Zach Gotlieb | December 11, 2019
It was another tough season for the Denver Broncos as they finished their third straight season with a losing record at 7-9. Still, for the first time in a long time, the team and fans feel hope as the team heads into the offseason. Starting 0-4 is really not the best way to start off a new coaching regime led by first-time head coach Vic Fangio. Forget that and remember the part where they finished the season 7-5 despite a plethora of injuries to key players and trading starting receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Growth of the young players was significant, but most importantly, Denver may finally have their quarterback of the future. It took three tries this year, but as the fan touted “Drewcember” rolled around, the Broncos may have potentially found their future quarterback in rookie Drew Lock.
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What Went Right
If you disregard the 7-9 record, a lot really did go well for the Broncos this year. If you had to point at one thing that “went right” it’s 100% the overall growth we saw from most of the players and coaching staff. On offense, the team traded veteran receiver Sanders to the San Francisco 49ers. The youth movement was on full display after that. Guys like first-round pick Noah Fant and second-year receiver DaeSean Hamilton really took big steps forward as the season progressed along. The rise of Courtland Sutton, who was a monster the entire season, was great to see, especially after the Emmanuel Sanders trade.
The biggest key to the offensive growth this year, finding next year’s starting quarterback with Lock. He was drafted having bad footwork and not playing in any sort of a “pro-style” offense. He spent more than half the year on injured reserve and returned looking ready to lead at quarterback. Of course, he made some mistakes, as any rookie would, but he played well (leading the team to a 4-1 record in his five starts) and supplied the team and fanbase with something they haven’t had in years: hope.
Defensively, we saw a lot of players step into their own amid a ton of injuries. Guys like linebacker Alexander Johnson came in to start with an injured Josey Jewell. He played so well that he kept the starting spot for the remainder of the year as one of the best tacklers in the league. Undrafted nose tackle Mike Purcell had a terrific preseason to earn himself a roster spot. He would eventually turn into starting nose tackle and primary run-stuffer up the middle. Undrafted rookie Malik Reed played admirably after falling into the starting role from Bradley Chubb tearing his ACL. Beyond individual players growing, the unit as a whole may have taken a little time, but they really started to gel by the end of the season. Further showing why Coach Fangio was such a highly-touted defensive coordinator.
What Went Wrong
The entire beginning of the season went wrong. Starting the season 0-4 is not an ideal way to start a season, but it was how they lost that made headlines. Two of the first four losses were eerily similar to each other. A last-second loss that was enabled by a phantom roughing the passer call and a breakdown in coverage that led to a 30-yard pass. They managed to lose another game that way a little later on in the season. Managing to give up a 20-0 lead to the Minnesota Vikings and losing was a really bad game that highlighted bad playcalling and executing down the stretch.
Getting a lead in the first half was never a problem, but what went wrong was the second half. The aggressiveness of the play calling dropped significantly as the second half of games rolled around. It’s not unfair to say that the playcalling cost the team multiple games this season.
There are also a lot of personnel holes that didn’t look all that bad on paper but turned out to be major problems in-game. By the end of the year, it was evident that the team didn’t have enough speed at receiver to pair with Sutton’s size. That was particularly evident in both games against the Chiefs. The offensive line wasn’t supposed to be great by any means. Still, they played worse than expected for a good chunk of the season, and it led to a lot of problems, including penalties (even beyond Garett Bolles).
By the end of the year, health was definitely one of the biggest issues. Being forced to start your third-string right tackle is not ideal. Having that coincide with losing your right guard and not having starters on the right side of the line was an issue. The depth on the defensive side was particularly rough. They played the whole year without corner Bryce Callahan then lost their backup corner De’Vante Bausby early in the season. They’d go on to lose another corner later on.
The defensive line/edge rushers depth became severely depleted by the end of the year. They lost Derek Wolfe, Dre’Mont Jones, DeMarcus Walker, Von Miller (for a game), Malik Reed for a bit, and Bradley Chubb all during the season. Impressively, the remnants of the line did an outstanding job playing their roles and keeping the defense intact, especially against mobile quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson.
Outlook for the Offseason
As it stands, the team faces no major changes to the front office or coaching staff. The ownership situation is a mess. It will continue to get worse before it gets better, but at least the football decision making personnel are staying the same to give some continuity. As for the salary cap, Denver has a substantial chunk of change, set to be at around $62 million in open cap space that could grow quite a bit with cap casualties. This is a big opportunity for the team to improve in multiple areas to try and put them over the top as a potential playoff contender.
The Team’s Free Agents
While the team has a ton of cap space, they also have a ton of free agents, primarily on defense:
Justin Simmons – General manager John Elway said in his postseason press conference that Simmons will get re-signed long term. Whether they can get that done early on or if he gets hit with the franchise tag then signed, he is going to be a Bronco next season.
Chris Harris Jr – Harris is in an interesting spot. After fighting for a big pay raise this offseason, he played well this year but not up to the level we expected. That being said, it would be weird to see him in a different uniform. It’s been reported that CHJ turned down a 3 year/$36 million extension before the trade deadline. If Denver wants to retain Harris, I would certainly try, but for the right price.
Will Parks – He may not be a big name per se, but there are a few things that he brings to the table that shouldn’t go underappreciated. He did an excellent job of playing the slot/dime back in the defense, including being the primary blitzing safety. Still, more importantly, amid a culture change, his relationship with other players, especially Justin Simmons, should be something to lean on and be a big help in the growth of the culture. Should be a guy to re-sign, but not if it requires the team to overpay
Shelby Harris/Derek Wolfe – The decision between Harris and Wolfe is where it gets tricky. Both Harris and Wolfe are on the defensive line and had to really productive seasons. In an injury-shortened year, Wolfe was working on a career-high seven sacks and having one the best seasons of his career. Harris led all defensive linemen with nine batted passes. He also had six sacks. His speed and athleticism are very impressive. Wolfe is 30, and Harris is 29, so there’s not much of a discrepancy to work with. Wolfe has made it known that he wants to play his whole career as a Bronco. As much as I’d love to keep both, it seems like only keeping one is more likely.
Ron Leary – Leary has a club option going into the offseason, but he’s a very good candidate to be a cap casualty. With two straight years ending with injury and having 8 penalties, which was second on the team. With the team looking to get younger and a potential $8 million in cap relief.
Joe Flacco – Joe “Cool” is another potential cap casualty for the team. An unfortunate restructure to his contract makes getting out from his contract a little more complicated. Going from no guaranteed money to a $13 million dead cap (per Spotrac) is unfortunate but would still free up $10 million in cap space. With multiple needs and a good free agency class, that $10 million could mean a lot in trying to sign a potential “big fish” in free agency.
Open Market Free Agents
It’s pretty clear the team still has holes to fill, but they have a pretty nice chunk of change to fill those holes with.
Defensive Big fish signing: Byron Jones – The Dallas Cowboys need to pay a ton of players, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper being on top of the list, they won’t be able to afford everyone. If Jones leaves Dallas, Denver has got to be on the phone with him the second free agency opens. Pro Bowl player and top corner for Dallas is a guy that you have to sign, especially if you can’t re-sign Harris Jr.
Wishlist signing: Kendall Fuller – A guy who has good size and coverage ability is always important. The biggest thing that makes him an attractive potential signing is that he can play in the slot. Coach Fangio seems to like players with the versatility (signing two slot DB’s last year). Also, poaching from a divisional opponent is always a plus. By the end of the free agency period, Denver has got to sign two corners that can truly be starters on the field
Offensive big fish: Brandon Scherff – With the potential cap casualty in Leary, there will be a hole to fill at right guard. Scherff is an upgrade. He’s 28 and playing at the top of his game. Aside from a flukey but severe leg injury in college, Scherff has stayed mostly healthy, which is vital for an offensive line that was so banged up last year. With Dalton Risner on the other side, that’s an excellent duo to play at guard for running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman to run behind and keeping Lock safe in the pocket.
Bargain buy: Rashard Higgins – After the trade for Odell Beckham Jr, Higgins seemed to fall off the map a bit on the Browns offense, only gaining 11 targets in 10 games. With a need at wide receiver, there will be plenty of draft options. Signing a guy on what should be a reasonably low-value deal would relieve the stress of needing to draft a guy early in the draft.
Projecting the NFL Draft
It’s hard to tell what Denver will do in the draft. If they can get everyone they want in free agency, the draft should be a breeze since they’d only have to pick “best player available.” The most important part of this draft that’s a guarantee, they won’t have to be looking for yet another potential “franchise” quarterback early in the draft.
Round 1, Pick 15: Wide Receiver
Being in the middle of the first round provides Denver with options. They have a ton of picks, so trading up is an option if they have their guy. Trading back and gaining more picks is also an option if they aren’t inspired. But at their slot, I’m looking at potentially Henry Ruggs III as the dream selection. His route running is a little raw, but he can absolutely blow the top off a defense, which is the team’s biggest need.
Round 2, Pick 46: Offensive Line
If Denver can get a receiver in the first round, it really opens up the board for the rest of the draft. As it stands, the team is looking like they’re going to go into next season with Bolles and Ja’Wuan James starting at tackle, which is adequate but not great. Bolles showed progression last year, which is nice, and James was a difference maker when he played. But looking for upgrades there will be big in this draft. I’d say a guy like Lucas Niang from TCU would be a good pickup here
Round 3, Pick 77: Secondary
This is where they should look at some secondary pieces. Kareem Jackson was excellent this past year and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at least this year, finding a safety that can potentially come in and start in 2021 would be helpful. Also, a guy that can play in specialty packages if Parks leaves in free agency. I’d suggest Antoine Winfield Jr. from Minnesota here.
Round 3, Pick 83: Defensive Line
With multiple players leaving in free agency and/or returning from injury, defensive line depth is a need for this team. With the likelihood that one of Harris or Wolfe leaves in free agency, it’d be good to get some outside pass rushers. Still, restricted free agent Mike Purcell may not return, which would require Denver to nab a run-stuffing nose tackle in free agency or the draft. The potential pick could be Alton Robinson from Syracuse.
Round 3, Pick 95: Offensive Line
Best case scenario, in this case, is that Denver lands Scherff to play right guard. Picking up more depth on the interior is always important and building for the future if Scherff moves on after his deal. If Scherff doesn’t sign, the team has a real problem. Either way, I’d love to see Shane Lemieux from Oregon in Denver.
It’s tough to say. With Denver getting hot to end the season, they made next year’s schedule significantly harder. The team was better than their record showed, which means that they should be able to get to a winning record this year. It’s fair to give the team a very realistic shot at the playoffs, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an expectation this year. The biggest thing to look for this year, as they finish a mini rebuild, is development.
Can Lock continue his path and fully lock up the franchise QB role? Can guys like Garrett Bolles and Isaac Yiadom continue to improve on their second-half play? Can the coaching staff with a year under their belts improve and put the team in the best position to win? If these questions are answered with ‘yes,’ then this team is going to be in a really good spot to compete for the playoffs next year and for years ahead.
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