McDaniels had better know something we don’t |

McDaniels had better know something we don’t

Davey DeChant
Vail, CO Colorado
Published: Davey DeChant

Pat Bowlen’s hiring of new head coach Josh McDaniels came somewhat as a surprise to many people, considering his expertise on the offensive side of the ball and Denver’s severe struggles on defense in recent years.

Experts claimed former New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo or Tampa Bay secondary coach Raheem Morris (now head coaches of St. Louis and Tampa Bay respectively) would be logical fits considering their success in coaching elite defenses.

Yet Bowlen was clearly more enamored with the brilliant young mind of McDaniels, hiring him and standing by him even as he drove 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler out of town. After last weekend’s NFL Draft, Bowlen will have plenty more questions to answer about whether his head coach is committed enough to the other side of the ball.

McDaniels’ final tally for his two-day haul at the draft stood at six offensive players and four defensive players. Of the four defensive players, just one was taken to play in the front seven. Denver traded picks to move up in order to take four of the six offensive players, while they traded up for just one defensive player.

That’s not exactly an effective way to address a defense that was among the cellar dwellers in almost every category last year, including dead last in forced turnovers.

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Defense lacking

When asked about his failure to address the front seven, clearly Denver’s greatest area of need, McDaniels claimed that the draft was not very deep in those specific areas. Sorry Mickey D, but pass rushers were more than abundant in this draft, with five such players going between pick Nos. 11-18 and arguably 12 going in the first two rounds alone.

Oddly enough, Denver’s only selection at the position, Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers (18th overall), was the only elite pass rusher who is clearly better suited to a 4-3 system than the 3-4 that Denver will use this year.

It’s not like McDaniels didn’t have opportunities to improve the league’s 29th-ranked defense. Denver opted not to take standout pass rusher Brian Orakpo of Texas when he surprisingly fell to No. 12, even though he is more talented and more suited to the 3-4 than Ayers.

Washington thought so much of Orakpo that they practically sprinted to the podium to snag him when he fell to them at 13. Denver made other questionable moves in the second round, passing on first-round talents at linebacker in Rey Maualuga and Everette Brown, and at the ever important nose tackle position in Ron Brace at No. 37. After trading into the final pick of the second round, McDaniels also passed on 3-4 commodities Jarron Gilbert and Michael Johnson, who fell to Round 3.

Jasper Brinkley, a pass rushing 3-4 inside linebacker widely considered to be a good fit in Denver, was passed on three times with the Broncos on the clock, twice in the fourth round and again in the fifth round.

Definitely deep at running back

Even more peculiar than the players McDaniels passed on were the players he chose to select in their stead. Denver’s decision to pass on Orakpo was made in order to select Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno.

This came across as odd, considering the Broncos signed three veteran running backs in free agency and return three holdovers from last year. When passing on Maualuga, Brown, and Brace at 37, McDaniels selected Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, who, despite being a very talented, ball-hawking corner, joins a crowded defensive backfield also to which three veteran starters were added in free agency.

As if Smith didn’t add enough to the depth in the secondary, McDaniels selected safeties in Rounds 2 and 4 while continuing to allow linebackers and linemen to slide by. Denver fans who were hoping to see these positions addressed when Denver traded back into the second round were again disappointed, as McDaniels took blocking tight end Richard Quinn, who claimed to be “shocked” to be picked so early.

And as if McDaniels’ surprises on Day 1 weren’t enough, he came back on Day 2 to select a wide receiver, a quarterback, and two offensive linemen. While the receiver and quarterback picks were somewhat expected, taking two linemen when last year’s holdovers allowed a league-low 12 sacks made little sense considering Denver still hadn’t addressed its defensive needs.

Putting the pieces together

Ultimately, this draft leads me to believe that McDaniels, much like his predecessor in Denver, cannot resist the temptation of drafting talented offensive players, even if it means disregarding a defense that is in shambles. This draft has also raised questions about McDaniels’ ability to accurately assess positions of importance on defense.

As demonstrated by many of the New England teams McDaniels coached for, a strong front-seven defense can make an average secondary great. Considering Denver already had a good secondary via free agency and a weak front seven, McDaniels’ priorities on defense in the draft seemed to be out of order.

Broncos fans had better hope McDaniels knows something about Denver’s current roster that nobody else seems to know. Unless he and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can turn last year’s holdovers into something new altogether, Denver’s defense could struggle even more than in 2008, especially considering they no longer have a Pro Bowl quarterback working to keep them off the field.

I have plenty of faith that Moreno, Ayers, and Smith (under the tutelage of Champ Bailey) can be good, even great, players and fill important roles on this team. But apart from Ayers, nobody selected in this draft will fill any of the glaring needs Denver must fill to be successful.

A lot of teams have won championships with defense. A lot of teams have won championships with balanced, even offense-heavy rosters. But there has never been a team to win a championship with a cellar dwelling defense. If McDaniels can’t figure that out soon, his tenure in Denver could be over very quickly.

Davey DeChant is a senior at Battle Mountain High School and will be going to Northwestern to study journalism this fall. In the meantime, he is still trying to figure out what Josh McDaniels is doing.

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