Hard to believe, but this week begins the "year of reckoning" for Josh McDaniels as head coach of the Denver Broncos.
Seems like only yesterday that the brash young 33-year-old (he turned 34 on Wednesday) was entering his first NFL Draft as the Broncos' new mastermind, trying to create his own version of the New England Patriots.
McDaniels has had a year to learn and endure the humbling initiation process. He's been through amazing extremes already, from a 6-0 start that made him look like the greatest young genius ever, to an 8-8 finish and no playoff berth.
Now he and Denver's front office have staked the franchise's future on what happens this week — followed up, of course, by how far and how fast the staff can nurture the 2010 rookie class.
We can only guess, until Thursday night when the draft begins, what McDaniels' priorities are in reshaping the roster. You never know how any draft will unfold, with the variables of late trades and strange selections. But here's an educated guess of how a successful first two rounds might look for the Broncos, followed by a few sleepers.
• First round: Denver picks at No. 11, with most analysts assuming it'll be Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, especially after last week's exit of Brandon Marshall. But that's too easy and, in this case, misguided. Bryant doesn't fit the new regime's quest for smart, high-character players. The best match is Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, and if he's available, Denver should feel giddy about nabbing the best inside linebacker of this draft, hands down. If he's gone, another defensive gem will be there, such as Tennessee safety Eric Berry or Florida cornerback Joe Haden, and possibly Clemson runner C.J. Spiller. But my guess is this pick will be for the defense.
• Second round: Denver has Nos. 43 and 45. Remember that the first round goes Thursday (5:30 p.m.), followed by Rounds 2 and 3 starting at 4 on Friday, all on ESPN. That means more time for dealing. You might see the Broncos move up if they want one of the two best receivers at that level, Golden Tate of Notre Dame or Demaryius Thomas of Georgia Tech. Tate's stock is rising, but Thomas is bigger and might fit better. Another possibility is center Maurkice Pouncey of Florida, but he probably won't last that long. My guess: Thomas, followed by somebody like Florida State cornerback Patrick Robinson.
• Star factor: So, what if it's the 45th pick and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is sitting there? Or Colt McCoy of Texas? Would McDaniels jump? Probably not, given that Denver must find instant contributors. Then again, if a runner like California's Jahvid Best slides that far, the Broncos might not be able to resist.
• Sleepers: Every draft has them, players outside the super-elite who can turn into superstars (Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe come to mind). One is Jerry Hughes, the extraordinary Texas Christian outside linebacker. In the right defense, such as Denver's, Hughes could be an immediate pass-rushing playmaker. If he makes it through the first round, somebody will make him the steal of this draft.
Others include Mississippi runner-returner Dexter McClusker, who has incredible speed as well as power; Stanford runner Toby Gerhart, who might last until the third round; and Minnesota receiver Eric Decker, who looks like a clone of former Denver star Ed McCaffrey. On a local note, former Doherty standout defensive tackle Lamarr Houston of Texas could help Denver if he's around in mid-draft.
One trade, up or down, could scramble every bit of this projection for Denver. If that happens, just go to csindy.com for Broncos draft updates.
But that's what makes every NFL Draft so fascinating. You spend three months predicting it, then (this year) three days scrambling to make sense of it.