Broncos hype out of control after Russell Wilson trade; plus, five NFL draft prospects on the rise

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look at one hype train that needs to slow down …

Russell Wilson’s relocation to Denver suddenly has everyone crowning the Broncos.

The blockbuster deal shook up the football world on Tuesday, with many deeming the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback as a potential missing piece to a championship puzzle. Forget the fact that the Broncos have failed to make the playoffs since their Super Bowl 50 win back in February of 2016. Never mind that they’re in a division featuring two superstar quarterbacks and another top 10-ish player at the position. According to the Twitter masses, the addition of Wilson shoves Denver over the hump as a bona fide title contender, with the magical playmaker poised to elevate his supporting cast and overwhelm the numerous heavyweights that reside in today’s AFC.

OK, let’s pump the brakes, people.

While I certainly understand the optimism swirling around the Mike High City this week, I’d hold off on reserving a hotel room in Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl LVII. Sure, Wilson is a franchise player with MVP potential, but it takes a village to help a quarterback win at the highest level.

Wilson, who guided the Seahawks to eight postseason appearances and one Super Bowl title during his decade in Seattle, is joining a roster that is widely viewed as an upgrade in 2022. Sure, the Broncos have intriguing pieces in place on both sides of the ball, but this team is more potential than production at this point.

For instance, the hyped-up receiving corps that has been lauded as “special” in some corners of the football world really features a one-time Pro Bowler (Courtland Sutton) and a trio of theoretical difference makers (Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler) without a single 900-yard season among them. Is that crew really an upgrade over Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf? Those two have comprised one of the best big-play duos in football over the past three years, and their explosive play-making ability enhanced Wilson’s deep-ball savvy in Seattle. That does not mean the Broncos’ quartet can’t emerge with No. 3 under center, but it is nothing more than a projection at this point.

Studying Denver’s offensive line, Broncos fans should have serious concerns about the unit’s ability to keep Wilson upright and protected in the pocket. Denver surrendered 40 sacks in 2021, only six fewer than the Seahawks’ much-maligned front allowed. With O-line wizard Mike Munchak no longer around to tutor Denver’s unit — particularly Garett Bolles, who significantly improved with Munchak as his position coach — the Broncos’ front line could take a step back as it transitions into a new offensive scheme.

Speaking of that new scheme, Wilson must adjust to Nathaniel Hackett. To his credit, the Broncos’ new head coach has a strong reputation for tailoring his play calls to his quarterbacks, accentuating their strengths and masking weaknesses. This maximizes performance and production (SEE: Blake Bortles in 2017). With Wilson, Hackett must tweak his offensive scheme to showcase the veteran’s effectiveness as a deep-ball thrower. That should result in more vertical routes and deep crossers off play-action, enabling Russ to unleash his patented rainbows over the top of the defense. That said, Denver will need to have an answer for the two-deep coverages that have stymied Wilson over the past few years. The 10-year veteran has lacked the patience, discipline and rhythm to efficiently shred umbrella coverage, and his Achilles heel could lead to problems for the Broncos down the road. Hackett and Wilson must craft a plan that enables the veteran to retain his aggressiveness while performing at an efficient rate from the pocket.

This is a critical part of the Broncos’ winning equation, particularly in an AFC West that features outstanding quarterbacks at every turn. Wilson must outplay Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr to climb to the top of the division, and his efficiency could be the deciding factor in close games against any of the aforementioned gunslingers.

Defensively, the Broncos are fresh off a season in which they allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL. Safety Justin Simmons, cornerback Patrick Surtain II and edge rusher Bradley Chubb form the nucleus of a promising unit, but they will need some help, particularly at linebacker, to remain an upper-echelon defense. Oh, and Vic Fangio — one of the game’s better defensive minds — is no longer at the controls. Denver will need first-time defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to quickly adjust to calling the plays for a group that’s accustomed to a highly experienced coach leading the charge. The change does not automatically mean that the Broncos’ defense will take a step down, but it is not a given that the unit will remain among the league’s best, with Evero acclimating to a brand new role in the toughest division in football.

Given so many uncertainties and unknowns, I can’t immediately fete this squad in the wake of Wilson’s arrival. Yes, a franchise quarterback gives any team a chance to win on any given Sunday, but I do not know if that is enough to vault Denver to the top of the division, much less the conference.

While I love fairy tales and storybook endings, I am not sure that Wilson heading to the Rocky Mountains is going to produce the Hollywood magic that helped cement the legacies of Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford in back-to-back years.

2022 NFL Draft: Five post-combine risers

I’ve seen commentary that the NFL Scouting Combine has lost its luster. Derisively referring to the event as the “Underwear Olympics,” combine critics claim the annual gathering in Indianapolis has outlived its usefulness.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

Every year, NFL talent evaluators are thrilled to see 300-plus draft hopefuls converge in Indy. The combine provides general managers, coaches and scouts an opportunity to meet the top players in the class while also watching them run through an assortment of instructive football drills and agility tests. Evaluators can compare the on-field workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium to the college game tape. It’s a beneficial crosschecking exercise, especially when a prospect shows you something you didn’t see — or just didn’t realize — before. Inspiring combine performances breed additional attention, motivating talent evaluators to take a closer look at certain prospects on the pro day circuit and beyond.

Given some time to review the numbers and re-watch the workouts, I’d like to spotlight five prospects whose combine showings sent evaluators back to the film room for some additional work.

Travon Walker

The 6-foot-5, 272-pounder was already considered a fringe top-10 prospect due to his versatility and explosiveness, but after Walker’s spectacular performance in Indy, the NFL scouting community is buzzing about his potential to emerge as a star at the next level. Walker blew up the combine with explosive numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.51), vertical leap (35.5 inches), broad jump (10-foot-3), three-cone drill (6.89) and short shuttle (4.32), while also displaying dynamic movement skills, balance and body control in positional drills. Although his production at Georgia didn’t exactly blow you away, that’s at least partially due to the fact that the Bulldogs’ defense was overflowing with NFL talent competing for playing time and stats. Scouts and coaches are captivated with Walker’s potential to play a variety of roles as a hybrid front-line defender with the capacity to align anywhere from nose tackle to edge rusher in a 3-4 or 4-3 front. With Georgia’s pro day set for next Wednesday, scouts could leave Athens viewing Walker as a top-five pick with game-changing abilities.

Desmond Ridder

Perhaps the football world has been sleeping on Ridder due to his workmanlike game and no-nonsense demeanor, but everyone should pay closer attention to a winning quarterback who checks off a lot of boxes as a leader and playmaker. With 44 college wins on his résumé, the former Bearcats team captain knows how to play winning football for a program on the rise. In addition, the sneaky dual-threat playmaker is an athletic passer who is capable of making throws from the pocket or on the move. With 4.52 speed and impressive jump measurements (36-inch vertical leap, 10-foot-7 broad) included in his athletic profile, Ridder enables a creative offensive coordinator to blend old-school and new-school tactics. If he continues to dazzle at his March 24 pro day and in private workouts, Ridder could vault into consideration as a first-round pick for a team seeking a mature quarterback prospect to drop into an offense in need of a leader.

Troy Andersen

It is hard to find linebackers who are big, fast and strong with outstanding instincts and awareness. That’s why scouts were excited about Andersen’s potential even before his combine workout. However, after watching the 6-3, 243-pounder blaze the turf with a 4.42 40-yard dash and pop jumps of 36 inches (vertical) and 10-foot-8 (broad jump), coaches and scouts are intrigued by the Montana State standout’s potential as a run-and-chase defender on the second level. Andersen’s movement skills and explosiveness are coveted in today’s game, with more teams opting to attack via the pass. As a long, rangy speedster with thump power and ball skills, Andersen could pose problems for opponents attempting to attack the middle of the field. With another opportunity to show scouts his range and agility at his April 4 pro day, Andersen could rise into serious consideration as a top-50 pick.

Skyy Moore

Every NFL offense is looking for a big-play threat to add a spark to the unit. Moore is not only a home run hitter with speed to burn and electric running skills with the ball in his hands, but he is an A+ athlete with the capacity to change how opposing defensive coordinators cover an offense with the Western Michigan standout on the field. The 5-10, 195-pounder is a natural receiver with sticky hands and precise route-running ability. He put on a clinic in positional drills, displaying the high-level routes that stood out in his film evaluation. As one of the best pass catchers and playmakers in the draft, Moore simply needs to show NFL teams that he can quickly master a different route tree in workouts to cement his status as an early Day 2 pick.

Jelani Woods

The evolution of the tight end position has prompted several basketball-type athletes to make their way to the gridiron. Woods is built like an NBA power forward with the size and length needed to post up defenders in the red zone, but he also possesses enough speed (4.61 40-yard dash) and strength (24 bench reps of 225 pounds) to outrun or overpower defenders between the hashes. The Virginia product has aced the pre-draft process thus far, with an impressive showing at the East-West Shrine Bowl prior to his dazzling performance in Indy. With coaches and scouts on the hunt for the next big-bodied pass catcher offering mismatch potential, Woods’ name is bubbling up.

What’s next for Packers QB Jordan Love?

Aaron Rodgers’ decision to stay in Green Bay might have extended the Packers’ championship window, but the move creates an uncertain future for Jordan Love.

As a 38-year-old quarterback searching for that elusive second Super Bowl ring, Rodgers might not play through the end of the reported four-year, $200 million contract that includes a whopping $153 million in guaranteed money for the four-time MVP. The lengthy deal gives the veteran the opportunity to call his shot when it comes to ending his tenure with the Packers.

With Rodgers firmly in place as the team’s starter, Love should remain in a developmental program. The Packers must focus on fostering a future starter or using him as a valuable trade chip. From the team’s standpoint, the first-round investment in Love can easily be spun as a huge positive, with Rodgers playing at an MVP level since No. 10 walked into the building after being selected with the No. 26 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. That grade of quarterbacking is exactly what the team wanted after watching Rodgers’ play seemingly decline over a three-year period prior to the 2020 draft. The veteran’s completion percentage and QBR dipped in each season from 2017 to 2019, so general manager Brian Gutekunst thought it was time to bring on an apprentice as an eventual replacement.

Although Love has only logged one career start (a Week 9 appearance against the Chiefs last season) and 62 total pass attempts, the former first-rounder was viewed as an intriguing prospect with star potential if he could shake the turnover bug that plagued him at Utah State. Measuring 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, Love whips the ball around the field like a second baseman turning two on a 6-4-3 double play. From the pocket or on the move, Love’s combination of athleticism and arm talent had some evaluators likening him to Patrick Mahomes in the scouting community. While such a lofty comparison raised expectations too far, Love has flashed some of those skills in limited action with the Packers. In the 2021 preseason, Love connected on 24 of 35 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown and an interception against backups and newcomers in a pair of exhibition games.

That said, Love did not impress evaluators in his lone regular-season start against the Chiefs, completing 19 of 34 passes for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception while Rodgers was sidelined by COVID-19. That said, most young quarterbacks struggle in their debuts. Plus, teams are willing to gamble on flashes at quarterback more than any other spot on the field. Look no further than the San Francisco 49ers signing Nate Sudfeld to a fully guaranteed contract (one year, $2 million) to keep others from nabbing the veteran as a potential starter, despite his meager career production (completed 25 of 37 pass attempts for 188 pass yards with one touchdown and one interception) as a backup.

That’s why Love and the Packers should stay the course when mapping out a developmental plan that will help the 23-year-old become an eventual starter or a valuable trade chip.

The Patriots utilized this blueprint to flip Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett into draft capital while preparing them for starting roles with new teams. Although Love still has a chance to become Green Bay’s starting quarterback if Rodgers is injured or eventually retires after a Super Bowl win, the third-year pro could help the team recoup some of the draft capital that was expended to acquire him in the first place.

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