49ers Emmanuel Sanders Home Jersey

At 3-6 and with four difficult road games remaining, it seems likely the Denver Broncos are heading for their third consecutive losing season.

And that sets up the most important draft in John Elway’s tenure as the Broncos’ chief football decision-maker. Coach Vic Fangio has already made it clear he understands that, too.

“You’ve got to build your team through the draft, there’s no two ways about that,” Fangio said. “And supplement it through free agency when the opportunity arises.”

The Broncos need to handle their business like they have in the past two Aprils and not like the failed classes of 2016 and 2017. In 2020, the Broncos are poised to have their biggest draft class since Elway took over in 2011. They have nine picks and are in line to receive two or three compensatory draft picks.

Elway has had three drafts with at least nine players — nine in 2011, nine in 2015 and 10 in 2018.

When the Broncos traded wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the San Francisco 49ers last month, Elway was already referencing the team’s draft position.

“We’ve got seven picks the first four rounds this next year, so it puts us in good shape there,” Elway said. ” … The value we have there is something we feel good about.”

If the past three seasons have taught the Broncos anything it should be that they cannot buy their way out of trouble. The Broncos turned to free agency when quarterback Paxton Lynch, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2016, was released in the summer of 2018 and the 2017 draft class proved to be a failure. That effort provided little or no relief.

This year’s major signees — tackle Ja’Wuan James, cornerback Bryce Callahan and defensive back Kareem Jackson — haven’t had the collective impact the Broncos needed. Only Jackson has played in at least seven games as James has played just 32 snaps all season because of knee injury and Callahan hasn’t even practiced since summer because of a foot injury.

True, the free-agency class of 2014 — Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward — made major contributions on the way to a Super Bowl 50 win. But those four players came to a team that already had a foundation built in the previous five drafts.

When Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012, he said one of the factors in his decision was the plan for the team — “you could see where things were going.”

In recent weeks there has been plenty of discussion in and around the team about the Broncos’ ability to use their draft capital to dig out of the current troubles, and they do have a template because they’ve done it before.

Consider:

  • The Broncos’ Super Bowl XLVIII team, which lost to Seattle, included 20 draft picks — as well as five players who made the team as undrafted rookies — on the game day roster and eight more homegrown players on injured reserve. Twenty-five of those players were added in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 drafts. Eleven starters in the game were Broncos draft picks or players who were signed as undrafted rookies.
  • The Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 team, which defeated Carolina, had 20 of the team’s draft picks as well as seven players who had signed with the team as undrafted rookies on the game day roster, with five more draft picks on injured reserve. Thirty of those players arrived between 2011 and 2015.

It was a group that “grew up together,” is how former Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas put it. “When Von (Miller) got here [in 2011], it just seemed like we had rookies growing into the lineup every year.”

It is an indication of how important next April’s draft could be for a team that already has 13 players, including Bradley Chubb and Drew Lock on injured reserve, from the last two drafts to go with five more players who signed as undrafted rookies in those two years.

“I said, we have a really good roster of young players, I believe that,” Miller said. “It’s like I’ve said, we know we get Chubb back next year. We’re going to get it right and we want people that want to get it right with us.”