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10 players for Broncos fans to know from the 2022 Senior Bowl


MOBILE, Ala. — As the Broncos enter the 2022 offseason with a new head coach, they are armed with plenty of draft capital.

The Broncos will have 11 picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, including five selections in the first three rounds. When General Manager George Paton makes the team's various picks, he'll have a wealth of knowledge at his disposal after evaluating some of college football's best players.

That process begins this week in Mobile, Alabama, as some of the nation's top prospects gather for the Senior Bowl.

Over the course of three practices and the showcase game on Saturday, the NFL hopefuls will hope to catch the eye of the hundreds of NFL decision-makers that have descended on Mobile.

Read on for just a few of the names that are worth knowing from the Senior Bowl. Hint: There's a strong emphasis on one position.

QB Sam Howell, UNC

A 2021 preseason Heisman favorite, Howell remains a potential first-round pick despite taking a bit of a step back last season. In a two-year stretch from 2019 to 2020, Howell threw for a combined 7,227 yards, 68 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 64.4 percent of his passes. Paton attended Howell's game against Pittsburgh in 2021, when Howell completed 22-of-33 passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Howell is the first of six quarterbacks highlighted here, as the Broncos continue to try to find their franchise player.

"Maybe a little bit at times — [I] tried to do a little too much," Howell said of his final season at Carolina. "That's kind of the main thing I learned throughout this last season: I don't have to be the hero on every single play. Just stay within my framework and stay true to who I am as a player."

QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

The 2021 ACC Player of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner, Pickett is viewed by some as the top quarterback in this year's draft. He broke out as a redshirt senior to complete 67.2 percent of his passes for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Pickett's hand size will be monitored in the coming weeks — he declined to get them measured in Mobile — but he has been slated to the Broncos in several early mock drafts. Pickett completed 25-of-43 passes for 346 yards, three touchdowns and an interception when Paton saw him play in November.

"The game really slowed down for me," Pickett said. "Kind of streamlined the process of preparing and watching film [and was] able to take that to the game field and execute at a high level."

QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

A two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Ridder led the Bearcats to a playoff appearance and finished eighth in the Heisman voting in 2021. Ridder completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,334 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions to close his career in Cincinnati. Considered a Day 2 pick by most mock draft analysts, Ridder could be another option if the Broncos choose not to select a quarterback with their first-round selection.

QB Carson Strong, Nevada

Strong battled through offseason knee surgery to play in 2021, and he completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 4,186 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Strong said Tuesday that his knee got stronger as the year continued, but he acknowledged he's already received lots of questions from teams about his health. A pocket passer, Strong aimed to show off his strong arm during Tuesday's practice.

"One thing I know about the NFL is that it stands for Not For Long," Strong said at the Senior Bowl of playing right away in the NFL. "If you don't come ready for your opportunity, you may only get one chance. I want to make sure I'm damn ready for my one chance when I get it. I'm the type of guy that learns from getting thrown in the fire. I learn best by making mistakes and not making the same mistake twice. Whichever team drafts me and wherever I'm drafted, I'm going to be very lucky to go to that organization and they're going to get the best of me and my best effort every single day."

QB Malik Willis, Liberty

Willis has posted back-to-back productive seasons, as he's thrown for 47 touchdowns and 18 interceptions over the last two years while rushing for 27 more scores. The former Auburn transfer is perhaps the most dynamic player in the draft, and Paton saw him compete against Mississippi in the fall. Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Willis is how his play will translate to a higher level of competition after spending two seasons at Liberty.

"The big-school and the little-school guys, we've all been talking like, 'football is football,'" Willis said. "You've got to come out and play. Y'all do us dirty cause we're a small school, but football is football. They work out every day, we work out every day. Our schedules when I was at Auburn and Liberty were pretty much the same. Y'all focus on that a little too much in my opinion. It's just more people at the game."

QB Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

Zappe doesn't have the pedigree of the other Senior Bowl quarterbacks, but he broke the NCAA passing yards and touchdown record in 2021 after throwing for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. The Conference USA Most Valuable Player, who spent four seasons at an FCS program, will look to boost his stock during the Senior Bowl and could be a Day 3 pick in April.

T Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa

The only offensive lineman named a finalist for the FCS' national offensive player of the year award, Penning was the first player to earn a Senior Bowl invite. The 6-foot-7, 321-pound player is projected by some to be a late first-round pick, and he could make sense for the Broncos if the team decides to trade back — or if he falls to the second round. With Bobby Massie a free agent, the Broncos must decide what to do at right tackle. Could Penning make sense for Denver?

DL Logan Hall, Houston

If the Broncos want to add to their defensive line in April, Hall could be an option. The four-year player at Houston tallied 13 tackles for loss and six sacks in his final season, and he's viewed as a fringe first-round pick. Hall played at different spots along the defensive line during his collegiate career, and he could be the next Houston defensive lineman to find NFL success.

LB Devin Lloyd, Utah

One of the more popular players to be assigned to the Broncos in mock drafts, Lloyd had a monster redshirt junior season in Salt Lake City. He posted 111 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four interceptions, a forced fumble and two defensive touchdowns as he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson and Kenny Young are all impending free agents, which means the Broncos will need to find someone to pair with Baron Browning in 2022. Lloyd could be the dynamic linebacker to fill a need in the middle of the team's defense.

EDGE Jermaine Johnson, Florida State

After trading Von Miller to the Rams midway through the 2021 season, finding an edge rusher figures to be near the top of Paton's defensive to-do list. Bradley Chubb, who will look to rebound after being held without a sack in 2021, is entering the final year of his contract, and Malik Reed is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, according to Spotrac. There will be other edge-rushing options — and the Broncos could look in free agency, as well — but Denver could consider Johnson, who recorded 17.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last year after transferring to Florida State.

Bonus players:

TE Trey McBride, Colorado State

LB Chad Muma, Wyoming

McBride may be the draft class' best tight end, as he won the Mackey Award for his production during the 2021 season. The Broncos, though, seem unlikely to draft a tight end early given their roster makeup.

Muma, meanwhile, is from Lone Tree and was previously picked to the Denver Post's All-Colorado football team. With the Broncos' inside linebacking corps in flux, Muma could be a player to watch. He's considered a three-down linebacker and could join Logan Wilson as Wyoming linebackers to find recent NFL success.

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