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Broncos load up on defensive talent in 2021 NFL Draft, plan to still improve several areas on offense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After back-to-back NFL Drafts in which the Broncos loaded up on offensive talent, the team's 2021 class leaned decidedly toward the other side of the ball.

Seven of the Broncos' 10 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft came on defense, including their first-round selection of cornerback Pat Surtain II and six of their final seven selections. After taking offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz on Friday night with the 98th-overall pick, General Manager George Paton and the Broncos capped the night with the selection of Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning. The team then used its two fifth-round picks on a pair of safeties — Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson — before adding three more defensive players in Round 7. Only Auburn's Seth Williams, the team's sixth-round pick, kept Day 3 from being a clean sweep of defensive talent.

The focus on defensive talent, particularly on Day 3, was not necessarily intentional. Paton and the Broncos stuck to their board, which led to an influx of young players for Fangio's defense.

"That wasn't the plan by any means, especially yesterday and today," Fangio said. "It's kind of just the way the board fell. It was our turn to pick on a few of these guys, it was big separation between the player we took and anybody else on the board. George just decided to go with the board and the higher-ranked guy by a good distance. I don't think we had any plan to do that."

In reality, the defensive additions may have been much needed, as the unit has been built largely through free agency. The Broncos have used three third-round picks to bolster their defense over the last two years — Dre'Mont Jones in 2019 and Michael Ojemudia and McTelvin Agim in 2020 — but Denver's offense has gotten the lion's share of the attention. Denver used all five of its Round 1 and 2 picks on offensive players in 2019 and 2020, and the team had taken an offensive player with seven of its last eight top-50 selections before taking Surtain on Thursday.

Of course, it's also possible that Denver improved its talent for the third phase of the game: special teams. The Broncos ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in kickoff coverage and kickoff returns in 2020, and their punt return unit was the only group that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL.

"I think they're going to have a big impact," Paton said of how Denver's Day 3 picks could help that unit. "Tom McMahon, our special teams coordinator, evaluated just about every player in the draft. So we targeted players that he liked — not only that were good offensive or defensive players but players that could be core teamers for us. We realized we lacked in special teams last year. We need guys that can cover and block and take pride in special teams. All these players, hopefully, that we drafted are going to take special teams seriously. It's a big part of our game, obviously."

Despite the lack of offensive capital dedicated to the offense this weekend, Paton believes that unit can also improve. The free-agent addition of Mike Boone, the swap of a sixth-round pick for Teddy Bridgewater and the additions of Meinerz, Williams and second-round running back Javonte Williams can all help a group that ranked 28th in scoring offense in 2020, according to Paton.

"It's been heavy offensive drafts before I came and … we have a young group of offensive players," Paton said when asked why he believes the offense can improve. "I think they need to develop. We made a few tweaks here and there. Obviously we brought in Teddy, so I think the offensive is going to grow and is going to continue to grow. I like the young offensive talent. We did draft a receiver and an offensive lineman and Javonte's not bad. So I do believe we've added quite a bit of players that can help us."

The Broncos, though, did not add players during the draft at three positions that may be considered areas of need.

Perhaps the most notable is the quarterback position, where the team did not make a selection despite having both Justin Fields and Mac Jones available when the Broncos were on the clock at No. 9. Paton previously explained the team's high grade on Surtain led to them passing on a quarterback, and he said Saturday that the team was not close to adding a signal-caller on Days 2 or 3.

And while Paton said the Broncos are "always looking" and will monitor the free-agent market, he is "happy with our group" that includes Bridgewater and incumbent starter Drew Lock.

"I like our room right now," Paton said. "… With Teddy and Drew, they're going to have a great competition. That's what we've wanted all along. We'll let them compete. I do like the room. Does it mean we won't continue to look? No, but I say that about every position. I do look forward to getting Teddy here and Drew and having a great competition."

The Broncos may look harder at the tackle and tight end positions following the end of the draft. Paton said the Broncos "targeted a few" tackles that were selected before the team could take them and "tried at times" to add a tight end.

"It just didn't fall our way," Paton said of the tackle position. "[I] still feel good about our depth. We'll continue to look on the market, in the free-agent market. And then we're signing five offensive lineman in college free agency. Sometimes it just doesn't fall. We had a tackle we liked and he was taken right before, but that's just the way the draft goes."

Paton said the Broncos liked their three current options at tight end — presumably Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam and Andrew Beck — but the team would sign players in college free agency. The Broncos will look to add "another big guy that can block in-line," Paton said.

The roster tinkering is clearly not done. Through a few key offensive additions and a wealth of defensive talent, though, Denver believes its roster is closer to where it needs to be.

"We still have a lot of work to do as a team," Paton said. "But we do believe we got better."

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