In drafting Jonah Elliss, Broncos add another piece to an evolving defensive picture

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In drafting Jonah Elliss, Broncos add another piece to an evolving defensive picture

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos were ready to land a new pass rusher Friday night, but they first had to sweat a sibling connection.

The target with the No. 76 pick: Jonah Elliss, the outside linebacker from the University of Utah who produced an All-America season with 12 sacks in 2023. Possibly standing in the way: the Falcons at No. 74. Not only did Atlanta need a pass rusher, it also counts Kaden Elliss, Jonah’s older brother, among the members of its defensive roster. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot was with Sean Payton and the Saints in 2019, when the pair drafted Kaden with a seventh-round selection.

“I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe Kaden and Jonah didn’t get along,’” Payton said. “So we were setting that up.”

The Falcons did indeed draft a pass rusher, but it was Bralen Trice out of Washington. So the Broncos turned in the card for Elliss, who becomes the latest piece of a defensive picture that is beginning to come into focus.

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When Payton was hired as Denver’s head coach 15 months ago, he identified the need for more players who could wear the “pressure player” tag. Whether at defensive end, inside linebacker, edge or even in the defensive backfield, it’s a label in Payton’s ecosystem applied to players who can be counted on, in various forms, to disrupt the quarterback and generally beat a path to the backfield. If the Broncos are on the clock and they have two players who are similarly graded, the tie goes to the pressure player. It’s what they saw in the third round a year ago, when they drafted Drew Sanders out of Arkansas. Sanders began his rookie season at inside linebacker, but he was eventually moved to the edge. It was already a crowded group, featuring rising young talents in Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning.

But that was never going to be a deterrent to adding a player like Elliss, whose father Luther in 2004 spent the last of his 10 years in the NFL playing for the Broncos.

“You’re never afraid to draft on top of your strength,” Payton said. “We’ll sort that out. It’s always a harder position to find in the offseason and in free agency. We felt like he definitely checked the ‘pressure player’ box, and we’ll sort through that depth as we get through it.”

The first order of business with Elliss was evaluating the medical component. He was one of the best players in the Pac-12 last season despite playing six games with a torn labrum in his shoulder. The injury ultimately forced him to miss the final three games of the season, and he had surgery to repair the issue shortly after he was shut down, which kept him out of the combine and his pro day at Utah. But Elliss held a personal pro day a little more than two weeks ago and largely put concerns about his fitness to bed.

“We’re very comfortable with it,” Broncos general manager George Paton said.

Elliss, who said he is “completely cleared” and could participate in the team’s rookie minicamp next week, is part of an offseason front seven renovation. The Broncos added Malcolm Roach, another former Saints player under Payton, as an interior defensive lineman who they hope will bolster a run defense that was among the league’s worst last year. Denver ranked last in yards per carry allowed, an issue that was especially damaging when the team’s midseason turnover faucet stopped pouring. Angelo Blackson, another free-agent signing, should be an upgrade at the fifth or sixth defensive line spot. The Broncos still have a need for a sturdy defensive end. They won’t find a ready-made player at that position on Day 3 of the draft, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Denver address that need with a late free-agent signing or on the trade market.

If the Broncos can be sturdier up front, their depth at pass rusher becomes intriguing. Bonitto (eight sacks) and Cooper (8 1/2) made big leaps last season. If Denver can create more true-rush pass situations, it’s fair to expect both players to do even more. Denver won’t need Elliss to contribute right away. He played only 30 games in college and was an off-ball linebacker before he got to college. He needs to add strength to become a more effective edge setter in the run game. But there is an intriguing versatility to Elliss’ game — he was moved to multiple spots in Utah’s 4-2-5 scheme.

“You start with one spot with a rookie player,” Payton said. “We do like the versatility and feel like there’s growth potential. … He plays with energy, effort and all those things you look for. Real good football makeup.”

After the Broncos drafted Bo Nix in the first round Thursday, Payton identified two things he — or any rookie quarterback, for that matter — needs to succeed quickly: an effective run game and a reliable defense. Both fell short of expectations in 2023 and remain a work in progress. But in Elliss, the Broncos believe they took an important step Friday night.

The Broncos were going to move back in the draft had the Falcons nabbed Kaden’s brother. Paton joked that it would have been such a rare occurrence for Payton, the Broncos “had a cake ready” to mark the occasion. But when Atlanta when another direction, the Broncos put the sweets away.

“Jonah,” Paton said, “was too good to pass up.”

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah)