Football games are still won and lost in the trenches, regardless of the style of high-flying offenses and Star Wars passing numbers being put up in some places around the NFL in recent seasons.
And while this Denver Broncos class of rookies has been excellent this season, the draft class could have been a touch better had the front office been a little more focused on what happens at the line of scrimmage, where championship teams are built.
John Elway and his staff did a nice job of identifying and landing rookies like undrafted free agent and Pro Bowl running back Philip Lindsey, future standout wide receiver Cortland Sutton, talented running back Royce Freeman and edge rusher Bradley Chubb. And while Chubb, the fifth pick overall, has had an excellent rookie season, he’s not the guy on which Denver should have spent its first pick.
Benefiting from the presence of all-world edge rusher Von Miller, who is heading to his seventh Pro Bowl, on the other side, Chubb has already set a team rookie sack record with 12. With three sacks in the final two games, he’d set a new NFL record for sacks by a rookie. That’s heady stuff.
But let’s put that in context. With Miller drawing double teams on the other side and still posting 14.5 sacks, Chubb has the easier path to the quarterback. To his credit, he’s done exactly what he should do. He’s helped Denver’s team sack total climb from 33 last year to 42 this season. However, the 6-8 Broncos are ranked No. 25 overall in defense. The 5-11 Broncos from a season ago were 24th in defense.
There’s no question Chubb is an outstanding football player and a guy worth a first-round pick. He’s been chosen a Pro Bowl alternate this year and will be a Pro Bowler in the future. Still, with Denver not having a real need at the position — they also have former first-round pick Shane Ray and standout Shaquille Barrett (currently injured) — that pick could have been better spent on the guy who was picked immediately after Chubb.
Guard Quenton Nelson, the sixth overall pick taken by the Indianapolis Colts, is a better football player than Chubb, and Denver should have selected him at No. 5.
Picking a guard in the first round isn’t sexy. But it’s smart. The Broncos’ long-term fortunes would have been better for it. Even after the impressive influx of young talent this season, Denver will miss the playoffs for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, the 8-6 Colts’ rejuvenation, led by rookies Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, could lead them from 4-12 last season to a playoff berth this season.
Nelson, the 330-pounder out of Notre Dame, is a once-in-a-generation talent at his position. Already headed to the Pro Bowl in his first season, most see a future Hall of Famer in the making. He hasn’t allowed a sack in the past 10 games, while not missing a snap all season. After allowing 56 sacks last season, the Colts’ 16 sacks allowed to this point are the second-fewest in the league.
There’s a certain amount of irony involved with Nelson’s Pro Bowl selection and what could have been in Denver. The last Colts rookie offensive lineman to be selected for the Pro Bowl was Chris Hinton in 1983. Longtime Broncos fans will recognize the name because Hinton was the player drafted by Denver that season and then traded to the Colts in the deal that brought a young rookie quarterback named John Elway to the Broncos.
One reason that many are calling on GM Elway to revamp his front office staff is because of his struggles in drafting offensive players. While he’s hit on a few defensive players in the first round, Elway has scuffled picking offensive players with his top pick. He’s only drafted two in seven tries. Quarterback Paxton Lynch never panned out, and offensive tackle Garrett Bolles has been a frustrating mix of raw talent and inconsistency.
Sometimes making the right choice isn’t overly popular at the beginning. Had Elway picked Nelson over Chubb, he would have been grilled by media types for missing out on the high-profile pass rusher. Still, like all football guys, Elway knows building a foundation at the line of scrimmage is how championship teams are constructed for the long haul.
Listen to Mark Knudson Monday afternoons at 12:30 with Brady Hull on “The Hull Show” on AM 1310 KFKA Greeley and 8 a.m. Saturdays on AM 1600 ESPN Denver.