Denver Broncos 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterbacks

Aside from the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, I can’t think of a single team in recent memory that won the Super Bowl despite having a passing game as bad as the Broncos’ was in 2015. It’s arguable that the 2015 Broncos’ passing game was worse than the 2000 Ravens’ because of all the rule changes that have happened in the past 15 years to open up the passing game. As a result, the Broncos finished the regular season 30th in rate of moving the chains. Things did not get better in the playoffs; even in their Super Bowl victory they had more 3rd down failures (13) than first downs (11) and still managed to win by two touchdowns.

Obviously, their defense was the one carrying this team, finishing the season 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, but even their dominant defense wasn’t enough to carry them to 12 wins and a Super Bowl victory without some luck, as they finished the season 11th in rate of moving the chains differential. Just 4 of the Broncos’ wins all season (including playoffs) came by more than a touchdown (11-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less overall). Simply put, the Broncos’ passing offense is going to have to be a whole lot better in 2016 if the Broncos are going to win 12 games again, and that’s assuming the defense is as good as it was last season (more on that later).

Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler both saw action for the Broncos last season and neither was any good. Manning’s struggles were much more publicized and his numbers were terrible (59.8% completion, 6.80 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions), but it’s not like the offense was significantly better when Osweiler was under center. They moved the chains at a 68.66% rate in the 8 regular season games in which Manning started and finished, a 67.49% rate in the 6 regular season games in which Osweiler started and finished, a 64.71% rate in the 2 regular season games in which both Manning and Osweiler played, and a 55.42% rate in their 3 playoff games, started by Manning.

Manning retired this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 40 season, while Osweiler left to take a lucrative 4-year, 72 million dollar deal in Houston, but neither one of them was any good last season. There’s a reason why the Broncos went back to Manning for the playoffs, as much as he struggled early in the year. Neither one of them effectively led this offense, but with Manning they were at least getting a veteran leader and a guy who is basically an offensive coordinator on the field. The Broncos were smart not to outbid the Texans for Osweiler.

That being said, the Broncos’ options at quarterback for 2016 are not much better. The Broncos traded for veteran Mark Sanchez earlier this off-season, but he struggled this pre-season and wound up not even making the team, owed a non-guaranteed 4.5 million. Second year quarterback Trevor Siemian wasn’t much better this pre-season, but he will become the year as the starter, even though he has never thrown a pass in the NFL and went in the 7th round in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Broncos used a 1st round pick on Memphis’ Paxton Lynch in this past draft, but he’s apparently still not ready. Regarded as raw coming out, the Broncos will need him to be ready sooner rather than later, as Siemian might be the least qualified starting quarterback in the league.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The quarterbacks weren’t the only issue last season for the Broncos’ offense, as they had major issues on the offensive line as well. Ryan Clady and Tyler Sambrailo were supposed to start at left tackle and right tackle respectively last season, but Clady tore his ACL before the season even started and missed the whole year. Sambrailo was then pushed to left tackle, where he was very overmatched as a 2nd round rookie, before going down with an injury of his own and missing the final 13 games of the season. As a result, Michael Schofield and Ryan Harris spent most of the season as the starters and both really struggled, grading out 66th and 53rd respectively out of 77 eligible offensive tackles.

The Broncos traded Clady to the Jets this off-season, rather than giving him a non-guaranteed 9.5 million dollar salary, and then signed ex-Seahawk Russell Okung to replace him. The problem is Okung has had a ton of injury problems in the past, missing 24 games in 6 years in the league and never once playing all 16 games. Okung was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked offensive tackle last season, but that was just the second time in 6 years in the league in which he graded out above average. He’s a marginal starter at best, assuming he can even stay healthy.

On the right side, the Broncos signed Donald Stephenson, formerly of the Chiefs, to a 3-year, 14 million dollar deal to be the starter. He’s never had the injury issues that Okung has had, but he’s a significantly inferior player. He’s made just 21 starts in 4 years in the league, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, grading out 54th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles in 7 starts in 2012, 61st out of 76 eligible in 7 starts in 2013, and 69th out of 77 eligible in 7 starts last season. The Broncos see him as a starting caliber player, as evidenced by the contract they gave him, but they’ll almost definitely be disappointed.

With Stephenson and Okung coming in, Sambrailo will move inside to guard. He struggled mightily in limited action at offensive tackle last season, but he could be better at guard in his 2nd year in the league. He could also have to move back to offensive tackle at some point, if Okung gets hurt or Stephenson struggles. For now, Sambrailo will replace departed left guard Evan Mathis, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard last season, but signed in Arizona as a free agent. He was easily their best offensive lineman last season, so he’ll really be missed.

Right guard Louis Vasquez is also gone. A poor fit for Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, Vasquez graded out below average last season and was released, rather than being paid a non-guaranteed 5.5 million. Garcia will start opposite Sambrailo, after grading out about average on 587 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015. He played both left and right guard last season, so it’s unclear which position he’ll play and which position Sambrailo will play. 5th round rookie Connor McGovern will probably be the top reserve at guard, while Schofield, who struggled mightily when he was forced into action last season, will be the top reserve at offensive tackle. Guard and offensive tackle remain positions of weakness for the Broncos. Center Matt Paradis is probably their best offensive lineman. The 2014 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but made all 16 starts last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked center. He’s not bad, but if he’s your best offensive lineman, you have a problem upfront.

Grade: C

Running Backs

I mentioned earlier that the Broncos’ offense was barely better when Brock Osweiler was the starter last season. That’s despite the fact that running back CJ Anderson was far better in the 2nd half of the season (coinciding with when Osweiler was the starter) than he was in the 1st half of the season. Anderson looked like he was running in slow motion for the first 6 weeks of the season, thanks to nagging lower body injuries, rushing for 180 yards and no touchdowns on 67 carries (2.69 YPC). However, he came back with a vengeance after the Broncos’ week 7 bye week, rushing for 774 yards and 7 touchdowns on 139 carries (5.57 YPC), between the final 10 weeks of the regular season and the playoffs, finally looking like the running back that many were expecting him to be all season.

Anderson also closed out the 2014 season really well, rushing for 847 yards and 8 touchdowns on 180 carries (4.71 YPC) in 9 games (including playoffs) after taking over the starting job, which is why he had such high expectations going into the 2015 season. Now going into the 2016 season, those expectations are lower, but I think he still has a good chance to break out as a legitimate feature back, if he can stay healthy. The Broncos seem to agree, keeping him on a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal this off-season, matching the offer that the Dolphins made him as a restricted free agent.

Ronnie Hillman actually led the Broncos in carries last season with 207 (averaging 4.17 yards per carry), but didn’t even make the final roster this year. Fourth round rookie Devontae Booker will be Anderson’s primary backup. A second round talent, Booker slipped a couple rounds in the draft because of injury concerns, but he’s proven himself healthy this off-season. Even still, he’s a pure backup behind CJ Anderson, who figures to get the bulk of the carries for a team that figures to run the ball a lot. There will still be touches for Booker, but he won’t see more than a third of a carries unless Anderson gets hurt again and figures to make his biggest impact on passing downs.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Despite the Broncos’ issues in the passing game, both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders managed to have 1000+ yard seasons for the 2nd straight year. Thomas caught 105 passes for 1304 yards and 6 touchdowns, while Sanders caught 76 passes for 1135 yards and 6 touchdowns. Some of that is because they both got so many targets, without a consistent 3rd option in the passing game, as Thomas had 176 targets (4th most in the NFL) and Sanders had 137 (13th in the NFL).

Despite having less production, Sanders was actually the better of the two last season, finishing 13th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, as opposed to 49th for Thomas. Thomas obviously had huge raw numbers, but they’re less impressive when you take into account how many targets he needed to put up those numbers. However, nagging injuries that he dealt with were likely the cause of his down year, so he has a good chance to bounce back in 2016. That would be huge for this offense because he was a top-5 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2012-2014, the only player in the NFL who could say that.

Sanders, meanwhile, was 8th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, before last year’s #13 finish. Largely a league average receiver for the first 4 years of his career in Pittsburgh, the 2010 3rd round pick has really stepped his game up since arriving in Denver, proving the Broncos smart for giving him a 3-year, 15 million dollar contract two off-seasons ago. Most importantly, he’s played well in two different systems with two different quarterbacks, so he’s a genuine late bloomer, rather than a system receiver or someone whose production is the result of playing with a great quarterback.

Going into the final year of that 3-year deal, Sanders’ 3rd contract figures to be much bigger than his 2nd, though he is in an awkward spot, given that he’ll turn 30 during the off-season he hits free agency, if he does. The Broncos are currently trying to come to a long-term agreement with him, ahead of his contract year, but Sanders reportedly wants Jeremy Maclin money (5 years, 55 million) and the Broncos might not feel comfortable committing that kind of money to someone who they think only has 2-3 more good years left after this one. Those concerns are all long-term though. In the short-term, he’s an obvious asset to a Denver offense that overall lacks talent.

As I mentioned earlier, the Broncos really lacked capable options in the passing game after Sanders and Thomas, which hurt this offense. Owen Daniels finished 3rd on the team in receiving yards with 517 and no one else had more than 207. That’s a serious problem, especially since Daniels was let go this off-season, ahead of his age 34 season; he’s expected to retire, though he has not yet done so officially. Bennie Fowler, Andre Caldwell, and Jordan Norwood played 147, 268, and 378 snaps respectively last season and all three players struggled mightily, finishing 74th, 106th, and 105th respectively out of 121 eligible wide receivers.

Despite their lack of depth at the position and the fact that Sanders is going into a contract year, the Broncos did not add a single wide receiver in the draft (or tight end for that matter). Cody Latimer was drafted in the 2nd round in 2014 and the Broncos were probably expecting him to be the 3rd receiver, at the very least, by now, but he’s caught just 8 passes and played just 226 snaps in 2 years in the NFL. It’s possible he has a bigger role in his 3rd year in the league in 2016, but expectations should be low, given that he’s shown nothing through 2 years in the NFL.

Meanwhile at tight end, with Daniels gone and no other tight ends added this off-season, the Broncos are going to be counting on 2nd year player Jeff Heuerman to start this season. Heuerman was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, so he’s a major question mark at this point. For what it’s worth, the Broncos are very high on him. Virgil Green remains as the blocking tight end. The 2011 7th round pick has just 35 career catches, but is a solid blocker who played decently overall on a career high 474 snaps last season. He should have a similar role this season, but he’s definitely not someone the Broncos can count on to be the 3rd option in the passing game that they need. Thomas and Sanders figure to dominate targets again, though the Broncos will likely run more often and pass less often than they did last season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

I mentioned earlier that the Broncos’ passing game and offense are going to have to be significantly better in 2016 if they want to win 12 games again, because they can’t count on so many close wins again. That’s assuming their defense is as good as it was in 2015, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. There’s a very good chance they aren’t. That’s not to say they’ll be a bad unit. In fact, they’ll still be one of the better defenses in the NFL, but there’s no denying that they lost key defenders this off-season and didn’t really replace them.

The biggest loss was defensive end Malik Jackson, who was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2015. Jackson chased the money, taking a 6-year, 90 million dollar deal in Jacksonville, leaving the Broncos with a huge hole on the defensive line. They tried to fill that hole by signing Jared Crick and using a 2nd round pick on Georgia Tech defensive lineman Adam Gotsis. Crick has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons, but he graded out below average in both seasons, including 118th out of 123 eligible interior defenders last season. In fact, the 2012 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, though last year was easily the worst season of his career. Gotsis, meanwhile, was a reach at the end of the 2nd round. Gotsis was widely expected to go in the 4th or 5th round at the earliest and Pro Football Focus had a 6th round grade on him.

With the Broncos lost Jackson this off-season, they did keep fellow starting defensive end Derek Wolfe, signing him to a 4-year, 36.7 million dollar extension late last season, keeping him off the open market. Considering how much Jackson got on the open market, Wolfe undoubtedly would have gotten a significantly larger amount of money than that had he been allowed to hit the open market, so that extension was a great value and a borderline steal. Wolfe was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, playing the JJ Watt role in Wade Phillips’ defense and often times looking indistinguishable from Watt.

Wolfe is technically a one-year wonder, as the 2012 2nd round pick graded out below average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career from 2012-2014, but he has a good chance to have another dominant season in 2016. His struggles from 2012-2014 were largely because he primarily played out of position at 4-3 defensive end. He excelled against the run as a 4-3 defensive end, grading out above average against the run in 2 of 3 seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, including 2nd in pure run stopping grade at the position in 2014. His struggles were only as a pass rusher. The 6-5 285 pounder is a much better fit as a 3-4 defensive end and should continue to play well going forward.

Sylvester Williams remains as the nose tackle, the position where he made 15 starts last season. He was probably the Broncos’ worst defensive starter last season, though that’s not saying a ton on a defense that was as good as Denver’s was last season. He wasn’t awful, but he graded out below average, finishing 73rd out of 121 eligible interior defenders on 535 snaps. Williams was a first round pick by the Broncos in 2013, but has been a disappointment thus far in his career, grading out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL. Making matters worse, even though he’s only going into his 4th year in the league, he’s already going into his age 28 season, so he might not get any better. Wolfe elevates this whole defensive line, but they have problems overall after losing Jackson in free agency.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The other key defensive starter the Broncos lost, in addition to Jackson, is linebacker Danny Trevathan. Trevathan was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked linebacker last season, but signed with the Bears on a 4-year, 24.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll be replaced internally by Todd Davis, a 2014 undrafted free agent. Davis has made just 4 starts in 2 years in the NFL and played just 139 snaps in 2015, so he’s a complete projection to an every down starting role. For what it’s worth, the Broncos are very high on him, but he’s still an obvious downgrade at middle linebacker.

Fortunately, fellow starting middle linebacker Brandon Marshall returns, signing a 4-year, 32 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been his contract year in 2016. Marshall was a mere 5th round pick in 2012 and barely played in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the best linebackers in the league over the past 2 seasons. He finished 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and then 8th overall among middle linebackers in 2015. He should continue that strong play into 2016.

Outside, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware remain as starters. Both are talented edge rushers, but Miller is on another level. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller spent the first 4 years of his career as a hybrid 4-3 outside linebacker/defensive end, serving as a 3rd linebacker in base packages and then rushing the passer from the defensive end in sub packages, when a 5th defensive back would come in. He graded out #1 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013, #2 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, and then was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in his first year in a 3-4 in 2015. One of the top players in the entire NFL and the reigning Super Bowl MVP, Miller was franchise tagged and eventually re-signed to a 6-year, 114.5 million dollar deal this off-season, the richest deal ever given to a defensive player.

Ware, meanwhile, might be entering his final year in Denver, going into the 3rd year of a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal that he signed two off-seasons ago, after spending the first 9 seasons of his career in Dallas. A future Hall-of-Famer whose 134.5 sacks are 11th all-time and 2nd among active players (Julius Peppers is #1), Ware is probably nearing the end, going into his age 34 season, but he’s still been good over the past 2 seasons. He finished the 2014 season 20th among 4-3 defensive ends and 2015 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers, back in a Wade Phillips 3-4 defense in which he’s spent most of his career, though he did miss 5 games with injury.

A big part of the reason why this is likely Ware’s last year in Denver, along with the fact that the Broncos need cap space for other positions and Ware could still be expensive to keep, is that they have promising 3-4 outside linebackers on the depth chart behind them. The Broncos traded up the 23rd pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to grab Missouri defensive end Shane Ray, who was falling as a result of a recent marijuana arrest. It was a surprising move because the Broncos already had Ware and Miller, but the Broncos reportedly had Ray in the top-10 on their board, despite the arrest.

However, it was not Ray who started last season when Ware was hurt. Instead, it was Shaquil Barrett, a 2014 undrafted free agent who flashed big time last season in limited action, in the 2nd year of his career. Barrett played 566 snaps, including 6 starts, and graded out above average and finished 41st out of 110 eligible edge defenders. Ray, meanwhile, actually struggled on 341 snaps. He still has a bright future and I’m certainly not writing him off long-term, but Ray probably won’t even beat out Barrett for the #3 job. The Broncos are stacked at the position and, aside from first time starter Todd Davis at middle linebacker, have a very talented linebacking corps overall.

Grade: A

Secondary

Even still, the Broncos’ secondary is their best unit, as they return their top-5 defensive backs from what was arguably the best secondary in the NFL last season, cornerbacks Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby, and safeties TJ Ward and Darian Stewart. Talib has the biggest name of the cornerbacks, but Harris is a far better player. That’s not a knock on Talib though, as Harris is arguably the top cornerback in the NFL. Harris has made 59 starts over the past 4 seasons, grading out in the top-9 of cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of those 4 seasons, joining Richard Sherman as the only cornerback in the NFL who can say that, including a #1 finish in 2014.

Talib has a bigger contract (6-year, 57 million), but he’s not a top tier cornerback, never grading out higher than 15th among cornerbacks in his career, including a 28th place finish in 2015. Talib has also missed 24 games in 7 years in the NFL, thanks to both injuries and off-the-field problems. As of this writing, he is recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg, which happened when he was too intoxicated to remember and reportedly may have been self-inflicted. Given his history of issues with guns, Talib could be facing league discipline and/or legal troubles if he did, in fact, :Plaxico Burress” himself. Fortunately, the actual gunshot wound was fairly minor and he’s expected to be good to go for the start of the season. I tentatively expect him to be eligible to play all 16 games next season, though that’s no longer a given.

If he does miss any time, the Broncos would be in good hands as 2014 1st round pick Bradley Roby is probably the top 3rd cornerback in the NFL, moving Harris to the slot in sub packages where he excels. He actually only has 6 career starts, but he’s graded out above average in both seasons and was actually better than Talib last season, finishing 23rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He could get a chance to be the starter in 2017, as Talib will be owed a non-guaranteed 11 million in his age 31 season in 2017. Like Ware, this could be Talib’s final year in Denver, as they have to get creative to figure out how to keep all their defensive talent long-term.

I mentioned linebacker Brandon Marshall and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders as players who are going into the final year of their contracts that will require hefty pay increases to keep. Another player like that is safety Darian Stewart, who proved to be a steal in the first year of a 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Stewart finished the 2015 season 16th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, a major breakout year for the 2010 undrafted free agent. Stewart was forced into a starting role too early in 2011 with the hapless Rams, grading out 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties that season, and played just 82 snaps the following season consequently. However, he got his starting job back in 2014 and has been better, including 2 straight seasons in which he’s graded out above average and last year’s career best year. He might not be quite as good again in 2016, but he’s an obvious value, owed just 2.5 million dollars this season.

Ward is more expensive, but he’s a huge part of this secondary as well. Ward had a down year by his standards in the first year of a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Broncos in 2014, finishing 34th among safeties that season, but bounced back to finish 11th in 2015 and has graded out above average in all 6 seasons he’s been in the NFL, dating back to being drafted in the 2nd round by the Browns in 2010. He should have another strong year in 2016 in an overall loaded secondary.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Broncos won the Super Bowl last year, but there are a number of ways that might not have happened, as the Broncos won by a touchdown or fewer in 11 of their 15 total wins, between the regular season and post-season. If they want to be a contender again in 2016, they’ll have to play better, as they can’t rely on winning by 3 every week. That’s unlikely to happen. They still have major issues on offense and suffered significant losses on the defensive side of the ball. Almost every year, a team goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs. Among last year’s top-4 (New England, Carolina, and Arizona), Denver looks like the obvious favorite. They’ll have to battle to even make it back to the post-season.

Prediction: 8-8 4th in AFC West

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