DENVER — Identifying the low point of a Broncos era thick with low points isn’t what you'd call quarantine fun.
But it will help us predict what they do in the NFL draft that thankfully, mercifully starts Thursday.
Having covered 125 of the past 129 games — home, road, too often in Oakland, not often enough in New Orleans — here’s my low point of four seasons without a playoff berth: at precisely 5:26 p.m. MT on Dec. 9, 2018, the Broncos sauntered into the visitors locker room at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The Broncos had just lost to the no-good, very bad San Francisco 49ers, who lifted their record from 2-10 to 3-10. Ugh.
But instead of frustration and rampant F bombs, too many Broncos were ... laughing. For a franchise that spent the previous three decades winning, seeing defenders Brandon Marshall and Shane Ray yuk it up was a jaw-dropping scene.
We all know John Elway would sooner disavow golf and pledge allegiance to the Raiders than divulge his leanings in the NFL draft. But his thoughts on what kind of player the Broncos will draft have never been more clear: “We haven’t had that leadership in the locker room that can dig us out of this hole. I think that’s why we’ve concentrated on going with character guys that can really (lead).”
OK, cool. That helps. The Broncos boss wants a locker room boss with the No. 15 pick — or wherever the Broncos land after the inevitable Elway trade up or trade down.
So who is that? Think leadership. Think intangibles. Think big college numbers over potential.
- Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma linebacker: Twice a captain for the Sooners powerhouse.
- Isaiah Simmons, Clemson linebacker: Butkus Award winner voted a team captain.
- Andrew Thomas, Georgia tackle: If Broncos go offensive line, this man captained the Dawgs.
- Jerry Jeudy, Alabama wide receiver: No captainships at Bama, though Jeudy drew praise for his mature interviews at the NFL Combine.
Luck into one of those four, and the Broncos will call Day 1 of the draft a banner success.
“When you’re losing, there are a lot of negative things going on in that locker room. It can be very influential on how we play on Sunday,” Elway said. “If we’re having a two- or three-game losing streak, to have that leadership and the quality guys to pull us out. I think we’ve concentrated on that the last couple of years.”
Valuing production and character over measurables and potential is the new draft formula for the Broncos, even if it came about in a painful way. Marshall and Ray were not the only perpetrators of a broken locker room. But just days after the 2018 season shaped the Broncos for years to come, Ray and Marshall were gone from the team. Neither has played an NFL snap since. Coincidence? Doubt it.
“Instead of complaining about what’s going on, we need guys in there ... to get us back to our winning ways,” Elway said.
Just take a peek at the draft picks of 2018 and '19, when the Broncos focused on players who got tough when their playoff hopes were cooked — and they still finished 4-1 down the stretch: Courtland Sutton, Dalton Risner and Drew Lock jump to the front of the line. Shoot, Bradley Chubb wore a suit and tie to his Broncos interview. That's not a pass-rusher. That's a CEO. That's what you want right there.
This will be a bizarre draft with executives quarantined in their own homes. But there are no excuses for the Broncos whiffing. Every team's on a level playing field. And which ones possess an advantage during a virtual draft?
It should be those with years of continuity. It should be one with a 61-year-old coach, Vic Fangio, who spins yarns about linebackers from the 1980s for days. It should be one with a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows the intangibles that lead to greatness, but had a draft history of getting lost in the measurables. With most pro days canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are fewer measurables to get lost in.
"It will be 90 percent what you see on tape, and we'll go from there," Fangio said. "We do not have the workout times that you normally have to evaluate guys, but sometimes those workout times and that information just clouds the issue."
What's an NFL talent evaluator to do when there are no pro days to attend? Call high school guidance counselors. Interview college strength and conditioning coaches. Get the scoop on a man's personality. Then check their 40 times.
“We had a couple misses back there," Elway said. “I think the misses that we had were people that were character concerns."