Denver Broncos 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After going 12-4 and winning the Super Bowl in 2015, the Broncos fell to 9-7 in 2016 and then 5-11 in 2017. Quarterback play got a lot of the blame last season and it definitely was a big problem, as the trio of Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler combined to complete 58.7% of their passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions on an offense that ranked 30th in first down rate, but they’ve had issues under center for years.

They finished 30th in first down rate in 2016 as well and were only marginally better (27th) in 2015, despite going on to win the Super Bowl. Their last season with good quarterback play was Peyton Manning’s last healthy season in 2014, as four quarterbacks have combined to complete 59.6% of their passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 58 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions over the past 3 seasons since.

The reasons for their win total decline are complicated. Part of it is just that they went 9-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015, but have gone just 4-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less since then. Their defense also has declined a little bit, falling from 2nd in first down rate in 2015 and 2016 to 7th in 2017. They also finished 31st in turnover margin at -17 in 2017. Their offense turning the ball over wasn’t a surprise, but their defense managed just 17 takeaways after having 54 in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Turnover margin tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis though. Since 2007, 17 teams have finished with turnover margins of -15 or worse. The following year, they, on average, have a turnover margin of +4.8 and win an average of 3.5 more games. Their defense isn’t as good as it was in their peak, but it’s not hard to see them having more takeaways in 2018, as they’re still a talented group on that side of the ball.

The Broncos also are turning the page at quarterback, which could easily help their turnover margin. Brock Osweiler signed with the Dolphins as a free agent. Trevor Siemian was traded to the Vikings for a late round pick. Paxton Lynch remains, but that’s because the Broncos are unwilling to give up on the 2016 1st round pick, but he’ll sit on the bench for the foreseeable future behind free agent acquisition Case Keenum, who signed on a 2-year, 36 million dollar deal this off-season. Despite terrible quarterback play, the Broncos finished last season 23rd in first down rate differential at -1.79%, so better quarterback play and more takeaways from the defense could put the Broncos right back in playoff contention in 2018.

That being said, it’s far from a guarantee that Keenum will repeat his strong 2017 season, when he completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback on the season. Not only is Keenum a one-year wonder who completed just 58.4% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions in his career before last season, but he also wasn’t put in that many tough spots game situation wise with the Vikings because he had such a good supporting cast and usually played with a lead. With the Broncos, he’ll have to do more on his own. Already in his age 30 season, it’s possible he’s a late bloomer and will continue playing well and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what they had last season, but I would expect him to regress at least somewhat in 2018.

If he regresses significantly, the Broncos’ only other option is Paxton Lynch, who has shown nothing since the Broncos drafted him with the 26th overall pick in 2016. He’s completed just 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.19 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and often hasn’t been healthy enough to get on the field for a team that has needed quarterback help. Only going into his age 24 season, he still has upside and the Broncos are not ready to give up on him, but they wouldn’t have given Keenum 25 million guaranteed if they were comfortable relying on Lynch in 2018, so they’ll obviously he hoping Keenum continues playing well.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Arguably the best thing Case Keenum had going for him in Minnesota was the duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at wide receiver, possibly the top wide receiver duo in the NFL. There was a time when people considered Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on that same level, as both topped 1000 yards in all 3 seasons from 2014-2016, but both are coming off of down seasons and going into their age 31 seasons. Thomas managed just a 83/949/5 slash line, failing to top 1000 yards for the first time since his second season in the league in 2011, while Sanders missed 4 games with injury and had just a 47/555/2 slash line, also his lowest receiving yardage total since his 2nd season in the league in 2011.

Part of that was because of their quarterback play, which should be better in 2018, but they used to be able to put up big numbers despite poor quarterback play and they also both earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus, suggesting it wasn’t just their quarterback play that was the issue. Not completely over the hill, they do have some statistical bounce back potential with an upgraded quarterback, especially if Sanders can stay in the lineup all season, but both players are clearly on the decline.

They may also not be as involved in the offense this year as normal. They’ve averaged a combined 18.8 targets per game over the past 4 seasons, but the Broncos will likely be a run heavy team even with Keenum under center and the Broncos have made an effort to add talented young receivers behind Thomas and Sanders on the depth chart in the past two drafts, so they won’t need to rely as heavily on them.

They’ve added young receivers in part because Sanders and Thomas are aging, but they lacked depth behind them regardless, which is why Sanders and Thomas received about half the team’s targets back in 2016, the last time both were healthy. Last year, Bennie Fowler struggled as the 3rd receiver, putting up a mediocre 29/350/3 slash line on 56 targets, despite playing 573 snaps and playing close to every down when Sanders was out.

Fowler is no longer with the team, as is the case with Cody Latimer, who played 380 snaps as the 4th receiver last year. To replace them, the Broncos added SMU’s Courtland Sutton, a borderline first round talent, with the 40th overall pick in the 2nd round, and then they added Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton in the 4th round. They also get last year’s 3rd round pick Carlos Henderson back from an injury that cost him his entire rookie season, though he may be facing a short suspension following an off-season arrest for DUI and marijuana possession.

Those three will compete for snaps behind Thomas and Sanders, with Sutton as the heavy favorite for the #3 receiver job. If they’re impressed with their young receivers, it’s possible the Broncos decide to move on from one or both of Thomas and Sanders next off-season, owed 14 million and 10.25 million respectively in non-guaranteed salaries. Since both will be in the final year of their deal in 2019, the Broncos can save those entire amounts on the cap by letting them go.

The Broncos will need one of their young receivers take step up because, not only are Sanders and Thomas getting up there in age, but they also have next to nothing at the tight end position. AJ Derby led the team with 19 catches by a tight end last season, which is a big drop off from the 57/532/8 slash line Kyle Rudolph put up with Keenum in Minnesota. Derby is no longer with the team anyway and neither is Virgil Green, a blocking specialist who caught just 14 passes. The Broncos bring back Jeff Heuerman, a 2016 3rd round pick who has developed into a capable blocker, but has just 18 catches on 557 snaps played in the past 2 seasons. He’ll have a bigger role in 2018 with little competition on the depth chart, but I wouldn’t expect him to become a factor in the passing game.

With Heuerman lining up in-line primarily, 2017 5th round pick Jake Butt is expected to be the primary pass catching tight end. He comes with upside and could have gone on the 2nd day of the draft if he wasn’t rehabbing a torn ACL at the time of the draft. Being cautious with him long-term, the Broncos sat him his entire rookie year, so he’s a major question mark going in 2018, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to top Derby’s production (19/224/2) if he’s healthy and he could develop into a capable all-around tight end long-term.

The Broncos also used a 5th round pick on a tight end in this year’s draft, taking Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli, though it’s unclear if he’ll have much of a role as a rookie. Neither a strong blocker nor a matchup problem in the passing game, he’ll probably open the season as the third tight end. The Broncos will be counting on young players to step up behind the aging Sanders and Thomas, but this could easily be an improved receiving corps over last season. It’s likely to be a steep drop off from what Keenum was working with in Minnesota though.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Broncos will likely be a pretty run heavy team in 2018. They ranked 8th in carries last season with 457, as they tried to hide their terrible quarterback play behind their run game and defense, and, even with Keenum coming in, I expect them to remain conservative with their play calling. Keenum is not someone who has experience carrying a team and threw just 32.9 attempts per start on a run heavy team with the Vikings last season, a big part of why he was so successful. The Broncos have a good enough defense that they don’t have to drop back and pass 35-40 times per game and I wouldn’t expect them to.

Given that, it’s pretty strange they’d let go of CJ Anderson, who was one of just nine running backs to have more than 1000 rushing yards last season, averaging 4.11 yards per carry on 245 carries, despite being on a bad offense. Anderson’s salary of 4.5 million was significant for a running back, especially a two-down back like Anderson that doesn’t contribute in the passing game, but the Broncos had other more obvious cap casualty candidates if they needed to free up cap space and they have about 9 million in available cap space as of this writing, so there wasn’t any urgent need to let him go.

Anderson’s direct replacement will be 3rd round rookie Royce Freeman, though he’s unlikely to have as big of a role as Anderson did last season. Freeman is similar to Anderson in that he’s a bigger back at 6-0 229 who isn’t a great receiver, but he could easily be a downgrade as a rookie. He was a very productive college runner and has the upside to be an above average runner at the professional level, but there’s concern about his speed and the fact that he had almost 1000 carries in college.

Freeman may lead the team in carries as a rookie, but third year back Devontae Booker figures to lead the team in snaps by a running back, as he’s the clear option in passing situations. A 2016 4th round pick, Booker has been unimpressive as a runner in his career, with a 3.60 YPC on 253 carries, but he has 61 catches for 540 yards and 1 touchdown on just 396 routes run between the two seasons and could easily have 40-50 catches as the primary passing down back in 2018. He’ll also have a role as a runner, as could 2017 6th round pick De’Angelo Henderson, though he managed just 49 yards on 9 touches as a rookie and is not considered a lock for the final roster. This backfield has potential, but Anderson would be useful to still have around.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Instead of Anderson, one player the Broncos could have let go of is right tackle Menelik Watson, who was signed to a 3-year, 18.375 million dollar deal last off-season, but was Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked offensive tackle through his first 8 games of the season, before going down for the rest of the season with a broken foot. Despite that, the Broncos let his salary guarantee by keeping him on the roster through mid-March and now owe him 6.125 million in 2018 between salary and bonuses.

The Broncos did let go of Donald Stephenson and Allen Barbre, who were also horrible at right tackle last season, taking over after Watson got hurt, but they also decided to trade a 6th round pick for ex-Cardinals right tackle Jared Veldheer, who they will have to pay 7 million this season between salary and bonuses. That makes him the 4th highest paid right tackle in the league this season in total compensation.

Veldheer would have been a good addition a few years ago, but he’s been missed 11 games over the past 2 seasons with injury, finished last season 58th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 13 starts, and is now going into his age 31 season. He likely would have been released if the Cardinals could not trade him and he could have been available for close to half the price. He did earn a positive grade in 2016 before a triceps tear knocked out the second half of his season, but his best play is probably behind him. He’ll be an upgrade by default, but he’s way overpaid.

With Veldheer likely locked in at right tackle, Watson’s clearest past to playing time is left guard, which was also a problem position for them in 2017, as Max Garcia finished 71st among 80 eligible guards on PFF in 16 starts. Watson is unlikely to be much of an upgrade though. He’s never played guard at the professional level and has struggled mightily throughout his career, since being drafted by the Raiders in the 2nd round in 2013. He’s also been very injury prone and has just 24 career starts in 5 seasons in the league.

A 4th round pick in 2015, Garcia wasn’t that bad in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts), before struggling last year. He could still keep his starting job, though he’ll also face competition from 2016 5th round pick Connor McGovern. McGovern also likely wouldn’t be an upgrade, as he struggled in 5 starts at right guard last season in the first action of his career, filling in for an injured Ron Leary. Many expected the Broncos to take Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson 5th overall, but they let Nelson fall to the Colts at 6 when NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb was unexpectedly still available at 5. Left guard will likely remain a position of weakness in 2018, regardless of who starts.

Right guard, on the other hand, should remain strong, especially if Ron Leary is able to stay healthier. Despite missing 5 games last season, Leary was still PFF’s 11th ranked guard and he is probably the Broncos’ best offensive lineman. Leary also finished 19th among guards on PFF in 2016 and has made 58 starts in the past 5 seasons, with the Cowboys and Broncos. He was a smart pickup on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season for a team that badly needed offensive line help and he was definitely missed when he was injured down the stretch.

Center Matt Paradis is also coming off of a solid season, finishing 10th among centers on PFF, although he was better a lot better in 2016, when he finished 2nd among centers on PFF. A 6th round selection in 2014, Paradis has made all 48 starts at center in the past 3 seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should have another solid season again, at the very least, and could easily earn a big contract in the next year, going into the final year of his rookie deal.

Second year left tackle Garett Bolles completes this offensive line. He had his ups and downs as a rookie, making all 16 starts after the Broncos made him the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he finished about average on PFF and could easily be better in his second season in the league. This offensive line on the whole could easily be better too, with Leary returning from injury, Veldheer coming in, and both Paradis and Bolles possibly having better seasons, but left guard is still a major problem and Veldheer is a shaky option at right tackle.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Broncos defense was not as good in 2017 as they were in 2015 and 2016, finishing 7th in first down rate allowed and managing just 17 takeaways. 7th in first down rate is still pretty impressive though and takeaways tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so they could easily have a few more this season, which could be the difference between a couple wins and a couple losses. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were at their peak though. Not only is the personnel not quite the same, but the Broncos also lost legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips last off-season.

When head coach Gary Kubiak retired at the end of the 2016 season and the Broncos replaced him with Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, a former understudy of Phillips as a defensive backs coaches with the Texans, it was assumed that the Broncos would be keeping Phillips, but Joseph went another direction, promoting defensive backs coach Joe Woods to defensive coordinator instead. Phillips then went to LA, where he did a great job with a resurgent Rams defense, while Woods got disappointing results in his first season in the job. He may be better in his second year, but he’ll never be Wade Phillips.

One area this defense did excel in was run defense, as they ranked 1st in yards per carry allowed with 3.34. Their defensive line was a big part of that. Their top-4 defensive linemen in terms of snaps played were Adam Gotsis (555 snaps), Shelby Harris (516 snaps), Domata Peko (460 snaps), and Derek Wolfe (458 snaps) and all 4 finished in the top-41 among interior defensive linemen in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus. None of them earned a positive grade as a pass rusher though, which is a concern. Despite getting good edge rush, the Broncos managed just 33 sacks last season, just 22nd in the NFL. That was a big part of why their defense was not as good as it had been in the previous 2 seasons.

The good news is they should get more out of Derek Wolfe this season, who is usually an every down player and totaled 11 sacks and 16 quarterback hits between 2015 and 2016, before being limited to 458 snaps in 11 games by a neck injury last season. Now reportedly 100% again after surgery, Wolfe could easily have a bounce back year. He’s earned a positive grade on PFF in 4 straight seasons, topping out as PFF’s 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in their Super Bowl year in 2015.

The Broncos are also moving 2017 2nd round pick DeMarcus Walker from outside linebacker to defensive end, after he played just 100 snaps as a rookie. Listed at 6-4 280 last season, Walker has the size to rush the passer from the interior and may add even more weight for the position switch. Despite not playing much as a rookie, Walker still has a good upside and could be a better fit in his new role. Gotsis, Peko, and Harris will continue seeing significant snaps in base packages, but Wolfe and Walker will likely be their primary interior pass rushers in sub packages.

Gotsis, Peko, and Harris all have issues though, in addition to struggling as pass rushers. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Gotsis is facing an uncertain legal future after being accused of rape from his collegiate days this off-season. Peko is going into his age 34 season and, before a revitalized year as the Broncos nose tackle last season, earned negative grades from PFF in 9 straight seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. Harris, meanwhile, is a 2014 7th round pick and a complete one-year wonder, as he played just 155 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined. With Walker moving to the line and Wolfe now healthy, they should get more pass rush from their defensive line this season, but they probably won’t be quite as good against the run.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Another reason why moving Walker to the defensive line makes sense is because the Broncos are really deep at outside linebacker, after using the 5th overall pick on Bradley Chubb. Considered the consensus top defensive prospect in the draft, Chubb was a great value with the 5th overall pick and was widely expected to go the Cleveland Browns with the 4th overall pick, rather than Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward. Chubb is the third outside linebacker the Broncos have drafted in the first round since 2011, when they took Von Miller 2nd overall.

Von Miller has worked out incredibly well. Miller has finished in the top-3 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons in the league, totaling 83.5 sacks and 96 quarterback hits in 104 games, while excelling against the run as well. Only going into his age 29 season with a limited injury history aside from a 2013 torn ACL, Miller should continue playing at a high level in 2018. The Broncos had to give him a massive 6-year, 114.1 million dollar deal to keep him as a free agent two off-seasons ago, but if he keeps playing well he’ll continue to be worth it.

Their other first round outside linebacker selection has not worked out as well, which is part of the reason why the Broncos took Chubb at 5 instead of filling a bigger need with Quenton Nelson. Selected 23rd overall in 2015, Shane Ray flashed as a pass rusher in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league (1,015 snaps combined between the two seasons) and was expected to be an every down player in 2017, but he was never healthy and struggled mightily on 354 snaps, finishing 40th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Even when healthy, the 6-3 245 pounder has shown little against the run and, given that he just had his fourth wrist surgery in a year, the Broncos made the obvious decision to decline his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 9.232 million for injury in 2019.

Ray is likely to open the season as the 4th outside linebacker even if he is healthy, as Shaquil Barrett was PFF’s 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on 664 snaps last season and will continue having a big role, even with the addition of Chubb. He might not play quite as many snaps, but he earned a positive grade as a rotational player in 2015 and 2016 as well and it doesn’t make sense to leave him on the bench. Now in the final year of his rookie deal, he’ll likely be able to get more money and playing time elsewhere next off-season, but, for now, he should split snaps with Chubb. If all three of Miller, Chubb, and Barrett stay healthy, Ray will play very little and could be traded before the season starts if the Broncos get an offer to their liking.

At middle linebacker, Brandon Marshall remains as an every down player, though he’s coming off of a down year, earning a negative grade for the first time in 4 seasons as a starter (56 starts). Marshall was PFF’s #2 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014 and their #6 ranked middle linebacker in 2015, but he missed 5 games with hamstring problems in a disappointing year in 2016 and did not look the same upon his return in 2017, even though he did play all 16 games. He should still be in his prime in his age 29 season and he lost weight this off-season in an effort to get faster and stay healthier, but his best days might be behind him, especially with Wade Phillips no longer in town.

Todd Davis is the other starter, but he’s only a base package run stuffer, playing just 520 snaps in 2017. He has earned positive run stopping grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, has finished as PFF’s 10th ranked run stopping middle linebacker in 2017, and was given a 3-year, 15 million dollar extension this off-season, but he struggles in coverage and is usually replaced by backup safety Will Parks in passing situations. Parks was pretty underwhelming in that role though and has struggled on 864 career snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 6th round in 2016, so the Broncos brought in ex-Redskin Su’a Cravens via trade and then used a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Josey Jewell during the draft, to provide competition.

Cravens has the most upside of the bunch, as the 2016 2nd round pick flashed on 294 snaps in a hybrid safety/linebacker role as a rookie, but he missed all of last season with concussions and was briefly retired for personal reasons. If he’s healthy and wants to continue his career, he still has a good upside and is only going into his age 23 season, but the uncertainty around his future caused the Redskins to trade him for the equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation. Jewell, meanwhile, does not have the same upside because of his lack of size and athleticism, but the Broncos like what he can do on special teams and may give him a shot to earn a role on defense as well. They’re definitely stronger outside than inside in this linebacking corps, but this is a strong group overall.

Grade: A

Secondary

Neither Parks nor Cravens has much of a path to playing time at safety, as the Broncos bring back a pair of capable starters in Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons. Stewart actually earned a slight negative grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017, but he earned positive grades in his previous 3 seasons and has made 58 of 64 starts in the past 4 seasons. Now going into his age 30 season, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he could easily remain a capable starter for at least another couple seasons. Simmons, meanwhile, is only going into his third season in the league and his best days could still be ahead of him. After flashing on 294 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, Simmons earned a positive grade in his first full season as the starter in 2017. He could have his best year yet in 2018.

The Broncos are pretty deep at cornerback too, despite trading Aqib Talib to the Rams for a 5th round pick in a move that saved them 11 million. Talib was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and the Broncos already have Chris Harris, PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback last season, locked into a big contract long-term and Bradley Roby, PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback last season, seeing a steep pay increase in the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, now making 8.526 million, and likely due another steep pay increase on a long-term extension in the next year.

Harris is the more proven of the two, making 89 starts in the past 6 seasons and finishing in the top-15 among cornerbacks on PFF in all 6 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-2, while Roby is more of a one-year wonder, as the 2014 31st overall pick graded out about average on PFF in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2014-2016. With Talib gone, Roby will play every down as an outside cornerback and should easily surpass his career high of 807 snaps. Harris, meanwhile, will play outside in two-cornerback sets and then move inside to the slot in sub packages, which is where he’s at his best.

Free agent acquisition Tramaine Brock is the favorite to be the other outside cornerback in sub packages, after signing a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. A solid starter with the 49ers from 2013-2016, making 40 starts in those 4 seasons combined and finishing 16th among cornerbacks as recently as 2016, Brock was cut by the 49ers after being accused of domestic violence last off-season and played just 51 snaps last season, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Vikings, after his case was dropped in August.

Now in the clear legally, the Broncos are betting on a bounce back and they may get it, though he’s going into his age 30 season, so his best days may be behind him. His top competition is 2017 3rd round pick Brendan Langley, who played just 106 snaps as a rookie, and this year’s 3rd round pick, Boston College cornerback Isaac Yiadom, who enters the league as a very raw rookie. Losing Talib hurts, but this is still a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Broncos had their first losing season since 2010 last season, but better quarterback play and more takeaways from their defense could easily push them right back into playoff contention. Case Keenum doesn’t have the same offensive supporting cast he had in Minnesota, but he’ll be supported by a strong defense and won’t have all the pressure to do everything himself. The Broncos play in arguably the toughest division in the AFC, but the AFC is the weaker conference overall, so they could compete for one of the wild card spots. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: It’s still unclear if Case Keenum can come close to repeating his strong 2017 season, but the Broncos should have better quarterback play this season, which should put them right back into playoff contention. Their defense isn’t as dominant as it was two years ago, but they could have their most productive offense in years.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC West

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