NFL Draft hints at what Sean Payton expects Broncos defense to look like in 2023, beyond

If all goes well for the Broncos in 2023, they will not have to rely extensively on Drew Sanders, their third-round linebacker selection.

Under new defensive coordinator – and former Denver head coach – Vance Joseph, Denver has an inside linebacking group that features the productive returning duo of Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton plus fourth-year man Jonas Griffith, a starter until he sustained a season-ending foot injury in 2022.

In discussing why the Broncos took him at No. 67 overall, head coach Sean Payton provided the most extensive glimpse yet into how he evaluates players on that side of the ball and, perhaps, what to expect from Joseph’s unit in 2023.

“We see our schemes very similar to a year ago,” Payton said of how Joseph will play. In 2022, of course, Denver had one of the NFL’s best defenses over the first half of the season under coordinator Ejiro Evero until trades, injuries and a stagnant offense finally wore the group out down the stretch.

In drafting Sanders – a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder who had 103 tackles and 9.5 sacks for Arkansas last year – along with third-round cornerback Riley Moss and sixth-round safety JL Skinner, Payton also provided a look at how they plan on the defense looking.

Consider the head coach’s assessment of Sanders as “a prototype” at inside linebacker.

“If you want to be more specific, the ‘Mike’ linebacker plays, generally speaking, to the tight end,” he said.

Sanders’ eventual, potential role doesn’t end there.

“We have a tag called ‘pressure player’ and to check it, you’ve got to be unique in regard to rushing the passer,” Payton said. “Sometimes, linebackers are pressure players. In New Orleans, Demario Davis, we felt he was a pressure player because when we blitzed him a percentage of the time, he could affect the quarterback.

“We’ve had a lot of linebackers that were really good players that weren’t pressure players. That’s not their first job description. I think (Sanders) fits into that position where he’s a pressure player. His production on the quarterback (last fall) would suggest that.”

Sanders isn’t the only Broncos draft pick that can play in multiple roles. Skinner, for example, may begin his career as a special teams player and role player – though the safety position does look like an open competition next to Justin Simmons – but at 6-4 and 210 pounds, he’s got the length and range to man different parts of the field.

“I’d say I do a lot of work in the box — my school had me rotating down into the box a lot, so just depending on the situation and what the Denver Broncos want me to do,” he said Saturday. “But I have experience down (in the box).”

Paton called Skinner “a fun watch” on film, adding “The thing that really sticks out is his physicality and playing downhill in the run game. You see that all over the tape.”

“That was kind of our little joined-at-the-hip player that we just kept looking at,” Payton added. “When this process takes place, you have certain players that you gravitate to. His length is something that stood out.”

Neither Sanders nor Skinner is rated as a prospect in the same realm as former Cardinals first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, but they each have big frames and now will be coached by Joseph, who was tasked with maximizing what Simmons could do as something of a positionless player in Arizona.

“He spent three or four years in college just being a football player,” former Cardinals assistant Brenston Buckner said. “Let’s put him in situations where all that athleticism can show. … HIs talent, that got him drafted in the top 10, is always in display.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Payton has made it clear his philosophy is similar: Figure out exactly what a player can do and don’t ask him to do more than that.

“If you’ve got a guy that’s less talented than Pat Surtain, you don’t ask him to do the stuff that Pat does,” said Buckner, referencing Denver’s All-Pro cornerback. “You ask him to be great at what he does while keeping your five-star guys as your five-star guys.”

That’s what the selections of Sanders, Moss and Skinner look like: Additions of players who may be impact guys down the road, but for now free up stars to do what they do best. If Moss can be trusted as a rookie, the Broncos may feel better about moving Surtain around rather than keeping him planted outside all the time. If Sanders can provide some pass-rush punch, that makes life easier for Zach Allen, Randy Gregory and others.

If he and Skinner are core special teams players as rookies, all the better.

Given that the Broncos were never going to be able to get up into the first round to access the top-end talents in the draft — “Thursday night was tough,” Paton said of watching the action — the best they were going to do in the draft is identify some puzzle pieces.

Now it’s Joseph’s job to make them all fit together.

“You can see that Vance has a great understanding of how to attack protections, being able to do a great job of playing their leverages and coverages, doing a great job of picking his spots to activate pressure,” Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said last month at the NFL’s spring ownership meetings. “And I also think Vance does a great job of understanding his players. You can see the way he was able to utilize (safety) Budda Baker and Isaiah Simmons or even J.J. Watt.”

Joseph has talent to work with. Now the process begins in earnest of trying to put the pieces together.

“I love being a part of a defense where everyone does their job, everyone knows what they’re doing, and they fly around and make plays,” Moss said. “That’s exactly what Denver does. I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Want more Broncos news? Sign up for the Broncos Insider to get all our NFL analysis.

Source: Read Full Article