The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, but they did so in spite of their quarterback play, not because of it, and over the past few seasons the Broncos have shuffled through various options trying to find the right solution. Their defense has remained consistently good, but the 2015 Broncos defense was one of the best defenses in the league over the past decade, so they haven’t been able to maintain that level of play and their inability to find a quarterback has caused them to miss the post-season in every season since their Super Bowl win. As recent as that Super Bowl seems, the Broncos now have tied for the 4th longest active streak of not making the post-season, only behind the Browns, Buccaneers, and Jets, so the urgency is obviously there for this team to return to the post-season.
Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler were their quarterbacks in 2015, but Manning retired and Osweiler signed with the Texans, so the Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He turned out to be a megabust though, making just 4 starts in 2 seasons before being let go. Instead, backup caliber quarterback Trevor Siemian made 24 starts between 2016 and 2017 and Osweiler also came back and made 4 starts in 2017, after proving to be a bust on a big contract with the Texans.
Neither Siemian and Osweiler were getting the job done, so the Broncos turned to free agent acquisition Case Keenum in 2018, who pocketed 22 million for one mediocre season before being sent to the Redskins for a late round pick. They then tried Joe Flacco in 2019, acquiring him from the Ravens for a 4th round pick and taking on his 18.5 million dollar salary, but he lasted just 8 mediocre starts before going down for the season with a neck injury.
The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick last off-season on quarterback Drew Lock, but he broke his thumb in the pre-season and was not available when Flacco got hurt, leaving the Broncos to start practice squad caliber quarterback Brandon Allen for 3 games, before Lock eventually returned for the final 5 games of the season. Lock was a mixed bag in those 5 starts, but he showed enough for Broncos fans to be excited that he could potentially be the long-term starter.
Lock’s overall numbers weren’t great, as he completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.54 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers, but even that was enough for this team to go 4-1, only losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, so this is a very intriguing team going into 2020. The 34.95% first down rate the Broncos moved the chains at in Lock’s 5 starts last season isn’t great, but it’s a noticeable improvement from the 30.83% first down rate they had in the first 11 games of the season and it made a big difference in the win/loss column for a team with a defense that finished 7th in first down rate allowed last season at 33.20%.
The Broncos clearly liked what they saw from Lock, releasing Flacco and not pursuing a veteran replacement besides career backup Jeff Driskel (79.6 QB rating in 8 career starts), so they are all in on Lock at the position. Lock comes with a lot of uncertainty, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be the best quarterback they’ve had since Manning’s last good year in 2014. If they can get capable quarterback play and play at a high level on defense, this team could make some noise in the AFC.
I’ll get into whether or not their defense can continue playing at a high level later, but on offense everything is looking up and not just because of Drew Lock’s potential, as the Broncos have done a good job adding talent around the quarterback on offense. That’s especially true at the wide receiver position, where they used their first two picks this year on Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Penn State’s KJ Hamler to give them a high upside young trio with incumbent #1 option Courtland Sutton.
Hamler enters the league pretty raw, but he has a high upside and Jeudy was arguably the top wide receiver in the draft, so he was a great value at #15 overall and can have an immediate impact. Relying on rookies is tough, but the Broncos didn’t have a wide receiver other than Sutton or Emmanuel Sanders, who was traded away mid-season, that topped 297 receiving yards last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for the rookies to be an upgrade.
In the second half of last season when Sanders was gone, including Lock’s 5-game stretch, Sutton was the Broncos’ only consistent passing game option, but at least the 2018 2nd round pick was able to break out as a legitimate #1 option in his second season in the league. After a middling rookie year in which he had a 42/704/4 slash line on 84 targets, Sutton jumped to 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2019 and finished the season with a 72/1112/6 slash line on 124 targets, despite frequent double teams and inconsistent quarterback play.
Sutton might not have the same target share as last season (24.6%) in a deeper group, but he could still post similar numbers on a smaller target share if this passing game is improved as a whole and other wide receivers draw coverage away from him. Sutton is technically a one-year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come.
The Broncos have also used significant draft capital on the tight end position in recent years, taking Noah Fant in the first round in 2019 and using a 4th round pick this year on Albert Okwuegbunam. Fant had a pretty underwhelming rookie year, but still finished the season second on the team with a 40/562/3 slash line and he has obvious upside going forward. He may never develop into a good blocker, but he has the upside to be a major mismatch in the passing game. He might not have a breakout year this year, but he could easily take a step forward in his second season.
Okwuegbunam, meanwhile, will compete for the #2 job with incumbent #2 Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman is a mediocre option who isn’t much of a blocker and has never topped 281 receiving yards in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but Okwuegbunam enters the league pretty raw, especially as a run blocker, so he probably wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie. This is definitely a deeper receiving corps than last year and they have a huge ceiling, but their overall lack of experience also gives them a low floor.
The Broncos also added at the running back position this off-season, signing ex-Charger Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal. It was a surprising signing because the Broncos didn’t seem to need to spend significant money on the running back position, with lead back Phillip Lindsay having topped 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past two seasons and still only going into his age 26 season without a significant injury history. In total, Lindsay has rushed for 16 touchdowns and 4.92 YPC on 416 carries over the past two seasons, while earning Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest and 9th highest rushing grade over the past two seasons respectively.
The Broncos also probably overpaid for Gordon, even if Gordon settled for less than the 10 million he was originally offered by the Chargers prior to his ill-advised holdout last season. Gordon tried to cash in on a 2018 season in which he rushed for 5.06 YPC and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries and finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked running back overall, but the Chargers wouldn’t give him the top of the running back market deal he wanted, leading to him sitting out the first 4 games of the 2019 season.
The Chargers were wise to not pay him at the top of the market, as they were arguably better in the games that Gordon didn’t play last season, with Austin Ekeler impressing as the lead back and Gordon struggling (3.78 YPC on 162 carries) upon his return. His holdout likely caused some of his struggles, but when you look at his 5 seasons with the Chargers in total, his 2018 season stands out as an obvious outlier, as he’s never topped 4 YPC in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Poor offensive line play was part of the problem, but he’s also never finished higher than 19th among running backs on PFF in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Even as the 7th highest paid running back in the league, he’s overpaid and he wasn’t really necessary for a team that had a strong lead back already.
The biggest area Gordon helps this running back group is in the passing game, as Lindsay has averaged just 4.60 yards per target in his career thus far and last year’s passing down back Royce Freeman averaged just 5.12 yards per target, while Gordon has averaged a 53/447/3 slash line per 16 games in his career. In addition to playing most passing downs, Gordon figures to split early down work with Lindsay and there could be a lot of carries available for both on a team that will likely try to be run heavy to protect their young quarterback.
It also wouldn’t be hard for Gordon to be an upgrade as a runner over Freeman, who averaged just 3.76 YPC and ranked 42nd out of 45 qualifying running backs with just a 41% carry success rate, but the Broncos probably would have been better off adding a running back through the draft or a cheaper veteran, rather than paying significant money for a running back with one strong year out of five. This is a deep backfield though, with Freeman now moving into at best the #3 back role.
The Broncos made some offensive line additions this off-season, though they primarily were replacing off-season departures, with starting center Connor McGovern and starting right guard Ron Leary no longer with the team. Leary won’t be a big loss, but McGovern was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season. The big addition was Graham Glasgow, who comes over from the Lions on a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal.
A 3rd round pick in 2016, Glasgow has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and he has earned an above average grade on PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a career best 10th ranked finish among guards in 2019. In addition to being an above average starter, he’s versatile and proven at different spots (18 starts at left guard, 26 starts at center, 14 starts at right guard). It’s unclear where Glasgow will play in Denver, but wherever he ends up the Broncos will be expecting him to essentially be a replacement for McGovern.
Where Glasgow ends up playing may come down to how the Broncos feel about other starting options on this line. If Glasgow plays right guard, the Broncos would likely have to start 3rd round rookie Lloyd Cushenberry at center. If Glasgow plays center, the Broncos would likely start Elijah Wilkinson at right guard. Wilkinson struggled in 12 starts at right tackle last season, but the 2017 undrafted free agent was better in 7 starts at right guard in 2018. He may never develop into a consistent starter anywhere, but he’s not a bad option if the Broncos aren’t comfortable starting a rookie at center and want to move Glasgow to the pivot instead.
Wilkinson was also only an injury fill in at right tackle last season, with the Broncos signing Ja’Wuan James from the Dolphins on a 4-year, 51 million dollar last off-season and then watching him play just 63 snaps all season due to a knee injury that he had multiple setbacks with. Injuries have been a problem for him in the past as well, as he’s been limited to 8 games or fewer in 3 of 6 seasons in the league, but he’s expected to be healthy at least going into this season, which would be a big boost for this team. James is not as good as his contract suggests, as, in addition to his injury history, he’s never finished higher than 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s also been an average or better starter in every season in the league as well and he’s only in his age 28 season, so he should be a solid starter again in 2020 if he can stay on the field.
The left side of this offensive line remains the same, with Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner locked in at left tackle and left guard respectively. Bolles was a first round pick in 2017 and has had a lot of problems with penalties, committing 45 in 48 career starts, but he’s otherwise developed into a high level player, allowing 6 sacks over the past 2 seasons and finishing 29th and 16th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively.
If Bolles can ever figure out his penalty problem, he could be one of the top offensive tackles in the league. That’s easier said than done and he’s older than most players in their 4th season in the league (age 28), but even if he continues to play the same as he has, you could do a lot worse at left tackle. Risner, meanwhile, is a 2019 2nd round pick who was a capable starter in 16 rookie year starts and could take a step forward in his second season in the league. This could be a solid group if they’re healthy, but they have at least one starting spot where they’re likely going to be relying on an underwhelming option.
The Broncos’ offense should take a step forward in 2020, after ranking 27th in first down rate in 2019 at 32.08%, so if their defense can continue playing at a high level, after ranking 7th in first down rate in 2019 at 33.20%, they could easily take a step forward from last year’s 7-9 record and compete for a playoff spot. At the interior defender spot, the Broncos are actually better than they were last season.
Shelby Harris led the position with 636 snaps last season and finished 19th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, but the Broncos weren’t expecting to be able to re-sign him at the start of the off-season, so they traded for Jurrell Casey from the Titans, flipping late round picks to acquire Casey and the 37.9 million over 3 years remaining on his contract in a salary dump. Then when Harris’ market didn’t develop, he agreed to return on a 1-year, 3.095 million dollar deal in hopes of getting a more favorable market next off-season.
The Broncos didn’t bring back long-time starter Derek Wolfe (108 starts over 8 seasons), but he was a middling starter in 2019 and Harris and Casey, who will both start and play significant roles, are both above average starters. It’s not that surprising that Harris’ market didn’t develop the way he expected because, as well as he played last season, it was the first season of his career in which he was a starter, but he had showed plenty of promise in 2017 and 2018 as a reserve as well, playing the run at a high level and totalling 7 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate, so he could easily continue being an above average starter in 2020, which makes him a steal at his salary.
Casey is more expensive, but could also prove to be a good value, considering the Broncos hardly gave up anything in terms of draft compensation to acquire him. Casey had a down year in 2019, but for him a down year means finishing 26th among interior defenders on PFF, after 4 straight seasons in the top-19 prior. Any decline is a concern for a player who is going into his age 31 season, but even if he keeps declining, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him remain an above average starter for at least the next couple years, even if his best days are behind him.
The Broncos run a base 3-4 defense and in base packages Mike Purcell will be the 3rd interior defender, playing the traditional base package run stuffing nose tackle role, a role he thrived in last season, when he finished #1 among interior defenders on PFF in run stuffing grade. Purcell is a complete one-year wonder though, as not only were the 416 snaps he played last season a career high, but last season was his first career above average grade from PFF and it was also the first time he had played a defensive snap since 2016.
Purcell is highly unlikely to be as good as he was last season again, but he’s still in his age 29 season and it’s possible he’s a late bloomer who can continue playing well in a situational early down role going forward. The 6-3 329 pounder certainly looks the part and, while he doesn’t get much pass rush at all (3.3% career pressure rate), the Broncos won’t need him to play in sub packages because they have Casey and Harris, who are capable of playing every down.
The Broncos also have good depth at this position, so much so that I wouldn’t expect all of the players in the mix for roles to make the final roster. Casey, Harris, and Purcell are obviously locked in to roster spots, as are 3rd round rookie McTelvin Agim and 2019 3rd round pick Dre’Mont Jones. Agim might not have a big rookie year role, but Jones showed promise as a situational pass rusher as a rookie (10.5% pressure rate) and, now in his second season in the league, he’s likely to exceed the 283 snaps he played as a rookie and will likely be their top reserve.
That leaves 2017 2nd round pick DeMarcus Walker and Christian Covington competing not only for playing time, but possibly for roster spots. Walker was a high pick, but has been limited to 341 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. He’s played both inside and outside in this defense, but hasn’t been able to find a consistent role anywhere. Last season, he was primarily a situational interior pass rusher and wasn’t bad (8.7%), but he only played 220 snaps total and it’s hard to see how there would be more snaps available for him in 2020, unless injuries hit. Covington, meanwhile, is a free agent acquisition who has excelled as a rotational reserve throughout his career, only averaging 330 snaps per season over the past four seasons, but earning an average or better grade from PFF in all four of those seasons. This is a deep group that should be improved from last season.
The Broncos should also be improved in the edge defender group, set to get Bradley Chubb back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season after 4 games, following a rookie season in which the 5th overall pick led all rookies with 12 sacks in 2018. Chubb’s return isn’t as big of a deal as you’d think though, as he wasn’t quite as good of a pass rusher as his rookie year sack total suggested and the players who replaced him weren’t much of a dropoff.
Malik Reed (468 snaps), Jerry Attaochu (322 snaps), and Justin Hollins (266 snaps) couldn’t match Chubb as a pass rusher, but they were upgrades against the run, an area in which Chubb struggled as a rookie. There are other factors involved, but the Broncos were actually better defensively in the 12 games they played without Chubb last season (32.16% first down rate allowed), as compared to the 4 games they played with Chubb (36.55% first down rate allowed).
Now coming off the injury, Chubb’s future is a little bit more uncertain, but he still has the upside to develop into one of the best edge defenders in the league long-term, even if he hasn’t been as good as his rookie year sack total has suggested thus far in his career. Whether or not he can take a big step forward in his third season in the league in his first year back from the injury in 2020 is the question. If he can, it will be a big boost to this defense, but that remains to be seen.
It’s possible the Broncos could play Malik Reed, the best of the three players who played in Chubb’s absence last season, more on early downs and save Chubb as a pass rush specialist to hide his struggles against the run and keep him fresher to rush the passer. Either way, Reed, a 2019 undrafted free agent who flashed on 465 rookie season snaps, figures to be the primary reserve, while Hollins and Attaochu are still around and could make the roster again as deep reserves.
Von Miller figures to remain in an every down role on the opposite side, so unless Reed can earn an early down role at Chubb’s expense, the Broncos won’t have much need for reserves, barring injuries. Miller has been one of the best edge defenders in the league over the past decade, totalling 106 sacks, 122 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate in his career, while also excelling against the run. Selected #2 overall in 2011, Miller finished in the top-4 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, before slipping to 22nd among edge defenders in 2019.
Any decline is concerning for a player now going into his age 31 season, but he still managed 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate, while maintaining his usual level of play against the run. Even if his best days are behind him, he could remain one of the top players at his position for several years to come if he ages gracefully. With Miller elevating his group by himself, Chubb returning opposite him, and some good depth led by Malik Reed, this figures to be a strong position group again.
As I mentioned, the Broncos defense was significantly improved after the first 4 games of last season, in spite of Bradley Chubb’s season ending injury. Part of that was Chubb’s replacements holding their own, but it also lines up with the insertion of AJ Johnson into the lineup at middle linebacker in place of Josey Jewell, who fared well as a run stuffer as the early season starter but struggled mightily in coverage. Johnson didn’t play a defensive snap in the first week 4 weeks of the season, but he became an every down player in week 5 and beyond (60.9 snaps per game) and he was a revelation, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest graded off ball linebacker over that stretch.
Not only did Johnson not play a defensive snap in the first 4 weeks of last season, but he also had never played a defensive snap in the NFL ever prior to week 5 of 2019, even though he was technically part of the 2015 NFL Draft class. I say technically because Johnson was kicked off the team at the University of Tennessee during his senior season in 2014 after being charged with rape and, as a result, he went undrafted in 2015 and went unsigned until the Broncos gave him a shot in 2018, signing him to their practice squad following his acquittal.
It certainly seemed unlikely a few years ago that Johnson’s career would ever get started, let alone that he’d ever been one of the top players at his position for a 12-game stretch, but he had the potential to be a high draft pick before his legal troubles and he still doesn’t turn 29 until the end of December so, even if he doesn’t quite match what he did last season, it wouldn’t surprise me if he remained an above average every down player in 2020 and a few years beyond.
Johnson will continue to start alongside Todd Davis, who will also play close to every down. Davis has made 59 starts for the Broncos over the past 4 seasons and has consistently been an above average run stuffer, but he only recently developed into a capable coverage linebacker as well, which has allowed him to play 58.0 snaps per game over the past two seasons, after playing just 40.6 snaps per game in 2016 and 2017. Davis has finished 24th and 34th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively and, still only going into his age 28 season, he should continue playing around the same level in the same role in 2020.
Josey Jewell is still around, but only as a pure reserve. A 4th round pick in 2018, Jewell has shown potential against the run in both seasons in the league, but he’s consistently struggled in coverage and has played just 674 snaps total. He’s not a bad reserve because he’s at least very capable in one aspect of the game, but the Broncos’ coverage unit would take a big hit if he had to fill in for Johnson or Davis. As long as both are on the field, Johnson and Davis should remain an above average starting duo.
The one big loss the Broncos had on defense this off-season was Chris Harris, who has been their #1 cornerback for years. Harris fell to 38th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season, after finishing in the top-18 in each of the first 8 seasons prior to last season, and is now going into his age 31 season, so the Broncos didn’t want to bring him back on a deal similar to the 2-year, 17 million dollar deal he signed with the Chargers and instead they sent a 4th round pick to the Jaguars for AJ Bouye, to whom the Jaguars did not want to pay a 13.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020.
Time will tell if that was the right move. Bouye is younger than Harris, going into his age 29 season, but may be declining faster, finishing 5th among cornerbacks on PFF on 2016, 7th in 2017, 22nd in 2018, and then falling to 92nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks in 2019, which led to the Jaguars wanting to move on. He has some bounce back potential because he’s not totally over the hill, but it’s not a guarantee that he’s going to rebound, so the Broncos are taking a risk moving on from Harris to add him.
One reason going with Bouye over Harris makes sense is because Bouye is a natural outside cornerback, while Harris has been at his best on the slot in his career. The Broncos tried to have Harris play outside more last season, which is probably part of why he wasn’t as good as usual in 2019, and now they are getting slot cornerback Bryce Callahan back from an injury that cost him all of last season, so they really need a natural outside cornerback more than anything.
An undrafted free agent of the Bears in 2015, Callahan played 84.2% of his coverage snaps on the slot in 4 seasons in Chicago and lacks the size to play consistently outside at 5-9 185, but he allowed just 0.77 yards per route run on the slot in his final two seasons in Chicago, while finishing 26th among cornerbacks on PFF on 512 snaps in 2017 and 11th on 676 snaps in 2018. That landed him a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal from the Broncos last off-season, but he has yet to play a snap on that deal, missing all of last season with a foot injury. Injuries have been an issue for him throughout his career, as he’s never played more than 13 games in a season, but he’s still in his age 29 season and, if he’s healthy in 2020, he should remain an above average slot option for however many games he can make it through.
The one job up for grabs in this cornerback group is the other outside cornerback job opposite Bouye, with Bouye locked in on one side and Callahan locked in on the slot. Isaac Yiadom ranked second among Bronco cornerbacks in starts (8) and snaps (504) and may be the favorite for the #2 cornerback job this season, but he struggled last season, ranking 120th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks, after struggling on 264 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018, so he’ll have to compete for the job. His primary competition may be 3rd round rookie Michael Ojemudia, but he enters the league pretty raw and the Broncos have several holdovers who saw action last season who could be in the mix for roles in 2020.
Davontae Harris made 6 starts outside last season, but he too struggled, finishing 114th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 429 snaps, in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career. De’Vante Bausby was better in his 2 starts, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has played just 395 snaps total in his career, so he’s highly unproven. Duke Dawson also played 343 snaps last season and he played pretty well, earning an average grade from PFF, but he was primarily a slot cornerback in Callahan’s absence, so he probably isn’t a real contender to start outside and will likely open the 2020 season as Callahan’s backup. He’s good depth to have because of Callahan’s injury history, but their lack of a #2 cornerback is an obvious problem.
Fortunately, the Broncos are very strong at the safety position, with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson coming off of a season in which they finished 1st and 8th respectively among safeties on PFF. They may not be quite as good in 2020, for different reasons, but they should both remain above average starters at the least. Simmons’ reason is simply that he is a one-year wonder as an elite safety, finishing 30th among safeties in his first season as a starter in 2017, then falling to 77th out of 100 qualifiers in 2018, before shooting up to the top in 2019. It’s possible the 2016 3rd round pick has permanently turned a corner, but it’s also very possible he continues to be inconsistent going forward. Still only going into his age 27 season, he could have more dominant seasons in his future, but 2020 might not necessarily be one of them.
The concern with Jackson, meanwhile, is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, having one of the best seasons of his career in 2018, finishing 5th among cornerbacks, before moving to safety and having another strong season in 2019. A consistently above average cornerback throughout his prime (137 career starts in 10 seasons in the league), Jackson can age more gracefully at the safety position because he won’t need to be as athletic, so he could easily remain an above average starting safety for at least another couple seasons, even if his best days are now behind him. He and Simmons could easily be one of the top safety duos in the league, which elevates a position group that has some question marks at cornerback, but looks to overall be an above average group.
The Broncos ranked 7th in first down rate allowed last season, but their offensive struggles led to them still finishing with a negative first down rate differential at -1.12% and, as a result, they finished out of the playoffs for the 4th straight season, going just 7-9 overall. This year, their defense is changed, but looks to still be one of the top defenses in the league once again, so if an offense that has added a lot of young talent in recent off-seasons can take a step forward, this team could easily be in playoff contention in 2020, especially with a 3rd wild card spot opening up. How much of a step forward they take is largely dependent on unproven 2nd year quarterback Drew Lock. If he can be even an average starting quarterback, this could be a dangerous team, but being an average starting quarterback is a lot easier said than done. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Offensive Score: 71.66
Defensive Score: 76.89
Total Score: 74.28 (4th in AFC West)