Hold your horses

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Hold your horses
NFL draft doesn't always deliver players who can make quick impact

By Mike Klis
Denver Post Staff Writer
DenverPost.com

Settle down, Broncos fans. The NFL draft will get here soon enough.

Granted, few events are better at building anticipation. Whether it's the infectious, motor-talking salesmanship of Mel Kiper Jr., or the sporting nation's fascination with lists - No. 1, Reggie Bush; No. 2, Matt Leinart; No. 3 D'Brickashaw Ferguson, etc. - the draft has given professional football a cottage industry where the parts have become more important than the sum.

Take a deep breath. Just because the Broncos will match their highest pick of the past 13 years when they select 15th overall Saturday doesn't mean there should be expectations of an immediate difference-maker.

The Broncos, as much as any NFL team, understand how warped the public's perspective of the draft has become.

In recent years, the Broncos have generally received underwhelming grades for their draft picks. Only offensive tackle George Foster remains from their 2003 draft. D.J. Williams and Tatum Bell are the only major contributors from 2004, Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth from 2005.

These five picks would rank somewhere among the Broncos' top 30 players, but none would likely be considered among their top 10, at least not yet.

Yet in the past three seasons, the Broncos have gone 10-6, 10-6 and 13-3, an average of 11 wins a year. The Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl after an 11-win regular season.

Most likely, the 15th overall pick will begin the 2006 season on the Broncos' bench, just as former first-round pick Troy Polamalu did in his rookie 2003 season for Pittsburgh.

"I've said this all along, and I don't think people necessarily want to hear it, but I don't think we have any glaring weaknesses," Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. "Now there are places we want to shore up the depth on. But this team won 14 games and made it to the AFC championship (game), and I don't feel like it was a one-hit wonder."

Not that the Broncos can afford too many more first-day draft misses like Dorsett Davis, Terry Pierce or Maurice Clarett. The average age of their 11-player nucleus (Champ Bailey, Al Wilson, John Lynch, Gerard Warren, Ian Gold, Rod Smith, Jake Plummer, Tom Nalen, Matt Lepsis, Ben Hamilton, Jason Elam) will be roughly 32 years old when the season begins Sept. 10 at St. Louis.

Even if the Broncos don't need much help for 2006, their roster core suggests they may need at least two or three players to significantly contribute in 2007.

Barring more trades, the Broncos will have nine picks Saturday and Sunday, seven through the first four rounds. The Broncos will try to address eight positions: wide receiver, running back, tight end, safety, quarterback, linebacker, offensive line and defensive line.

But before reading on for a breakdown of each position, maintain composure by answering the rhetorical question: Who has been the better Bronco - Ashley Lelie, a former first-round pick, or Smith, who was undrafted?

Wide receiver

With Smith about to turn 36 and Lelie eligible for free agency after this season, the Broncos may need two new starting wide receivers for 2007.

They are expected to take a wide receiver within their first three picks - No. 15, 37 or 61.

Of the two wide receivers projected for the first round, the Broncos like Ohio State's Santonio Holmes better than Florida's Chad Jackson.

However, scouts seemingly miss on wide receivers as much as any other position.

From the 13 first-round wideouts taken in the past two drafts, only four have more than 45 career receptions.

Don't be surprised if the Broncos wait until the second round, where the likes of Demetrius Williams, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan and Greg Jennings will be available.

Quarterback

When the Broncos go on the clock at No. 15, they will look first at the top-rated player from their draft board, then at the position. If Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler slides to No. 15, discussion will get intense inside the Broncos' war room.

Cutler has a stronger arm than Leinart and Vince Young, who likely will be gone within the top seven picks. The Broncos also believe Cutler is good enough to throw on the run. But in the likely event Cutler is gone before the Broncos pick, they may wait until the later rounds before grabbing a quarterback. Plummer and Bradlee Van Pelt are their only two quarterbacks with NFL experience, so the Broncos are expected to pick up another one.

Running back

After Bush, who figures to go No. 1 overall to Houston, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney may make the most sense for the Broncos because of his size (217 pounds) and familiarity with the zone-blocking system.

Maroney may be an expensive stretch at No. 15 though and will be gone by the time the Broncos pick again at No. 37. Expect the Broncos to continue their trend of selecting a hardly household name in the second or third rounds, possibly Joseph Addai, Jerious Norwood, Cedric Humes, Derrick Ross or Quinton Ganther.

Tight end

Wesley Duke and Nate Jackson may get the first chance to replace Jeb Putzier as the Broncos' pass-catching tight end, but coach Mike Shanahan also wants to develop a young prospect with some blocking skills.

This is why Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein and Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano are considered second-round prospects even though each averaged fewer than 31 catches a season in their college careers.

Safety

With starters Lynch and Nick Ferguson both 30-something, the Broncos need youth and depth. Projected first-rounders are Michael Huff of Texas and Ohio State's Donte Whitner. The next tier includes South Carolina's Ko Simpson and Nebraska's Daniel Bullocks.

Linebacker

Denver's starting three - Wilson, Gold and Williams - are plenty good, but the Broncos would like to bring in a rookie to compete for the No. 4 spot.

Offensive line

Dating to Nalen in the seventh round of 1994, the Broncos have selected a blocker in 11 of their past 12 drafts.

Defensive line

The Broncos could use some tackle depth behind Warren and Michael Myers, but they will take an end if there's one they like in the later rounds.

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