The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, despite having one of the worst offenses in the league, as they finished 27th in first down rate (32.77%). They were carried all season by a defense that ranked 2nd in first down rate allowed (30.79%), but they also had tremendous luck in close games. Overall on the season, including playoffs, they went 15-4, but 11 of those 15 wins came by a touchdown or less and their record in games decided by a touchdown or less was 11-3.
In 2016, their defense wasn’t quite as good, but they still finished 2nd in first down rate allowed and only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.04% rate. Their offense, meanwhile, finished 30th in first down rate at 31.47%, just slightly below their 2015 mark. They fell from 8th to 14th in first down rate differential, from 1.98% to 0.43%, but weren’t that much worse of a team in 2016. However, they still fell to 9-7 and didn’t even make the playoffs because they did not win as many close games, going just 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Even though their offense was similar from 2015 to 2016, the faces under center were not. Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler started games for them in 2015, but Manning retired after his defense dragged him to his 2nd Super Bowl win, while Osweiler was foolishly given a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal by the Texans in free agency. The Broncos traded up to draft Memphis’ Paxton Lynch at 26 overall as their quarterback of the future. He was supposed to compete with veteran Mark Sanchez for the week 1 starting job.
However, 2nd year quarterback Trevor Siemian crashed the party and outplayed both of them in the off-season, despite not throwing a pass as a 7th round rookie in 2015. His strong off-season earned him the week 1 starting job, left Lynch as the backup, and got Mark Sanchez released at final cuts. Not only did Siemian start week 1, but he started in all 14 games for which he was healthy enough to play.
Siemian was unspectacular, completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, finishing the season 30th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff, and Blaine Gabbert. However, he still outplayed Lynch, as Lynch looked lost in the 2 ½ games he played in Siemian’s absence, completing just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.99 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
Siemian has been a pleasant surprise, but would be best as a backup quarterback long-term. Lynch has the much higher upside and was drafted to be their franchise quarterback, so they need him to develop. Reports this off-season have suggested that Siemian is still ahead of Lynch on the depth chart, which probably says more about how raw Lynch still is than it does about Siemian. Both quarterbacks will battle into training camp and the pre-season, but the Broncos could get poor play from the position for the 3rd straight season.
Quarterback was not the only issue on this offense last season though. In fact, the biggest reason why this team declined a little bit offensively from 2015 to 2016 is because they didn’t run the ball nearly as well. In 2015, they averaged 4.18 yards per carry, 13th in the NFL, but they fell to 3.62 yards per carry in 2016, 28th in the NFL. Lead back CJ Anderson missed 9 games with injury and 4th round rookie Devontae Booker averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 174 carries in his absence. To improve their depth, they took a flier on veteran Jamaal Charles in free agency and used a 6th round pick on Coastal Carolina’s DeAngelo Henderson.
Anderson will still be the lead back. Anderson has averaged 4.55 yards per carry on 441 carries over the past 3 seasons, but injuries have been a recurring problem for him, as he also was limited for most of the first half of the 2015 season with lower leg injuries. He still hasn’t topped 179 carries in a season, though he definitely has the ability to if he can stay healthy. Still only going into his age 26 season, Anderson still has upside and could finally have the breakout season he’s been expected to have for each of the past 2 seasons. That’s far from a guarantee though.
Jamaal Charles is also injury prone as well. He tore one ACL in 2011 and missed the whole season and then he tore the other one in 2015 and has been limited to 83 carries in 8 games over the past 2 seasons. Last season, he was shut down after 3 games and 12 carries and had cleanup surgery on both knees. It was an easy decision for the Chiefs to move on from him and his 6.2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, especially considering he’s going into his age 31 season.
His best days are almost definitely behind him, but Charles has some bounce back potential in Denver if he can stay healthy. His career 5.45 yard per carry average (on 1,332 carries) is the highest all-time by a running back and he’s also a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. He could carve out a change of pace and passing down role behind Anderson. That would leave Booker to compete with Henderson for the #3 back job, but though both could see carries if Anderson and Charles struggle to stay healthy again. They should be better on the ground overall this season, but their best two backs are injury risks.
The Broncos also had major problems on the offensive line last season, which hurt both their passing game and their running game. Things got even worse this off-season, when Russell Okung, who played pretty well on the blindside last season, signed with the Chargers. The Broncos signed veteran Menelik Watson in free agency as a potential replacement, but the 2013 2nd round pick is an underwhelming starting option on either side. He’s struggled in just 17 career starts. Donald Stephenson, who finished last season 77th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts at right tackle, is also an underwhelming starting option. He has 33 career starts, but has finished well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league.
With Watson and Stephenson penciled in as the starters going into the draft, offensive tackle was their biggest draft day need and they addressed it right away, taking Utah’s Garett Bolles 20th overall. In an overall very weak offensive line class, Bolles was the first offensive lineman off the board. He has the most left tackle upside of anyone in the draft class, but is very raw and played just one season at the FBS level. Already going into his age 25 season, Bolles is also older than most rookies and received only a late 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, so he’s definitely a risky pick. He could easily struggle as a rookie, but is considered the favorite for the left tackle job, with Watson and Stephenson competing on the right side.
The Broncos did make one big addition in free agency, signing guard Ronald Leary from the Cowboys on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Leary made 31 starts from 2013-2014 and run blocked very well, but left something to be desired in pass protection and was benched in 2015 for rookie La’El Collins. In 2016, he began the season as a backup, but made 12 starts in place of Collins, who was injured, and had the best season of his career, finishing 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus and playing well both as a run blocker and pass protector. He doesn’t fix their issues at offensive tackle, but he’s finished above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and could easily be a strong starter for the Broncos in 2017.
Leary is expected to slot in at left guard and move Max Garcia, a 16-game starter last season, to right guard. A 2015 4th round pick, Garcia has been about a league average starter in 21 career starts, playing both left guard and right guard, and should hold onto his job in 2017. At right guard, he’ll replace Michael Schofield, who was mediocre at 16 starts last season. Schofield could challenge for a job at right tackle, but the 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily at right tackle in 2015 before moving inside. He’s more likely to be a versatile reserve. Ty Sambrailo could also be in the mix at either tackle spot, but the 2015 2nd round pick has also struggled whenever he’s been counted on at tackle in 2 seasons in the league (7 starts). Like Schofield, he’s best as a versatile reserve.
Center Matt Paradis is probably their best offensive lineman, coming off a breakout 2016 season in which he finished #1 among centers on Pro Football Focus. A 6th round pick in 2014, Paradis was about a league average starter in his first season as a starter in 2015, but took it to a completely new level in 2016. He’s a one-year wonder and could regress in 2017, but he looks like one of the best centers in the league. With the addition of Leary, the Broncos have a strong interior of their offensive line, but could easily have big problems at both tackle positions, which hurts their offensive line overall.
Despite the overall struggles of the passing game, both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders went over 1000 yards for the 3rd straight season in 2016. They were one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to both top 1000 yards (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Pierre Garcon/DeSean Jackson, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree) and they are the only wide receiver duo to do so in 2 straight seasons, let alone 3. If you include the 2013 season, when Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both went over 1000 yards, the Broncos have had two wide receivers with at least 1000 yards in each of the past 4 seasons.
Both Thomas and Sanders are going into their age 30 season in 2017 though, which is a bit of a concern. Thomas has showed some signs of age in recent seasons, falling to 49th among wide receivers in 2015 and 27th among wide receivers in 2016, after finishing in the top-5 in all 3 seasons from 2012-2014. The 2010 1st round pick has incredible physical gifts, but has been slowed by injuries in the last 2 seasons. Sanders, however, has not shown any signs of age, finishing in the top-15 among wide receivers in all 3 seasons in Denver, despite being at best a league average receiver in 4 seasons with the Steelers prior to arriving in Denver. The 2010 3rd round pick is a true late bloomer. Both Thomas and Sanders could easily top 1000 yards again in 2017.
Part of the reason why Thomas and Sanders have had 3 straight seasons of 1000+ yards each is because the Broncos haven’t really had anyone else to throw to. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively, those two counted for 53.5%, 51.7%, and 49.8% of the Broncos’ targets, as the Broncos haven’t had anything resembling a #3 receiver over the past 3 seasons. Their last wide receiver other than their top-2 to top 500 yards was Wes Welker in 2013 and they haven’t had another wide receiver even over 250 yards in the last 2 seasons.
Last season, their leading receivers behind Thomas and Sanders were running back Devontae Booker (31/265/1) and Virgil Green (22/237/1). Jordan Norwood was their #3 receiver, but posted just a 21/232/1 slash line and finished 109th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He is no longer with the team, so, behind Thomas and Sanders, their leading returning wide receivers in terms of snaps played last season are Jordan Taylor (277 snaps), Bennie Fowler (242 snaps), and Cody Latimer (217 snaps). Latimer has upside because he was a second round pick in 2014, but he has just 16 catches in 3 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster. Third round rookie Carlos Henderson could easily win the #3 wide receiver job.
Tight end was another position of need for the Broncos this off-season. They used a 5th round pick on Michigan’s Jake Butt and he has 2nd round talent when he’s healthy, but he’s questionable for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in January and would be behind the 8-ball as a rookie after missing the whole off-season. He won’t have a big role in 2017. Virgil Green led the position in snaps played last season with a career high 485 snaps and could easily lead the position in snaps again. His 22 catches in 2016 were also a career high, so he isn’t much of a pass catcher, but he’s a capable run blocker.
Third year players Jeff Heuerman and AJ Derby will compete for snaps behind Green. Both are better pass catching options. A 3rd round and a 6th round pick in 2015 respectively, both missed their entire rookie season with injury and both played limited action last season, 236 and 219 snaps respectively. Heuerman outplayed Derby overall and has the higher upside, but neither one is a proven option. Butt could easily be the starting tight end by 2018. This receiving corps still lacks even a capable 3rd option.
The Broncos lost a pair of key defensive starters from 2015 to 2016, with middle linebacker Danny Trevathan signing with the Bears and defensive end Malik Jackson signing with the Jaguars, but still got strong play on the defensive side of the ball. This off-season, they lost just one starter, nose tackle Sylvester Williams, who won’t really be missed. However, did they lose defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was let go when Vance Joseph took over as the new head coach for the retiring Gary Kubiak.
Joseph replaced Phillips with Joe Woods, their defensive backs coach last season. Joseph actually served on Phillips’ defensive coaching staff in Houston from 2011-2013, so both Woods and Joseph have worked under Phillips in the past. It’s a bit strange they wouldn’t want to keep their mentor around, especially since he’s arguably the best defensive coordinator in the league, but they seem to think they’re better off without him. Their 3-4 defensive scheme won’t change much, but their defense could decline a little bit without Phillips.
As mentioned, Williams won’t be missed much. He played 644 snaps for this defense last season, but has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league. A first round pick in 2013, Williams has been a complete bust, hence why the Broncos didn’t pick up his 5th year option for 2017. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar deal by the Titans this off-season. The Broncos will replace him with veteran Domata Peko, though he isn’t an upgrade.
Peko has made all 112 possible starts over the past 7 seasons, but has finished as one of the worst interior defensive linemen in the league on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, including 106th out of 127 eligible in 2016, and is now going into his age 33 season. He’ll be a pure base package run stuffer at nose tackle for them and won’t play as many snaps as Williams did, but he figures to struggle nonetheless. The 6-3 307 pounder isn’t even a good run stopper anymore.
Defensive end Jared Crick actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 939, but he finished 118th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen in 2016, so the Broncos probably want to avoid giving him so many snaps again. The 2012 4th round pick has never once finished above average in 5 seasons in the league and has been one of the worst 3-4 defensive ends in the league for the past 2 seasons, first in Houston in 2015 and then in Denver last season as the replacement for Malik Jackson.
The Broncos are counting on last year’s 2nd round pick, Adam Gotsis, to play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He struggled on 221 snaps as a rookie though and was considered a reach in the 2nd round when the Broncos drafted him, so there are no guarantees he plays well. The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick this year on Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker and he could have an immediate role as an interior rusher in sub packages. The 6-4 280 pounder is a weird fit in a base 3-4 defense, but has some interior pass rush ability.
At the other defensive end position, Derek Wolfe remains as an every down player and has finished 4th and 13th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 and 2016. There are a couple concerns with him though. For one, he finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league before Wade Phillips came in, so he could decline a little bit with Phillips gone, though the Broncos are sticking with the 3-4 defense that Wolfe fits best. The other concern is that he’s had a lot of nagging injuries over the past 2 seasons, including multiple neck injuries. He’s only missed 6 games over those 2 seasons, but his durability is a question mark. Wolfe is their only good veteran defensive lineman, so they need him to continue playing at a high level and they need a young player to step up.
The Broncos also lost the retired DeMarcus Ware this off-season, but, while he is a future Hall-of-Famer, he was limited to 315 snaps in 10 games last season by injury and didn’t have much left in the tank, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season in 2017. Ware finished just 4th on the team in snaps played by an edge defender last season and won’t really be missed. In his absence, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett will split snaps on one side, with Von Miller remaining in an every down role on the other side.
Ray, a first round pick in 2015, was drafted with this scenario in mind and he has more sacks over the past 2 seasons than Barrett (12 vs. 7), but Barrett has been the better overall player over the past 2 seasons, excelling against the run, and figures to still have a role even if Ray is nominally the starter. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Barrett finished 20th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 566 snaps in 2015 and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 416 snaps in 2016. Ray, meanwhile, struggled on 341 snaps as a rookie, but finished slightly above average on 664 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, excelling as a pass rusher. Ray has the higher upside, but Barrett is probably the favorite for base package snaps, with Ray coming in as a situational pass rusher. They’re a promising young duo.
On the other side, Von Miller is one of the best defensive players in the league and an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller started his career as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end in a 4-3 defense, but has spent the past 2 seasons as a pure 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s excelled in both schemes, finishing in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including a 2016 season in which he finished #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers. He excels as a pass rusher, but plays the run really well too and can even drop into coverage, though the Broncos obviously would prefer him rushing the passer. Even with Wade Phillips gone, Miller should have a monster season.
At middle linebacker, Brandon Marshall returns as an every down player and will hopefully be healthy this season, after missing 5 games with injury in 2016. After barely playing in his first 2 seasons in the league, Marshall has developed into one of the best all-around linebackers in the league, finishing 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, 8th among middle linebackers in 2015, and 10th among middle linebackers in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Marshall should have another strong season in 2017.
Todd Davis remains the starter at the other middle linebacker spot, after making 15 starts in his first season as a starter in 2016. Davis went undrafted in 2014, but was better than expected in his first starting experience, finishing as around a league average middle linebacker. He plays the run much better than he covers, but fortunately he only really plays in base packages, with box safety TJ Ward frequently dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Davis played just 697 snaps last season and may not even have that many this season, especially if Marshall can stay healthy all season. This is still a very strong linebacking corps.
In addition to Todd Davis’ issues in coverage, another reason why it makes sense for the Broncos to use Ward as a 2nd linebacker in passing situations is simply that the Broncos are much deeper at safety than linebacker. Both Ward and fellow starter Darian Stewart are solid starters, while 2016 3rd round pick Justin Simmons flashed on 296 snaps last season and is likely to see a bigger role in 2017. Simmons and Stewart will be their two safeties in sub packages, while Ward will play linebacker next to Brandon Marshall.
Ward finished below average last season for the first time in his 7-year NFL career, but wasn’t bad, finishing 50th out of 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus. Ward isn’t very big at 5-10 200, but plays much bigger than that, which allows him to stop the run well as a safety and play linebacker in passing situations. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also entering his age 31 season and could be on the decline. Going into the final year of his contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let him walk next off-season and make Simmons an every down starter.
Stewart, meanwhile, would have been a free agent this off-season, but was given a 4-year, 28 million dollar extension late last season. He’s come a long way from his failed first stint as a starter with the Rams in 2011, when he finished 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties. Stewart was an undrafted free agent in 2010 and was overmatched as a starter on a terrible team in his 2nd season in the league, which led to him not playing much in 2012. However, he became a starter again in 2013 with the Ravens has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since (49 starts). His best season came in 2015, when he finished 16th among eligible safeties, but he also finished 33rd last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, Stewart should be a solid starter for at least the next couple of seasons.
As much talent as the Broncos have at safety, they’re significantly more talented at cornerback. In fact, their top-2 cornerbacks, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, finished last season #1 and #2 respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, the first duo to go 1-2 like that in Pro Football Focus’ history. That masked their other issues on defense and kept this as one of the top defenses in the league, even with key players signing elsewhere last off-season.
For Chris Harris, this was nothing new, as he finished 1st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2014 as well. He “fell” to 9th in 2015, but that was his lowest rating since his rookie season in 2011. In the 5 seasons since his rookie season, he has made 74 starts and has played in 79 of a possible 80 games. He was not slowed in the slightest by a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season in the playoffs. One of the most successful undrafted free agents of all time, Harris excels on the slot and outside and is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL.
Talib, however, has never been as good as he was last season. In his 7 previous seasons in the league, Talib had maxed out at 15th among cornerbacks and finished just 28th in 2015. On top of that, he’s going into his age 31 season and has missed 24 games in 8 seasons in the league, including 3 last season. He could easily regress, especially without Wade Phillips around. Owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Broncos may part ways with him this off-season if he does not have a strong season again.
The Broncos have an obvious long-term replacement behind Aqib Talib in Bradley Roby, their 1st round pick in 2014. Roby has made just 10 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but that’s hardly been his fault, given who is ahead of him on the depth chart. Roby fell to 83rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016, but finished 23rd among cornerbacks the season before and has obvious long-term upside, still only going into his age 25 season. He would start on most teams. The Broncos clearly still believe in him as a long-term starter, picking up his 8.526 million dollar option for 2018, though that is only guaranteed for injury. Next off-season, they will have to make choices because this secondary will get even more expensive to keep together, but, for now, they still have the best secondary in the league
In 2015, the Broncos had the talent level of a 9-7 team, but went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl because of close victories. Last season, they had the talent of a 9-7 team and actually went 9-7. They were a little bit worse last season than 2015 and could be a little bit worse again if the defense declines somewhat in the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but they should be in the mix for a playoff spot again. The big concern is the quarterback position, but if Paxton Lynch can develop in a hurry and give them solid quarterback play, this team has enough supporting talent to be a threat. That’s a big if though, considering how lost he looked in limited action last season.
Prediction: 8-8, 4th in AFC West