DENVER – While the situation with the Broncos now isn’t exactly the same as the one John Fox inherited with the Panthers in 2002, the parallels abound. Both are teams with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft; both possess defenses that finished the previous season as the league’s worst; both haven’t been to the playoffs in five years since losing in their conference championship games.
There are enough comparisons between the two sides to allow Fox the luxury of applying his Carolina template to Denver. It took the Panthers from 1-15 to 11-5 and Super Bowl XXXVIII in just 24 months, and it started with the draft-day decision to be the only team with a top-four selection that year to pick defense.
“There were quarterbacks all around us,” Fox said. “We got criticized for not taking one,” Fox said.
“But we selected a young man out of Chapel Hill who was a basketball player on a Final Four team, as well as a great football player, in Julius Peppers.”
The quarterbacks that bracketed Peppers were Fresno State’s David Carr to Houston with the first pick and Oregon’s Joey Harrington to Detroit with the third selection. It is therefore difficult to argue with the wisdom of the Peppers selection, especially when he’s the only Pro Bowler among the top six selections of that draft.
Peppers and the Panthers came to a sour ending, but five Pro Bowls and 81 sacks in eight seasons together would seem to represent ample evidence that Fox and the Panthers made the right call then.
“That’s our goal, to repeat and get a player like him in this draft,” Fox said.
That doesn’t mean the Broncos will pick a pass-rushing defensive end from the Atlantic Coast Conference, so don’t go jumping to conclusions about Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers. All that indicates is a desire to find a player who can be effective immediately and elite in a relatively short time, like Peppers.
Their focus already appears to be on the defensive front seven, with the team’s top brass taking long looks at Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller this week.
The work of the Panthers under Fox shows that the Broncos may have a better chance of succeeding than they would have under previous regimes whose drafts were scattershot.
In Carolina, Fox shared decision-making power with general manager; the two were on equal standing, but came to a consensus on decisions before acting. Only the team president (Mark Richardson until 2009, then Danny Morrison) stood above them. The structure is slightly different in Denver; while Fox is again on equal standing with the general manager (Brian Xanders), John Elway is the final decision-maker; Fox and Xanders report directly to him. However, the need and desire to craft mutual decisions is similar to the structure of Carolina.
This resulted in the Panthers becoming a highly efficient and accurate club with first-round picks. Each of the Panthers’ eight first-round picks under Fox became a perennial starter. Four of them — Peppers, left tackle Jordan Gross (2003), running back DeAngelo Williams (2006) and linebacker Jon Beason (2007), have made Pro Bowls; that number would likely have become five had 2005 first-round linebacker Thomas Davis not torn his anterior cruciate ligament midway through the 2009 season.
With the NFL labor situation growing more stormy by the hour and the potential for a delayed and truncated free-agent period increasing with it, that kind of first-round efficiency is essential with the first pick of the Elway/Fox/Xanders era if a turnaround is to happen.