The first snap dropped a chilling hint. Peyton Manning wasn't looking when center Manny Ramirez shot the ball wide, leading to a safety just 12 seconds into Super Bowl XLVIII. Broncos coach John Fox uttered into his headset, "A little louder than we thought, huh?"
Worse, the Seattle Seahawks were a lot better than the Broncos thought. That influenced Denver's draft. The Broncos wanted to become faster and tougher, creating more competition for playing time.
When you finish one victory short of the NFL championship, as the Broncos did, the concern is not with teams possessing delusions of adequacy. It's not the league, but the elite the Broncos must worry about as they attempt to become the first Super Bowl loser to win it the following year since 1973.
The Broncos addressed needs, comparing favorably to AFC power New England and to NFC beast Seattle, but not to San Francisco.
Denver filled a void in the first round without panicking. If cornerback Bradley Roby matures into an impact player by December, Denver's draft will be a success. The Broncos need Roby to contribute as a rookie because of Chris Harris' recovery from knee surgery and Aqib Talib's history of injuries.
Roby has top-10 draft talent. He was dominant, yet inconsistent, at Ohio State. Wisconsin picked him apart, and he struggles with ball recognition even when he has good coverage.
"I make no excuses for (the Wisconsin game)," Roby said. "I believe I can be the best cornerback in this draft."
The Broncos will count heavily on their veterans to accelerate his progress. While second-round receiver Cody Latimer and third-round offensive tackle Michael Schofield might make their mark on special teams as rookies, linebacker Lamin Barrow is the sleeper. The best value pick in GM John Elway's tenure is sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan. Barrow possesses similar characteristics: undersized, fast and a sound tackler. Barrow should push for playing time in the middle, where Nate Irving is penciled in as the starter.
Elway said it takes two to three years to evaluate a draft class. That is a realistic prism through which to view the picks. Still, if one selection is a boon this season — Roby or Barrow — it could go a long way in preventing another February disappointment.
Did the Broncos close the gap with the Seahawks?
Seattle's motto is "All In!" Pete Carroll is human Red Bull and demands players compete every day at everything. The champs took some chances, including with CU Buffs receiver Paul Richardson.
"We just got faster," Carroll beamed of the second-round pick.
No other team has scored more with picks outside the first round in recent years than Seattle — Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman. That's a credit to how the Seahawks develop and coach players. They drafted more for need, always a calculated gamble.
The 49ers had arguably the best draft this year, according to experts. They landed a hard-hitting safety in Jimmie Ward, perhaps the best tailback in the draft in Carlos Hyde and linebacker Chris Borland. A Borland vs. Barrow comparison could be fun in three years when reviewing this draft.
As for the Patriots, Bill Belichick kept 'em guessing. He eschewed instant gratification, selecting defensive end Dominique Easley and Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady's potential successor in four years. Easley is a disruptive force but might not play much this season as he recovers from his second ACL surgery.
The Broncos need May to matter in seven or so months with their six draft picks.
"There's no question we are happy with the way it turned out," Elway said. "We got the guys we wanted."
The NFL draft is an inexact science. The Broncos are proof. One of their all-time greats, wide receiver Rod Smith, was an undrafted free agent in 1994. Grading the draft is even harder than predicting it. Grading requires time for context. Broncos beat reporter Troy E. Renck offers a snapshot analysis of this year's 256-pick reality show:
Biggest surprise: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones resisted the temptation to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel, actually letting his football brass do their jobs.
Biggest winner: The Rams drafted Pitt tackle Aaron Donald in the first round, beefing up a terrifying defensive line.
Best gamble: Manziel in Cleveland. The Browns suddenly became must-see TV. And it's not like Manziel can be any worse than the Browns' last 12 QBs.
Biggest loser: The Colts didn't have a first-round pick because of their trade for disappointing tailback Trent Richardson.
The division is responding to Peyton Manning. The Broncos' offense crushed NFL records last season, and the rivals took notice. The Chargers' and Chiefs' first two picks in the NFL draft were defensive players, and the Raiders selected three defensive backs. Broncos beat reporter Troy E. Renck examines their work:
San Diego Chargers: They had only six draft picks but addressed needs without reaching. Grabbed cornerback Jason Verrett in the first round, a player many experts believed would end up in Denver. He's undersized at 5-foot-9 but is a thumper and capable of starting at nickel corner. His ability to cover Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders could ultimately determine the team's draft grade. San Diego also added outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, a 21-year-old pass rusher with extreme upside.
Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive end Dee Ford is a one-trick pony. But that trick is a potential game-changer. Employed as an edge pass rusher, he could be effective, like a late-inning lefty in the big leagues. De'Anthony Thomas is the most intriguing pick, a slippery running back who will be counted on heavily on special teams.
Oakland Raiders: With the seat simmering under general manager Reggie Mc Kenzie, the Raiders enjoyed a strong weekend as linebacker Khahil Mack fell to them in the fifth overall spot. He has the talent to be the draft's best player — and a menace to Manning. Quarterback Derek Carr should benefit from learning under Matt Schaub. If Carr becomes a starter, this draft grade could be an A.
Troy E. Renck, The Denver Post