With the order set for the first 24 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has unveiled his first mock draft of the year, and with the Broncos' first pick, he may surprise some fans.
The longtime draft guru's initial projection has Denver adding inside linebacker Nakobe Dean, who was an integral piece of Georgia's national championship team, with the ninth-overall pick.
"Denver could be a great spot for the draft's best off-ball linebacker, Dean, who was the leader of the spectacular Georgia defense," Kiper wrote. "He makes tackle after tackle and can run sideline to sideline to make plays, and he has three-down potential because of his ability to cover tight ends and running backs. He'll also help as a blitzer -- he had six sacks in 2021."
Aware that his selection may be well scrutinized because of the team's potential need at quarterback, Kiper also noted that he thinks the team may plan to resolve that situation in free agency rather than the draft.
"The Broncos need a quarterback, of course, but the feeling I get is that they're more likely to try to add a veteran in either the trade or free-agent market," Kiper wrote. "They have a solid roster, and a veteran could help them win right away. This could change as we get closer to the draft -- and they hire a coach -- but I'm going to stay away from quarterback here for now."
Assuming Denver stays with their current draft position, the Broncos would make the ninth-overall selection for a second consecutive season and hopefully have a similar amount of success — 2021's No. 9 selection, Surtain, has emerged as a playmaker on defense following an impressive rookie season.
If Denver can replicate their draft success from last year, Kiper expects the Broncos to make a push for the playoffs in 2022.
"The Broncos have the Rams' second- and third-round picks from the Von Miller trade, so general manager George Paton has a real chance to get this team back to the playoffs if he can nail a few early selections, as he did with Pat Surtain II and Javonte Williams last year," Kiper wrote.
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For more information on Dean, we can look to Kiper's ESPN colleague, Todd McShay, who placed Dean at No. 8 on his ranking of top draft prospects in early January.
"Dean is an off-ball linebacker who has good speed, suddenness, range and instincts," McShay wrote. "He can match up with running backs in coverage, but he also can go sideline to sideline in run defense. Dean will make a lot of plays in pursuit, closing on ball carriers and wrapping up on tackles. His improvement as a blitzer this season has been impressive, as well. He can locate gaps and close on the QB. Dean shows an excellent motor on every single down. In 2021, Dean had 68 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, four passes broken up, three forced fumbles and two interceptions -- including a pick-six."