While pimping the Denver Broncos's January hiring of Vic Fangio as head coach and February acquisition of former Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in February, team executive John Elway has consistently insisted that the squad isn't rebuilding and remains in win-now mode.
But what happened during last night's first round of the 2019 NFL draft made it more clear than ever that he's lying.
Rather than using their number ten draft pick to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, as many of us had spent weeks hoping, Elway and company swapped with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the latter's twentieth choice, a second-rounder (number 52 overall) and a third-round slot in 2020. Then, the Broncos drafted Iowa tight end Noah Fant, whose impending arrival in Denver seems to excite approximately no one.
Why? For one thing, Fant is the second-best tight end out of Iowa, behind teammate T.J. Hockenson, who went at number eight to the Detroit Lions. For another, essentially giving away Bush, who ESPN commentator Louis Riddick considered the best player in the entire draft class, was a tacit acknowledgement that the Broncos' lineup is more hideously depleted than management wants to admit. As such, they decided to pass on a player who seems all but certain to be an impactful pro (and would have been perfect in Fangio's defense) in favor of collecting more picks.
The Broncos now have plenty of them — nine in all counting Fant, including two in the second round (numbers 41 and 52), one apiece in the third (number 71) and the fourth (number 125), two in the fifth (numbers 148 and 156), and one each in the sixth (number 182) and seventh (number 237).
The strategy is obvious. Denver will try to acquire talent that's both young and cheap and rely on Fangio and his staff to coach them up in the hope that they'll prove to be as good or better than the folks currently on the roster. But there's no guarantee that every one of these recruits will pan out (last year's draft was first-rate, but the ones that preceded it on Elway's watch haven't been), and even if they do, the process could take years as opposed to magically happening instantaneously. Which likely will translate to more years of mediocrity after two ultra-agonizing seasons under former coach Vance Joseph that netted a combined eleven wins and zero playoff appearances.
Not that anyone with the Broncos is admitting it, as the following video offering a behind-the-scenes look at the Fant process indicates:
Of course, the need to draft a tight end wouldn't have been so acute if the Broncos' previous attempts to shore up the position hadn't gone so wrong. Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman and Troy Fumagalli were all supposed to provide a long-needed fix, but none of them have been able to stay healthy long enough to made a difference.
Perhaps Fant can reverse this curse and turn out to be a productive baller. But that won't be nearly enough to make up for a series of botches that followed the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 victory in 2016 and quarterback Peyton Manning's retirement.
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And plenty of the mistakes flowed directly from John Elway's ego.
Examples? Elway's refusal to pay a little extra to keep wizardly assistant coach Wade Phillips led to the steady deterioration of the Broncos' defense, which is now much less formidable than it once was. Moreover, he seems on the road to making a similar mistake with cornerback Chris Harris Jr., the D's second-best player (behind Von Miller). Rather than negotiate a new and much-deserved contract for Harris in a quiet, behind-the-scenes manner, Elway basically ignored him until his agent issued an ill-considered pay-me-$15-million-a-year-or-trade-me declaration. The likely result will be a machismo pissing match that ends with Harris gone, the Broncos worse off, and the fans frustrated and angry.
And then there's Elway's continued inability to find a QB who can right the listing ship. Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum have been assorted flavors of disaster, and Big John's fear of committing another error has only made the situation worse. Flacco has been in decline for years and was only available because he'd been supplanted as the Ravens' starting field general by Lamar Jackson. Moreover, by inking Flacco, Elway missed the chance to grab Ohio State hurler Dwayne Haskins, who was available at ten and has a lot more potential than any of the other quarterbacks who have besmirched the blue and orange of late.
Granted, the 2019 draft still has two more days to go, and it's possible the Broncos will mine some genuine gems. But don't expect them to pay off for years — and prepare yourself for more pain this fall.