receiver. The Eagles likewise lack depth. They have a plethora of a young bodies and a couple savvy veterans in Jeffery and Jackson. However, both players were injury-limited in 2019 and have only gotten older since then. Neither should be counted on for extensive production in 2020 and beyond. Perhaps relegating them to role player status is more practical. The young depth at the position is almost entirely unproven, absent Greg Ward who emerged towards the end of last season. Using a 2nd-round pick on Sega last season shouldn’t preclude the Eagles from using one or two more premium picks on receiver talents.
Both teams are mostly set along the offensive line. The Eagles do need to start planning for the future on the inside, between their center and guard positions. Guys like Pryor, Seumalo, and Herbig might provide something, and Isaac was considerably improved over the course of 2019, but it remains to be seen if any are long-term fixtures. Brooks and Kelce are now on the wrong side of 30, and while we hope they’ll be around for upwards of another five years, that is pure speculation. The Eagles are set at tackle for now, while that’s where the Broncos need the most help (on the right). I’d expect the Broncos to draft at least one offensive tackle in this draft, if not two. It is possible they could look for a right guard, as well, but it isn’t as crucial.
On the opposite side of the line, each team has plenty of depth. For Denver, there might be some argument it’s a matter of quantity over quality, but they have young talents that should keep improving along with some quality veterans. The Eagles, meanwhile, have established themselves as having one of the best lines (on paper). They have enviable depth at the tackle spots between Cox, Jackson, and newcomer Hargrave, although they could consider bringing in another end talent to compete with last year’s trade addition, Genard Avery, and the other young guys (Miller, Ostman, Hall, and Sweat). Never ruling it out, of course, I don’t strongly expect either team to draft at these positions this year.
In contrast, both teams need help at the linebacker and defensive back positions. The Broncos retained all their starters at linebacker and have younger depth. Arguably, they could improve even more, and head coach Vic Fangio would know. The Eagles are comparatively thin at the spot. They lose two former starters in Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nigel Bradham, keeping only Nathan Gerry who seems to have the leadership and tactical skills while lacking in the playmaking department. Edwards showed a bit of promise, and Riley was decent on special teams, but I suspect the Eagles will select at least one linebacker, hopefully sooner rather than later.
The teams’ defensive backfields are also similarly situated. Denver has lots of depth – quantity over quality – while they need more help at safety and even outside corner. Philadelphia lost Jenkins, the long time starter at strong safety, and expects to replace him internally with Jalen Mills. I do think Mills is a more natural fit at safety, even insisting on his movement to the safety position over the last couple years, but we don’t know for sure how it will work out. At corner, the Eagles brought in Darius Slay to provide some stability, as the Broncos have done with Bouye. The rest of the corners on both teams are mostly young and not yet certified talents. LeBlanc showed prior promise, but injuries took his 2019 season. Jones remains a longshot prospect; we’re hoping a couple strong spots last year means he’s turned the corner. I’m not sure Maddox can man the outside spot, and Douglas might be another candidate to improve his game with a move to safety. It wouldn’t shock me to see both teams draft a corner and a safety for more rolls of the dice.
While neither the Broncos nor the Eagles play similar systems on either side of the ball, I think both teams could have overlapping targets at certain positions, namely WR and LB. Schwartz doesn’t require the same level of versatility on defense that Fangio compels. As one example, C.J. Henderson is someone the Eagles could highly covet, while the Broncos are less inclined to look his way. Nevertheless, athletes do have certain traits are universally appealing, and some players can fit into more than one scheme. A guy like Henry Ruggs is a good example, likely targeted by both Denver and Philly. Because both teams have some positional overlaps in terms of targets, could they conceivably execute a trade with one another, or are they more likely to compete for draft spots?
Under Elway, the Broncos don’t have a long trade history with the Eagles. Only three trades of which to speak:
- In 2011 – 2013 6th-round pick for Brodrick Bunkley
- In 2016 – 2017 7th-round pick for Mark Sanchez
- In 2017 – 2019 7th-round pick for Allen Barbre
All three trades were a single pick for a single player, and none took place during the draft, despite Elway’s proclivity for moving around during it. The Broncos are also more likely to move up in this draft, while it is less certain the Eagles can or will do the same. With the Eagles picking later in most rounds, I’m not sure there’s a ton of reason for the teams to swap unless Denver decides to move back later after moving forward.
I think both teams will compete for a wide receiver or two, and potentially a linebacker or defensive back, as well. It will be interesting to see what happens in the first round when the inevitable run on skill players happens. Can the Eagles jump Denver at 15? Will Denver move up to prevent other teams from jumping them in that spot? Movement in the second and third rounds is equally likely, and both teams carry extra mid-round picks to use as trade bait.
Ultimately, though, the Eagles don’t have the same luxury in terms of being able to lose draft assets at this point. They’ve had only five picks the last two years and promptly wasted one on a QB. I don’t have compelling expectations the teams are likely to trade with one another, although I could see them battling for positioning, even as early as the first round, depending on how the board falls. That said, it isn’t inconceivable, either. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
It should be an interesting draft, to say the least, given the surrounding context. We’re used to seeing draft selections celebrate in their living room. Perhaps now we’ll get to see front office personnel reacting in their living rooms, as well.
If you were patient enough to read this essay, congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the deep dive. Thanks for toughing it out and enjoy the draft this year!
Do you approve of this pick?
This poll is closed
2020 BGN Mock Draft Order
1) Bengals (grantspectations): QB Joe Burrow
2) Washington (ablesser88): EDGE Chase Young
3) Lions (CMG97): CB Jeff Okudah
4) Giants (selgae aihpledalihp): LB Isaiah Simmons
5) Dolphins (dceagles): WR CeeDee Lamb
6) Chargers (dapeltz13): QB Tua Tagovailoa
7) Panthers (wardbell92): DT Derrick Brown
8) Cardinals (drc242): OT Mekhi Becton
9) Jaguars (Palaniappan K M): OT Tristan Wirfs
10) Browns (WentzAndFolesFan): WR Jerry Jeudy
11) Jets (Dr_Horrible): OT Jedrick Wills
12) Raiders (Phillysolo): WR Henry Ruggs III
13) 49ers (eagles0132): OT Andrew Thomas
14) Buccaneers (BuckeyedEagles): DT Javon Kinlaw
15) Broncos (J. Wil): S Xavier McKinney
16) Falcons (Kephas)
17) Cowboys (PhillyBirdGang):
18) Dolphins (dshelton5):
19) Raiders (fredhugo):
20) Jaguars (ItownBallers22)
21) Eagles (20Safety_Hazards)
22) Vikings (Kramerpoo):
23) Patriots (Phoenix X Minimus)
24) Saints (big DUB):
25) Vikings (MrW254):
26) Dolphins (SemperFilly):
27) Seahawks (mattywils):
28) Ravens (Dirtybirdy47):
29) Titans (mr_england):
30) Packers (Nishant R SambhiReddy):
31) 49ers (Fly Like An Eagle):
32) Chiefs (Leo Bedio):
Now it’s time for you to vote for who YOU think the Broncos should pick in the 2020 BGN Community Consensus Mock Draft.
Who should the Broncos draft at No. 15?
This poll is closed
Henry Ruggs III
2020 BGN Community Consensus Mock Draft
1) Bengals: QB Joe Burrow
2) Washington: EDGE Chase Young
3) Lions: CB Jeff Okudah
4) Giants: LB Isaiah Simmons
5) Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa
6) Chargers: QB Justin Herbert
7) Panthers: DT Derrick Brown
8) Cardinals: OT Mekhi Becton
9) Jaguars: OT Tristan Wirfs
10) Browns: OT Andrew Thomas
11) Jets: OT Jedrick Wills
12) Raiders: WR CeeDee Lamb
13) 49ers: WR Jerry Jeudy
14) Buccaneers: DT Javon Kinlaw