Tue, 02 Mar 2021

Aric DiLalla

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Mock draft season has begun, and analysts have started to pair a slew of different players with the Broncos, who hold the ninth-overall selection in this year's NFL Draft. But as the next crop of NFL hopefuls begin their path to the league at the Senior Bowl this week, we're taking a look back at Denver's 2020 draft class.

Despite an unprecedented offseason in which the rookies lost out on potentially thousands of reps because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the team's draft picks still made significant impacts in their first season.

All but one of Denver's 10 draft picks saw action - Justin Strnad was placed on injured reserve before the season - and many found a way to contribute in near instant fashion.

We begin with a look at the Broncos' Day 3 picks from 2020:

TE ALBERT OKWUEGBUNAM

Overview:

Denver began its Day 3 haul by acquiring another athletic tight end to complement Noah Fant. Okwuegbunam, a 6-foot-5, 258-pound player who played his college ball with Drew Lock at Missouri, brought 4.49-second 40-yard dash speed to Denver - and he showed it off quickly in training camp. Okwuegbunam was a consistent red-zone threat during the lead-up to the season, and after he was inactive for the first few weeks to begin the year, he showed that potential in the regular season, as well. During a three-game stretch that spanned Weeks 6-8, Okwuegbunam caught 10 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown and alsodrewseveral key penalties. The talented rookie appeared to be on track for a strong second half of the season before he tore his ACL in Week 9 against the Falcons.

Stats:

11 receptions, 15 targets, 121 yards, 11 yards per reception, one touchdown, six first-down receptions

Game to remember:

Okwuegbunam's best game wasn't his most productive, as that came in Week 7 against the Chiefs when he caught seven passes for 60 yards. Instead, his finest performance of his rookie year came in Week 8, when he caught just one pass for a 9-yard score. That back-of-the-end-zone touchdown grab pulled the Broncos within seven points of the Chargers as part of their 21-point comeback, and Okwuegbunam continued to make an impact late in the game. On the team's final drive, Okwuegbunam drew a pass interference penalty on a key third-and-8 on Denver's own side of the field, and he then drew another penalty in the end zone on fourth-and-4. The second penalty gave the Broncos one look from the 1-yard line, and Lock found KJ Hamler for the game-winning score.

Area for improvement:

Okwuegbunam caught the first two passes of his career in a Week 6 game in New England, but he could've made far more plays that afternoon. He hauled in just two of his six targets and dropped at least a couple of passes that would've resulted in points for the Broncos. The big-bodied tight end showed an ability in 2020 to create separation from defenders. In 2021, as he returns from an ACL injury, he'll look to become more sure-handed, as well.

LB JUSTIN STRNAD

Overview:

Of the Broncos' 10 draft picks, Wake Forest's Justin Strnad was the only player not to appear in a game for Denver this season. A wrist injury in training camp ended Strnad's season before it began, but there were early flashes that suggested the rangy linebacker could've played a role as a rookie for the Broncos. Strnad took reps in the team's nickel defense in training camp and may have been the coverage linebacker the team has missed in recent years. Despite limited practice time before his injury, Strnad showed traits that Head Coach Vic Fangio said allowed him to project that Strnad could be an effective player. He caught the eye of his teammates, as well.

"He's looking clean," Alexander Johnson said in August. "Obviously, he's running with the receivers, getting good drops, picking up the defense really fast. He's looking really good. ... I'm glad we got him as a linebacker."

G NETANE MUTI

Overview:

The Broncos took a calculated risk when they selected Fresno State's Netane Muti in the sixth round of April's draft. The talented but raw player appeared in just five games over his final two seasons of college as he suffered an Achilles injury in 2018 and a Lisfranc injury in 2019. He also dealt with an Achilles injury in 2016. When healthy, though, Muti showed signs of dominance. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, he earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors and may have been a Top 50 prospect in this year's draft were it not for his injury history. When he arrived in Denver, some theorized that the season could serve as another redshirt year, but the 6-foot-3, 315-pound player proved he was healthy enough to compete. Though he appeared in just four games and played just 122 offensive snaps, he showed signs that he may demand a spot on the field.

Stats:

Four games, one start, 122 offensive snaps, 22 special teams snaps

Game to remember:

Muti made his lone start of the year against Carolina in Week 14, and he looked like a veteran when he was out in space. On a screen play to Gordon, Muti made an initial block near the line of scrimmage and then raced out to flatten a corner. His play wasn't perfect, but he showed the athleticism and physicality that made him an alluring prospect.

"You're not supposed to have favorites, but I really like what he does," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said after the win over Carolina. "He's very strong and explosive, but yet he's mobile. The one block he made on the screen to the right, where he ran flat and cut the defender, that was awesome. You [don't] see a lot of people be able to do that - get in there and wrestle bears like they do at guard, but then have the quickness and the instincts to be able to go out and cut a guy. A lot of players can't cut and block low because it takes some initial quickness. He showed in a few snaps why he's got a very, very bright future. It's exciting."

Area for improvement:

Muti didn't take enough snaps to point to a specific game or series of plays in which he struggled. Instead, his challenge in 2021 will be to remain healthy and continue to improve his technique to challenge the starters for playing time. Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow are both good players at guard, but if Muti continues to develop, he could force the Broncos to shift their lineup to get the best five players on the field. At worst, Muti should continue to be a valuable depth piece along the line.

WR TYRIE CLEVELAND

Overview:

The Broncos continued their revamp of the wide receiver position in the spring when they added Tyrie Cleveland in the seventh round after selecting Jeudy and Hamler with their first two picks. Cleveland's time at Florida was perhaps defined by unrealized potential, but he earned a roster spot in Denver at a competitive position group and he carved out a role after Courtland Sutton suffered an early-season knee injury. A 6-foot-2, 209-pound player, Cleveland was able to make some key catches in his few opportunities in 2020 and was also a key special teams contributor.

Stats:

Six receptions, nine targets, 63 yards, 10.5 yards per reception,four first-down receptions

Game to remember:

Cleveland's best game undoubtedly came in the final week of the season, as he caught four passes for 45 yards and played a career-high 25 snaps. Prior to the Broncos' one-point loss to the Raiders, Cleveland had tallied two total catches for 18 yards. He more than doubled that as Lock looked for him repeatedly. Perhaps more impressive than his catch total was that each of the targets came on either third or fourth down.

Area for improvement:

Cleveland, like many of the team's late-round draft picks, simply needs to be a more consistent player. He faces an uphill climb for targets in 2021, as Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, Tim Patrick, Fant and Okwuegbunam all figure to be in the fix as receiving threats. He'll need to put together a strong offseason and training camp to prove he belongs on the field. After playing largely as a special teamer in 2020, he'll aim to take the next step in 2021.

OLB DERREK TUSZKA

Overview:

After earning first-team AP FCS All-America honors in 2019, Derrek Tuszka arrived in Denver to learn behind what was projected to be one of the league's best pass-rushing duos. That reality changed when Von Miller suffered a Week 1 ankle injury, but Tuszka was still able to gain valuable knowledge and reps behind Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed and Co. The seventh-round pick - whose season was interrupted by a midseason stint on injured reserve - saw few defensive snaps as a rookie as he spent the first half of the season on the practice squad. He'll look to realize more of his potential in Year 2.

Stats:

Nine games, six tackles, one tackle for loss

Game to remember:

Tuszka played just 27 defensive snaps as a rookie, including a season-high 10 defensive snaps in Week 17 against the Raiders.

Area for improvement:

After a collegiate career at the FCS level, Tuszka simply needs to continue to get bigger and stronger.

"Yeah, he needs to get stronger," Fangio said before the regular season. "He needs to develop more physically. ... He came from a- I don't want to say a lesser level of play - [but] he's out here now with NFL players. ... He was behind. It's evident. He needs more seasoning."

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