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Broncos Identify SEC Talent to Fix Team’s Biggest Weakness

By Dave Holcomb
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No team contributed more selections to the SEC dominated draft than the Broncos.

The Denver Broncos found their quarterback of the future in the SEC last year, so fittingly, they dove back into the same well one more time. Not for another signal caller, but for the pieces they need on offense to make sure the young quarterback is successful.

Denver was hardly the only team to seek franchise building blocks in the SEC. The conference set a new record with 63 draft picks, including 40 in the first three rounds, during the 2020 NFL Draft. But no team contributed more selections to that total than the Broncos.

Targeting SEC talent is a new idea for Broncos team president John Elway. Over the last four years, Denver drafted just four SEC players, one of which was former Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in 2019. But in 2020, Elway and the Broncos add five SEC players through the draft, four of which will be directly responsible for helping Lock develop.

Elway’s emphasis of finding SEC offensive weapons began with Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy in the first round. Prior to the draft, there were rumors that the Broncos were interested in moving up the draft board to ensure they landed one of the top receiving talents in the 2020 class. Jeudy’s teammate and fellow wideout, Henry Ruggs, went at No. 12 overall to the Las Vegas Raiders, but despite not moving up, Denver still had its pick between the other top two receivers in the draft -- Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb -- at 15th overall.

The Broncos left the SEC while targeting another receiver during the second round in Penn State’s K.J. Hamler, but with their second choice in the third round, Denver began a run on SEC players. At No. 83 and 95 overall in the third round, Elway selected LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry and Arkansas defensive tackle McTelvin Agim, respectively. Then at No. 118 in the fourth round, the Broncos took Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.

To conclude Day 3, Denver chose Florida wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland as the first of its two seventh-round picks. Over the entire draft, six of Denver’s 10 picks were offensive players, four of which were playmakers (three from the SEC).

It’s not hard to understand Denver’s draft strategy. It’s been five years since the Broncos were ranked even in the top half of the NFL in offense, and they just barely accomplished that, finishing 16th in offensive yards during 2015. Last season, the Broncos were 28th in yards, averaging under 300 per contest. They were also 28th in points scored.

But in the final five games with Lock starting behind center last season, the Broncos saw their points per game average increase 5.5 points from 15.9 to 21.4. Before Lock became the starter, Denver reached 21 points in a game just three times. In December, the Broncos eclipsed that mark on three occasions in five contests with Lock despite the fact he didn’t have many weapons to work with on offense.

With this incoming draft class dominated by SEC talent, that should change. Jeudy arrives in Denver as a Pro Bowl caliber receiver who can both be a reliable target on short routes and home-run threat. He played both roles at various times while at Alabama, leading the SEC in yards per reception (among pass catchers who averaged more than two catches per game) with 19.3 yards per catch as a junior in 2018. Then last season, he finished third in the SEC with 77 receptions.

While Cleveland didn’t live up to his potential from a statistical standpoint at Florida, it will be interesting to see what he can do with a fresh start in Denver. Standing at 6-foot-2 and about 210 pounds, Cleveland has good hands and athleticism, but he’ll likely need to show he can play special teams to make the roster.

But the most fascinating in the trio of SEC offensive weapons the Broncos drafted is Okwuegbunam. Lance Zierlein of described him as “a classic boom-or-bust prospect” because of his polarizing traits. He needs to improve tremendously on his route running, but Okwuegbunam also has exceptional speed and is dangerous in the red zone because of his ability to high point passes at their peak.

Adding to his intrigue is the fact Lock and Okwuegbunam played two years together at Missouri. As a sophomore in 2018 (with Lock at quarterback), Okwuegbunam posted 43 receptions for 466 yards and six touchdowns in just nine games. In 22 contests with Lock, Okwuegbunam scored 17 touchdowns.

Maybe Okwuegbunam doesn’t become the next great all-around tight end. He might not even be the team’s starter with Noah Fant on the roster, but Okwuegbunam figures to have an immediate role, especially in the red zone.

With this influx of offensive talent, Denver has the tools to end arguably the worst stretch in the team history. The Broncos are in the midst of three straight losing seasons for the first time since the early 1970s.

To end that dubious streak, the Broncos rightfully targeted offensive playmakers as their biggest need during the 2020 NFL Draft. Go figure that the SEC had all the right fits.