Grading the Denver Broncos’ 2021 NFL Draft: Surtain, Meinerz etc.

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The Broncos’ 2021 selections of Surtain, Meinerz, Browning, Cooper join the Lions as having the NFL’s best draft, as looked back by a prominent NFL reporter.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo — During his term as Denver Broncos’ general manager, George Paton has had only one draft with a full complement of picks.

Pete Prisco, a highly respected NFL reporter who studies the draft each year, is a believer that it takes three years to properly judge each team’s draft.

Three years after the 2021 NFL Draft, Prisco, in a story for CBS Sports, gave out just two A+ grades — to the Broncos and Detroit Lions. 

The Lions converted their successful 2021 draft — besides franchise offensive tackle Penei Sewell with their No. 7 overall pick, it was fourth-round receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown who put it over the top — by going from 3-13-1 in 2021 to the NFC Championship Game in 2023.

The Broncos have not yet been able to convert because they surrendered the juice of their subsequent 2022 and 2023 drafts in exchange for quarterback Russell Wilson. Who didn’t work out. 

Still, there’s no denying the only time Paton dealt from a full-hand, he raked. Prisco credits the Broncos’ 2021 draft for having provided six starters entering the 2024 season — first-round cornerback Pat Surtain, second-round running back Javonte Williams, third-round guard Quinn Meinerz, third-round outside linebacker Baron Browning, fifth-round safety Caden Sterns and seventh-round outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper.


This was a bit generous as Sterns is no longer a projected starter. He was going to be in 2022 and again in 2023 but he was derailed each season by injuries. Brandon Jones and P.J. Locke are now the Broncos’ projected starting safeties.

Still, culling five players who are starters three years later makes for a superb draft. Highlighting the Broncos’ 2021 selections were Surtain and Meinerz, who are arguably the team’s two best players.

Surtain, from Division I-power Alabama, is already a two-time Pro Bowler and a one-time All Pro. Meinerz, who was selected out of Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, has been overlooked from individual awards but is a run-blocking beast who also has the agility and strength to consistently perform effectively as a pass protector.


Williams was one of the NFL’s most impressive rookie running backs in 2021, but an early-season ACL injury in 2022 has set him back. He did return to start in 2023 but he will have to fight off competition for his No. 1 job during training camp as the Broncos added fifth-round rookie Audric Estime and priority undrafted free agent Blake Watson.

Browning has flashed elite edge-rusher talent with a combined 9.5 sacks the past two seasons in 24 games but has been nicked up by injuries.

It was Cooper as a seventh-round selection who made Paton’s 2021 draft. The former Ohio State star emerged as a part-time starter his rookie year and developed into a full-time starter in 2023 when he led the team with 8.5 sacks. Cooper is also the best of the Broncos’ outside linebackers at setting the edge in the run game.

No draft is perfect as the Broncos did miss in 2021 on safety Jamar Johnson in the fifth round, receiver Seth Williams in the sixth and cornerback Kary Vincent Jr. in the seventh. Still when grading on a curve, five starters three years removed makes for an A+ draft.

The Broncos’ drafts from 2022 and 2023 won’t be graded so well as they began without first- and second-round selections because of their trade with Seattle for Wilson. The Broncos also surrendered a first- (2023) and second-round (2024) draft pick in a trade with New Orleans for the rights of head coach Sean Payton.

The just completed 2024 draft can only be properly graded as incomplete, even if first-round quarterback Bo Nix has stirred renewed hope. 

So after Paton’s successful first draft of 2021, his next full-complemented draft won’t be until 2025. Wait ’til next year.

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Grading the Denver Broncos’ 2021 NFL Draft: Surtain, Meinerz etc.

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