From watching the National Football League at close range for many years, this observer has noticed a few characteristics that often slip below the radar of normal media coverage. One of those traits can give us a springboard here:
More often than not, how a franchise's brain trust — meaning the top operations people and the head coach — acts and reacts during the annual NFL Draft tells you more about them, and their philosophy, than what you see on Sunday afternoons during the season.
How much they gamble, how shrewd they try to be, how far they push the normal limits, how often they're willing to ignore what everyone else thinks ... all of those situations come into play during the draft. (We won't waste the space going back over how Josh McDaniels mishandled his two drafts in 2009-10.) So it was again, especially this time for the Broncos, with John Elway on board as more than a figurehead boss, Brian Xanders as the continuing general manager but melding into a new hierarchy, and John Fox as the long-proven head coach.
That triumvirate, clearly working well together, took an unpredictable course through the three-day draft. They didn't have a good enough offer to trade down from the No. 2 spot, so they happily grabbed Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller, who looks like a can't-miss star to help Elvis Dumervil in driving opposing lines crazy from either side.
Then the Denver front office did some smart maneuvering, trading down in the second round to compile more picks later. They could have gone in any direction with their next pick, but nabbing another certain starter in UCLA safety Rahim Moore was another clear indication of defensive focus in rebuilding the roster.
To that point, the Broncos were playing it straight and earning positive marks from almost all the instant analysts. From there, though, we saw a different side: definitely more daring, more unexpected, more revealing about how they might operate in years to come.
They had another pick midway through the second round, but instead of following normal logic and choosing a defensive lineman, they shocked everyone by taking offensive tackle Orlando Franklin of Miami. That meant giving up on incumbent right tackle Ryan Harris, who had dealt with injuries but obviously hadn't endeared himself. It also showed that, by not taking a defensive lineman (they also passed on Alabama All-American Marcell Dareus to start the draft), the upper management trusts its ability to find reinforcements via free agency.
That's the biggest gamble as it relates to the near future. As soon as the draft ended and the lockout resumed, teams couldn't contact free agents. Perhaps Xanders already was making contacts with potential free-agent replacements in the D-line, as soon as the draft plans became certain. It's also true the draft wasn't deep with down linemen, so why bother with longshots who might never have made it?
Instead, the Broncos tried to upgrade two other areas that badly needed the help: tight end and inside linebacker. For tight ends, it was easy to see the reasoning behind Portland State's Julius Thomas, a two-sport athlete whose basketball prowess could portend a big-play NFL future, and Nevada's Virgil Green, who made a big impression across the league at the pre-draft combine. And for linebackers, where Fox has plenty of expertise, there were obvious similarities between Nate Irving of North Carolina State and Mike Mohamed of California. They make tackles and cause fumbles, they're leaders and they can run.
Along the way, Denver gobbled up two Oklahoma defensive standouts, safety Quinton Carter and end Jeremy Beal, both having played in a lot of huge games as Sooners (and Beal's a two-time All-American). They also added to the mold that now is apparent of what kind of players the Broncos want: guys with good speed, who have been leaders in college and who have a mean streak.
The next indication of how Denver's front office is thinking will come with the free agents (assuming the lockout ends at some point). Defensive linemen are essential, along with perhaps an extra running back and wide receivers.
But even if you're an avowed cynic, you'd have a hard time finding much fault with how the Broncos improved themselves in this draft.