Biomechanical Review: Denver’s 2021 Draft (Part 2)

The second day of Denver’s 2021 draft is where some philosophical differences between the drafting styles of George Paton and John Elway appear to come into focus. While under Elway, the Broncos’ approach to finding late-round value seemed to involve drafting productive players with checkered health histories (Justin Strnad, Netane Muti, Juwann Winfree), under George Paton, the Broncos appear to be targeting quality athletes who, for whatever reason, weren’t always able to produce tremendous results in college or were otherwise overlooked (whether being buried on the depth chart, having holes in their game, a non-football medical issue, etc). And going by the results from this draft, this philosophical shift appears to have been very successful in unearthing late round gems.

Jamar Johnson (lateral oriented anterior dominant) shows very high levels of lateral anterior efficiency and otherwise very well rounded development. The one area where Johnson appears to show some minor stunting is in his medial anterior. On tape, Johnson shows smooth hips and excellent mobility, as well as good ball skills and tremendous field awareness. His ability to remain smoothly in motion at all times helps him to cover a tremendous amount of ground quickly and easily, and puts him in position to make many plays. Johnson’s tape shows a tremendous number of extremely poor tackle attempts, where he fails to wrap up successfully/ powerfully, and sometimes doesn’t even fully engage (lacking even a semblance of effort). Given his relatively robust athletic profile, I was puzzled by Johnson’s seeming inability to make clean powerful tackles, even when effort was clearly given– his under-developed medial anterior areas certainly contribute to the problem, but don’t seem to fully explain the situation. On closer inspection, the poor tackling very likely relates to Johnson’s default play stance– he spends the vast majority of his play time with knees and hips bent forward, using the extra borrowed give this stance provides his efficient anterior lateral areas to glide smoothly (and pivot his hips quickly and easily) around the field. However, this stance borrows from his posterior lumbar areas, and therefore doesn’t allow for power to be driven from these areas up through his back and into his arms, to enable a powerful tackle attempt. In other words, Johnson’s default stance favors mobility and quick hip pivots, but doesn’t allow for powerful tackling. If this analysis is correct, then Johnson’s extremely poor tackling is highly correctible by coaching (teaching him when to switch his stance/ footwork into tackle mode for example) and may be able to be improved significantly. If this is the case, then Johnson may eventually become a true top-tier safety, not just someone who can play well in obvious cover situations (which is likely to be his role as a rookie). And given that Johnson’s overall biomechanical profile appears to be so promising, improved tackling seems quite likely (assuming Johnson is at all coachable). Very likely a steal in the fifth round even if he doesn’t significantly improve his tackling. Johnson may prove to be an even more valuable theft if he can raise his tackling to the level suggested by his impressive athletic profile.

Jonathon Cooper (medial centric anterior dominant) shows very well rounded fascial areas, with excellent posterior development/ efficiency (for an anterior dominant player) particularly in his favored thoracic areas. On the field, Cooper shows excellent burst and straight ahead power, often putting offensive lineman in compromised positions and/ or pushing them into the backfield. While Cooper lacks elite closing speed to chase after targets, he does an excellent job setting the edge on run plays, and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. Cooper’s lateral lumbar areas (particularly posterior) appear to be somewhat underdeveloped, and contribute to his main weakness, which is a tendency to lose balance if caught from the side (these underdeveloped areas also likely contribute to his lack of closing speed). However, on balance Cooper appears to be a powerful disruptive defensive lineman, and one who shows an overall well-rounded athletic profile (and will likely therefore be able to stay relatively healthy over time), albeit without a top gear in closing/ pursuit.

Kary Vincent Jr (medial centric anterior dominant) shows very high levels of medial anterior efficiency. Although Vincent’s profile is inverted from the Fangio zone cover archetype that’s generally been seen in Denver (medial centric anterior dominant vs lateral oriented posterior dominant), like most of Fangio’s other zone corners, Vincent favors thoracic efficiency over lumbar (with long efficient arms) and shows excellent closing speed. In fact, Vincent shows some of the best combination of speed/ burst of any of the corners Denver has recently acquired, and flashes like lightning to his target. Vincent’s stiff hips prevent him from mirroring well, and he doesn’t always drive with his posterior legs to make powerful tackles. But his straight ahead burst/ closing speed (as well as his ability to disrupt passes/ make plays on the ball via his long efficient arms and good hands) make him a perfect fit in the slot or in zone coverage. Like most of Paton’s picks in the 2021 draft, Vincent shows good all around development and will likely stay relatively healthy over time. Likely to become an excellent slot/ zone corner, Vincent may be an asset as early as this upcoming season.

Marquiss Spencer (lateral oriented anterior dominant) shows high levels of lateral anterior efficiency, particularly in his favored lumbar areas. Although Spencer’s somewhat underdeveloped posterior areas show themselves in his lack of straight ahead power, Spencer nevertheless shows surprising speed and agility for a man his size. On many occasions, Spencer was able to beat his man around the edge using pure speed, while at other times he was able to rip inside with surprising agility. Spencer even dropped into cover zones on occasion, and showed surprisingly nimble feet and smooth hips in the process. Overall, Spencer does not appear likely to possess the straight ahead power/ burst to be able to play well on early downs (often being pushed back off the LOS, and failing to set the edge on run plays), but on obvious passing downs, Spencer’s skillset (rushing the passer, disrupting the pocket, and occasionally dropping into coverage) appear likely to be quite valuable in Fangio’s scheme. Spencer’s overall mobility/ agility is unusual for a man his size, and even with his limitations re: burst/ power, will likely get him a spot in the defensive line rotation on passing downs. Another player with relatively well rounded development, and one who will likely be able to contribute well in his specific role on defense.

Seth Williams (medial centric anterior dominant) shows very high levels of medial thoracic efficiency, coupled with somewhat underdeveloped/ borrowed against lateral and lumbar areas. On the field, Williams shows good strong hands and excellent straight ahead power/ burst. While he doesn’t show an enormous catch radius, Williams was still able to go up and make difficult catches over the top of many defenders in college, due to his excellent size and strong hands. And with the ball in his hands, Williams runs with power and is difficult to tackle. Williams’s stiff lateral areas show themselves in his rounded cuts (via stiff hips) and inability to extend his reach with full grip power. Likewise, while Williams’ efficient medial anterior lumbar areas give him excellent burst off the line, his lack of posterior lumbar efficiency means that he lacks the speed to take the top off a defense. Williams plays with good physicality and shows a relatively robust biomechanical system (particularly for an anterior dominant player), and his medial thoracic efficiency appears notably high. But his stiff lateral areas and lack of top speed prevent him from getting much separation on his routes, and his size/ reach may not be enough to overcome larger NFL corners (although he did make an excellent downfield one-handed catch against Denver’s Patrick Surtain). Overall, Williams seems likely to be able to contribute in a rotational downfield role against smaller corners, but will need to improve his lateral agility (cuts) and route running in order to play more frequently and against a larger variety of defenders. A solid rotational player (especially in specific matchups), and one who will likely contribute well on special teams due to his excellent size/ burst combination.

Caden Sterns (lateral oriented posterior dominant) would appear to fit the Fangio coverage archetype at first glance. He shows long efficient arms, and is oriented the same as most of Fangio’s other zone coverage players (lateral oriented posterior dominant). But where most of Fangio’s zone coverage players show tight/ responsive lumbar areas that allow them to close quickly in zones, Sterns shows notably underdeveloped and inefficient anterior lumbar areas (poor burst). In addition, Sterns shows stiff lateral hips and poor change of direction skills. While Sterns’s lateral posterior areas (both thoracic and lumbar) appear to be quite efficient, translating to long powerful arms and excellent top speed, Sterns’s poor burst and change of direction abilities significantly limit his tackling and pursuit. Sterns shows long arms and soft hands, good top speed, and good field awareness. But his biomechanical deficiencies in burst and change of direction appear likely to preclude him from becoming an impact defender. Nevertheless, Sterns’s overall athleticism– his combination of length, speed, and hands– will likely allow him to play very well on special teams. And like most of Paton’s picks in the 2021 draft, Sterns’s overall physicality predicts reasonably strong durability.

From the outside looking in, it would appear that George Paton had three main goals for the 2021 draft (other than the obvious– find value, take good players, etc): draft strong physical players, shore up Denver’s pass defense in a very strong passing division, and solidify a power rushing offense. Regarding the first goal (to draft physical athletic players), even the players who appear unlikely to contribute at their assigned position (particularly Browning and Sterns) show the type of raw athleticism that will likely make them impact special teams players. And as a whole, this draft class appears quite likely to show above average durability over time. Regarding the second goal, Denver’s pass defense is now absurdly stacked, with potential playmakers at all levels of the defense, and with younger defensive backs (Surtain, Vincent) who appear likely to stay healthier over time than their veteran counterparts (Darby, Callahan). And finally, regarding the third goal of building and reinforcing a power rushing offense, Denver drafted two potential stars in Javonte Williams and Quinn Meinerz who appear likely to set an incredibly physical tone. And the combination of Williams and Gordon will likely give Denver the strongest one-two punch at running back of any team outside Cleveland.

To my eyes, this is Denver’s best draft class since I began studying them in 2018. While the 2019 class was very top heavy (with four first round talents in the first four picks), and the 2020 class was very deep in quality starters/ depth, this 2021 class seems to have combined the best of both of the previous classes while also setting a stronger and more physical/ durable tone. Like 2019, this class offers several players with true star potential (Surtain, Meinerz, Williams, and Johnson), and like 2020 this group is filled with impact role players (Cooper, Vincent, Spencer, Williams). But unlike both of the previous classes, this group is likely both physical and durable, and even the players who may not have a place on offense/ defense will still likely contribute heavily on special teams (Browning, Sterns, and Williams). As a whole, this draft class appears to be a truly stellar collection of talent, and likely solidifies Paton’s vision for the 2021 Broncos.