When word came that the Denver Broncos would give up their No. 25 pick in the NFL Draft, dropping six spots and getting a late fourth-rounder in return, you had to wonder if team executive John Elway had outsmarted himself.
After all, the New England Patriots quickly used that selection to grab Dont'a Hightower of Alabama, an outstanding inside linebacker. Hightower could have instantly filled one of Denver's biggest shortcomings since team leader and playmaker Al Wilson was unceremoniously dumped after the 2006 season.
Hightower had looked like a perfect fit, and obviously New England coach Bill Belichick agreed. Rest assured, if Hightower quickly becomes a first-rate NFL linebacker, that still might come back to haunt Denver and Elway.
Then, sitting at 31st, the Broncos decided to slide again, giving that pick to Tampa Bay for an early second-rounder, and making another exchange with the Bucs to go higher in the fourth round. So Denver had moved down 11 picks, out of the first round, and had only that extra fourth-round spot to show for it. Oh, and then Tampa Bay turned that 31st choice into Boise State runner Doug Martin, who had looked like an ideal match for the Peyton Manning offense.
At that point, it seemed unlikely at best that Elway would salvage this draft. But then he did. Not with an impeccable draft class, because at least two late picks (Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan and Tennessee defensive end Malik Jackson) appear long shots at best to be more than special-teams players. But three of Denver's other picks could make Elway look like a genius. And a fourth could be a star of tomorrow.
First came Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe, a defensive tackle and Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Wolfe, with ability as well as character, should make Denver's inside pass rush much better, and his aggressiveness should rub off on others.
Later in the second round, Denver surprised many by nabbing Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler, who has an outstanding arm and attitude. With Elway and Manning as mentors, Osweiler will have every chance to bloom into an NFL quarterback. No, the Broncos didn't fill an immediate need, but they did that later by taking another Arizona State player, cornerback-returner Omar Bolden.
Denver's best pick of all came in the third round, lassoing San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman. It meant moving up 20 picks, giving up a lower draft choice to do so, but this is one time when a mid-draft impulse was brilliant.
There wasn't much reaction, but that's OK. Anyone in the Mountain West, including Air Force, knows Hillman's legitimacy. He's fast, durable, tough and explosive, and he ran for 3,000 yards in two college seasons. He makes Knowshon Moreno a likely third-teamer, if not expendable. In fact, lots of people with memories compare Hillman favorably to another SDSU runner who became an NFL superstar, namely Marshall Faulk. (Manning made Faulk look very good in their years together with Indianapolis, and the same could happen with Hillman.)
With Hillman as well as Willis McGahee, the Broncos suddenly are much better off at running back than many realize. When McGahee needs a break, Hillman can step in smoothly, regardless of the situation. And while some say he's too small at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, he physically resembles Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who was 5-foot-8 and 200.
Put it all together, and Denver clearly has put itself in better position for the 2012 season. How much better? That answer might come from Ronnie Hillman.
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