Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

I’ve held off on posting the Broncos’ preview because they are the favorite to land Aaron Rodgers via trade if Rodgers does in fact get moved, but it doesn’t seem like there is a real possibility of that right now. Rodgers’ only leverage is sitting out what could be one of his last prime seasons rather than returning to a team he’s brought to back-to-back NFC Championships, so the most likely scenario is Rodgers returning to Green Bay, perhaps on some sort of renegotiated deal that allows Rodgers to be a free agent next off-season if he chooses. 

If Rodgers does get moved, the Broncos would be an obvious destination for him though, as they could be legitimately considered a quarterback away from being top contenders, similar to the Buccaneers last off-season when they were able to recruit Tom Brady. The Broncos reportedly offered a significant draft pick haul to the Texans for Deshaun Watson before his allegations came out and it stands to reason to would be similarly aggressive trying to trade for Rodgers if he became available. 

The Broncos have the longest active streak of finishing in the top-10 in first down rate allowed on defense, seven consecutive seasons dating back to 2014, before their last Super Bowl appearance. However, arguably the worst quarterback play in the league in recent years has caused the Broncos to not make the post-season once since their Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2015 season, a streak of five straight missed postseasons, despite their defensive performance. Defensive play tends to be significantly more inconsistent year-to-year than defensive play, but the Broncos have done a good job of not only keeping their defensive talent together, but patching up needs in free agency as well. They’re also well coached under Vic Fangio and are set to get long-time defensive stalwart Von Miller back from an injury that cost him all of 2020.

In 2020, the Broncos ranked 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.15%, but ranked 31st in first down rate over expected at -4.01%, only ahead of the lowly Jets, leading to the Broncos going just 5-11 and ranking 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.86%. Drew Lock, their latest attempt at solving the quarterback position, has been largely disappointing since the Broncos selected him in the 2nd round in 2019, completing 59.1% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions across 18 starts, while finishing 35th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in the first extended action of his career in 2020. 

Lock was the single biggest reason for the Broncos’ struggles as he actually had decent talent around him on offense, a supporting cast that will be better in 2021 when #1 receiver Courtland Sutton returns from a season ending torn ACL suffered in week 1 of last season, to go with what looks like once again a strong defense. As bad as Lock was last season though, the Broncos’ offense was even worse when he was out of the lineup, with Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien were horrendous in his absence, not to mention converted wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who started when their whole quarterback room was out with COVID. 

The only upgrade the Broncos have added so far this off-season is veteran Teddy Bridgewater, acquired in a trade with the Panthers. Bridgewater is a low end starter, but he could represent a noticeable upgrade on Lock and should be considered the heavy favorite for the job unless Lock unexpectedly takes a big step forward in year two. Bridgewater could also serve as a cheap stopgap quarterback for the Packers in a trade with Aaron Rodgers if that move ends up going through. 

A first round pick in 2014 by the Vikings, Bridgewater’s career was derailed by an injury prior to the 2016 season that effectively cost him two full seasons and led to him not earning a starting job back until 2020, after spending two years as a backup with the Saints from 2018-2019. Bridgewater has mostly earned middling grades from PFF in 21 starts since returning from his injury, 15 with the Panthers last season and 6 in place of Drew Brees with the Saints, and he completed 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.36 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions over those starts. He’s had strong offensive supporting casts around him in both locations, but this isn’t a bad offensive supporting cast either, as I’ll get into later.

Bridgewater is also on a very team friendly deal, with the Broncos paying him just 4.415 million as part of a re-negotiated deal, after the Panthers paid him 24 million for just the 2020 season and then had to pay another 7 million to deal him away and get out of the rest of his guaranteed money this off-season. That contract is a big part of the reason why the Broncos were able to add talent in free agency this off-season, especially on defense, as they are able to spend more money on their supporting cast than most teams. This is unlikely to be a Super Bowl contender with Bridgewater, but even if they don’t trade for Rodgers, the Broncos could easily be a playoff contender in the AFC with Bridgewater likely to be a significant upgrade on Drew Lock, who will likely slot in as the backup in 2021.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, Courtland Sutton is expected to return from the torn ACL that cost him almost all of last season. Sutton was a 2nd round pick in 2018, posted a 72/1112/6 slash line (2.08 yards per route run) despite suspect quarterback play in 2019, and is still only in his age 26 season, so his return is obviously reason to be optimistic for this receiving corps, but it isn’t the only reason, as the Broncos have an overall young receiving corps that could take a big step forward around Sutton as well. The Broncos used their first round pick in 2019 on tight end Noah Fant and then followed that up by taking wide receivers in the first and second round in 2020, selecting Jerry Jeudy and then KJ Hamler, and all three players could take a step forward in 2021.

Jeudy led this group with a 52/856/3 slash line last season, but he was pretty inefficient, doing so on 113 targets, catching just 46.0% of the balls thrown his way. Quarterback play was part of the problem and Jeudy makes up for it somewhat with just 16.5 yards per catch average and his 14.6 average depth of target, but he was also responsible for 12 drops. If he can clean up his drops in his second season in the league, he could be a lot more efficient with a more accurate quarterback, although he probably won’t see the same target share with Sutton returning and could see his depth of target decrease with a quarterback who prefers short and intermediate routes.

Fant also had a solid season, with a 1.64 yards per route run average that ranked 8th among tight ends. He still isn’t much of a blocker, but ranked 15th overall among tight ends on PFF overall, despite his lack of blocking.  That was a significant step forward from his rookie year, when he looked very raw and ranked just 39th out of 44 eligible tight ends on PFF overall. He also has the upside to be even better in his third season in the league, especially if you factor in likely better quarterback play, in what will still only be his age 24 season. 

KJ Hamler, on the other hand, struggled mightily last season, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and posting a 30/381/3 slash line with 7 drops, giving him just as bad of a drop rate as his Jeudy. Overall, he was PFF’s 119th ranked wide receiver out of 122 eligible and he had a hard time earning regular playing time as well, playing just 521 snaps in 13 games. He also dealt with injuries, which could have been a big part of the problem and, even if they weren’t, he has the upside to be a lot better in year two.

With Hamler struggling, it was 2017 undrafted free agent Tim Patrick who was the #2 option in Sutton’s absence and, even though he was behind Jeudy with a 51/742/6 slash line, he averaged a higher yards per route run (1.71) and yards per target (9.39). Patrick is a one-year wonder though, only playing 681 in his career snaps prior to last season, and, even though he went undrafted just a few years ago in 2017, he’s already in his age 28 season, so even if he repeats last season’s performance, he has likely peaked. The good news, however, is that he won’t be needed nearly as much, with Sutton returning and their young pass catchers likely taking a step forward. 

Sutton is a one-year wonder in terms of the level of production he had in 2019 and he is coming off of a serious injury, but he’s still young and he’ll be a full year removed from the injury by the start of the regular season. He could have a career year if he’s healthy and playing at his potential, as he’ll have arguably the best quarterback of his career even if it’s just Teddy Bridgewater. His re-addition gives them a true #1 wide receiver and allows them to go four deep at the wide receiver position. They also added Seth Williams in the 6th round of the draft, but it’s hard to see how he factors into the mix in year one, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. 

The Broncos also have another promising young tight end behind Fant on the depth chart. Albert Okwuegbunam wasn’t as high of a draft pick as the other young receivers the Broncos have, but the 2020 4th round pick was selected relatively high and flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, averaging 2.28 yards per route run, albeit while playing just 86 snaps in 4 games due injuries, including a torn ACL that ended his season. 

Okwuegbunam is still very unproven and the injury doesn’t help matters, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him carve out a solid role as the #2 tight end behind Fant and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Nick Vannett, who was the #2 tight end in Okwuegbunam’s absence last season, finishing 57th out of 62 eligible tight ends across 361 snaps in 15 games. With better health and more experience, this young, talented receiving corps could take a big step forward in 2021 and should give Teddy Bridgewater or whoever starts at quarterback plenty of weapons to work with.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Broncos signed ex-Chargers running back Melvin Gordon in free agency last season, bringing him in on a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal that was surprising for a lot of reasons. For one, it didn’t seem like Gordon had a market at that level. He had an impressive 5.06 YPC average on 175 carries while adding a 58/476/4 slash line through the air in just 12 games in 2018, but aside from that finished below four yards per carry in his four other seasons out of five with the Chargers, who selected him in the first round in 2015. Gordon held out for a big contract after that 2018 campaign, but didn’t get it and, after struggling again in 2020, it seemed his chances of getting a big contract were slim, but the Broncos gave him a contract that makes him the 8th highest paid running back in the league and was functionally 100% guaranteed.

On top of that, the Broncos already had a runner in Phillip Lindsay who had rushed for over thousand yards in back-to-back seasons, since joining the Broncos as a gem of an undrafted free agent in 2018. In total, Lindsay rushed for a total of 2,048 yards and 16 touchdowns on 416 carries (4.92 YPC) over his first two seasons, while finishing above average with carry success rates of 49% and 50% respectively. Adding a more powerful complement for the 5-8 190 pound Lindsay made sense, but they didn’t seem to have the need to commit significant money to a free agent. 

At the very least, the Broncos did seem to have a solid running back duo going in 2021, even if Gordon was an unnecessary overpay, but they didn’t even get good results out of the two. Gordon averaged 4.59 YPC on 215 carries and Lindsay averaged 4.25 YPC on 118 carries, which isn’t terrible, but it was well below Lindsay’s average from the previous two seasons and both running backs did a horrible job of keeping this offense on schedule, with carry success rates of 44% and 40% respectively that ranked 4th worst and worst respectively among eligible running backs in 2020, which was as big of a part of this team’s offensive struggles as Drew Lock and the passing game.

The Broncos could have kept Lindsay on a second round tender for 3.384 million, in hopes of a bounce back, but instead they let him sign with Houston on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, leaving Gordon as the clear lead back. They signed ex-Viking Mike Boone, who has a career 5.34 YPC on 71 career carries in three seasons in the league that suggests he might have the upside to have a bigger role than he’s had in the past, but Boone might not get that chance in Denver, with the Broncos then using the a second round pick North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, investing more capital into the running back position to go with Gordon. 

Williams has the upside to be a three down back long-term and Gordon is in the last year of a contract he likely would have already been released from if not for guaranteed money, so it wasn’t a bad pick, but it just further calls into question why Gordon was signed in the first place. Williams has a good chance to beat Gordon out for the starting role and be the lead back in this offense, even if Gordon is unlikely to see his role disappear completely. Boone, meanwhile, will slot in as a likely infrequently used 3rd running back in a backfield that is decently talented and can’t do a worse job of keeping this offense on track than a year ago.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Broncos’ offensive line was a big part of the problem on the ground last season, as they ranked 28th on PFF in run blocking grade, but they were better in pass protection and were led by the biggest bright spot on this offense, left tackle Garett Bolles, who finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 15 games. For some this came as a massive surprise, as Bolles was best known for his penchant for committing penalties, a league leading 45 from 2017-2019.

However, the 2017 1st round pick always had a huge upside and, for all of his issues with penalties, he otherwise didn’t allow much pressure on the quarterback, allowing just 10 sacks and 16 hits over his first three seasons in the league combined and earning above average grades from PFF in every season, despite his penalties, including a 16th ranked finish in 2019. If he could ever get the penalties cleaned up, he had the upside to be one of the best left tackles in the league.

In 2020, the penalties came down to 7, but that wasn’t it as Bolles didn’t allow a sack all season, allowed just 6 hits on the quarterback, dominated in the run game, and was one of the best offensive linemen in the whole league. The addition of legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a big part of the reason for his sudden improvement and, while he might not be quite as good again in 2021, Munchak is still around and Bolles could easily remain one of the top offensive tackles in the league, even if he declines a little.

The Broncos’ biggest problem upfront last season was rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry, who looked more like a 7th round rookie than a 3rd round rookie, finishing as PFF’s worst ranked center out of 39 eligible. He could be better in 2021, but it could just be by default and the Broncos aren’t waiting around for him to develop, using another 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a center, taking Quinn Meinerz. 

I think Meinerz has a better chance of being a solid starter for this team long-term, not only because he doesn’t have a terrible rookie year under his belt, but because he is the kind of small school prospect who was hurt by the reduced draft process and could have gone in the first or second round in a normal year. The Broncos will have a full competition in training camp between the two, but Meinerz seems like the better option. By default, center should be a position where they are better in 2021 than 2020 and they could be a lot better if Meinerz is able to have a solid rookie season.

The Broncos were also hoping for better play at the right tackle position, where they got middling at best play from a trio of different starters in the absence of highly paid right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who opted out of the season. However, James tore his achilles earlier this off-season and, while there is a chance he could return late in the season, it won’t be in Denver, as the Broncos voided the remainder of James’ contract because of the injury, which happened while he was training away from the team, under the recommendation of the NFLPA, but against the advice of the NFL.

It’s an unfortunate blow for James, who was set to make 10 million guaranteed this season, in what would have technically been the second year of a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal, but that contract was an overpay from the start, as James was a solid at best starter in the first five seasons of his career with the Dolphins and missed 18 of 80 games with injury over those five seasons. James actually only played 63 snaps for the Broncos, as he missed most of 2019 as well, before opting out in 2020 and, even with the Broncos able to void the rest of his contract and not having to pay him during his opt-out, they still paid him more than 17.15 million in what was overall a disastrous free agent signing for the team.

The Broncos used some of the money they saved by moving on from him to sign veteran replacement Bobby Massie to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Massie is plenty experienced and has generally been an average or better starter across 110 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but he comes with his own injury concerns, missing 14 of 32 starts over the past two seasons and now heading into his age 32 season as well, so he seems like a strong candidate to decline. 

Massie could remain a solid starter, but he never ranked higher than 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF, so he’s not declining from that high of a ceiling. He could work as a stopgap, but there is downside here and their best alternative is swing tackle Cameron Fleming. Fleming has made 42 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is a solid reserve option, but he would likely struggle as a season long starter, as he did in 2020, when he ranked 76th out of 93 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts with the Giants.

At guard, starters Dalton Risner (left) and Graham Glasgow (right) both return. Risner was a 2nd round choice in 2019 and has impressively made all 32 possible starts at left guard in his career, but he hasn’t been more than an average starter yet. That could change in year three though and, even if he doesn’t, he’s still unlikely to be a weakness. Glasgow, meanwhile, was signed on a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal last off-season and, while his first year wasn’t bad, he only ranked 22nd among guards on PFF, so he didn’t quite live up to what he was paid. 

Glasgow ranked 10th among guards in 2019 though, so he could be better in 2021 than he was in 2020 and, even if he isn’t, he hasn’t finished worse than 22nd among guards in his last three seasons at guard in 2017, 2019, and 2020, with a solid season at center in 2018 in between, so he has a high floor. He’s unlikely to be moved back to center, not only because guard seems to be a better position for him, but also because they don’t have another starting caliber guard, with their top reserve being 2020 6th round pick Netane Muti, who struggled mightily in two rookie year starts. This isn’t a great offensive line overall, but it’s not a big weakness either, especially if they can get decent play at center and right tackle to complement what should be average or better play elsewhere.

Grade: B+


Edge Defenders

The Broncos had injury issues on offense last season, but were even more beat up on defense, which makes their strong performance on that side of the ball even more impressive. Not only did they lose a significant amount of games to injury, leading to the Broncos having the 7th most adjusted games lost to injury overall of any team in the league last season, but those injuries also disproportionately affected their most important players, most notably a season ending injury suffered before the season even began by arguably their best defensive player, long-time defensive star Von Miller.

Even though this defense played pretty well without him, it’s hard to overstate how important Miller has been to this defense over the past decade, since the Broncos selected him #2 overall in 2011. In 9 seasons prior to missing last year, he totaled 106 sacks, 122 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate in 135 career games, while playing at a high level against the run and finishing in the top-4 among edge defenders on PFF overall in each of his first 8 seasons in the league.

That being said, Miller’s best days are likely behind him. Not only is he coming off of a significant injury, but he was declining a little bit before the injury, only ranking 22nd among edge defenders on PFF in 2019, and now he heads into his age 32 season and could easily continue declining further. I wouldn’t expect him to fall off completely and, even not at his best, Miller should still be an above average option playing in an every down role, but he probably won’t have the All-Pro caliber year we are used to seeing him have. He’s still obviously a huge re-addition for this defense though.

The Broncos also used a high pick on an edge defender in 2018, taking Bradley Chubb with the 5th overall pick, passing on franchise quarterback Josh Allen in the process. Chubb was supposed to give them a dominant bookend opposite Von Miller, but, while he hasn’t been a bad pick, he’s actually gotten to see very little action at the same time as Miller over the past two seasons, between Miller’s 2020 injury and Chubb’s 2019 ACL tear that cost him all but 4 games. 

The only significant action they saw together was Chubb’s rookie year in 2018, when they both made all 16 starts and combined to total 26.5 sacks. Miller led the way with 14.5 sacks, to go with 11 hits and a 12.6% pressure rate and, while Chubb’s numbers weren’t much more, with 12 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, Chubb benefited significantly from Miller drawing frequent double teams opposite him and in fact Chubb only finished 23rd among edge defenders in pass rush grade on PFF, while Miller ranked 3rd.

Chubb didn’t play well before the injury in 2019 and, coming off of a serious injury, without Von Miller opposite him drawing double teams, there was some concern about Chubb in 2020, but he responded well, totaling 7.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate, despite much more frequent double teams, while finishing 14th among edge defenders in pass rush grade. Chubb has left something to be desired against the run in his career, but he’s a better pass rusher now than he was as a rookie, despite his sack totals not telling that story, and he has the upside to be even better in 2021, which could help offset some of Von Miller’s decline. I wouldn’t expect Chubb and Miller to combine for quite as much pass rush productivity in 2021 as they did in 2018, but they should be a tough edge defender duo to stop.

With Chubb drawing more frequent double teams last season, it made life easier for Malik Reed, who started in Miller’s place and actually led the team with 8 sacks. His peripheral pass rush stats, 8 hits and a 8.4% pressure rate, leave something to be desired though and suggest that his sack total was mostly the result of being in the right place at the right time on a good defense with a disruptive player like Chubb opposite him. Reed still played the run well, as the 2019 undrafted free agent did as a rookie when he played a smaller role (468 snaps), but his career 8.4% pressure rate is very underwhelming and, with Chubb and Miller hopefully both healthy in 2021, there isn’t much need for Reed to see significant snaps. He’ll likely only be an early down rotational option, a role he could fare well in.

Miller, Chubb, and Reed are a strong top trio, but the Broncos do have depth problems beyond them at this position, with last year’s top reserves Jeremiah Attaochu (414 snaps) and Anthony Chickillo (164 snaps) no longer with the team and only 2020 7th round pick Derrek Tuszka (27 snaps) and 2021 7th round pick Jonathon Cooper as depth options in case injuries strike their top-3 again. It may be a top heavy group, but it’s a talented one, as Chubb and Miller can be the top edge defender duo in the league if both are healthy and play up to potential, even if Miller isn’t quite what he was in his prime.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Absences were also a significant problem on the interior for the Broncos’ defense, as they had a whopping 8 different interior defenders play 140 snaps or more and none of them played all 16 games. It was a masterful job of coaching by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio and his staff to get strong play overall out of a constantly rotating group of players. Jurrell Casey, a highly paid trade acquisition from last off-season, lasted just three games before suffering a season ending injury while Mike Purcell, a key run defender on the Broncos’ 2019 defense, lasted just 6 games. 

Shelby Harris was their best player at the position, ranking 8th among interior defenders on PFF, but he was limited to just 441 snaps in 11 games. Dre’mont Jones led the group with 560 snaps and also played at a high level, ranking 26th among interior defenders on PFF, but he also missed three games. Casey was released this off-season ahead of 11.9 million owed in non-guaranteed money and, even though he remains available as of this writing, he is not expected to return to Denver for what would be his age 32 season. However, Purcell, Harris, and Jones are all expected back healthy and are expected to be the Broncos’ three starters in their base 3-4 defense.

Harris is going into his age 30 season, but he could remain the best of the bunch. The 2014 7th round pick was a late bloomer, not seeing significant action until 2017 and, even since 2017 he’s averaged just 496 snaps per season, but part of that was the time he missed last season, the only five games missed of his previous 4 seasons, and Harris has played at a consistently high level whenever on the field, including a 636-snap season in 2019 when he finished 19th among interior defenders on PFF. 

Harris also finished 35th in 2017 and 10th in 2018, so his strong play isn’t a fluke. He’s a strong run defender, who also consistently gets to the quarterback, with a 8.3% pressure rate in his career and 15.5 sacks and 20 hits over the past four seasons combined. If he can play around the snap total he played in 2019, that will be a big boost for this defense, especially if he plays up to his potential as well. Even if he declines a little, now in his 30s, he should remain an above average every down option.

Dre’mont Jones also should be an above average every down option, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2019 who flashed on 283 rookie year snaps before taking a step forward in a bigger role in year two in 2020. After posting a 10.5% pressure rate, but struggling against the run as a rookie, Jones improved his run defense to about a league average level in year two and remained an effective pass rusher in a larger role, with 6.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate. Even if he just repeats what he did last season, he’ll be an asset for this defense, but he has the upside to be better in year three, only his age 24 season. He’s a very promising young interior defender.

Purcell is the most limited of the three, but the Broncos really only need the 6-3 328 pounder to be a base package run stuffer, primarily lining up on the nose. His pass rush is non-existent, with a career 3.2% pressure rate and the only season in which he exceed 289 snaps was 2019, when he still only played 416 snaps as primarily a base package run stuffer, but he was PFF’s #1 ranked interior defender on PFF in that season and, while he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, he remained a solid run stuffer before getting hurt in 2020 and could easily remain at least an effective base package option in 2021, assuming he doesn’t totally fall off in his age 30 season or get hurt again.

The Broncos also have intriguing depth options, including one diamond in the rough that they discovered throughout all their injuries upfront, DeShawn Williams, who played 436 snaps in 14 games and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender, while earning above average grades as a run defender and pass rusher (7.3% pressure rate). Williams is a complete one-year wonder, having only played 57 snaps in his career prior to last season, despite going undrafted all the way back in 2015, so there is no guarantee that he continues playing at the level he played at last season, but like with Purcell and, to some extent Harris, the Broncos and Vic Fangio seem to have a way of getting the best out of certain interior defenders, even if they are late bloomers with no real prior track record of success. Even if he doesn’t play as well as he did last year, he could be a valuable reserve and rotational option.

The Broncos other reserve options include McTelvin Agim, a 2020 3rd round pick, and low end veteran free agent addition Shamar Stephen. Agim has upside, but he only played 141 snaps as a rookie, despite all of the other injuries the Broncos’ had, and he struggled in that limited playing time. Stephen, meanwhile, is plenty experienced, averaging 32.1 snaps per game over 98 games in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s never been a good pass rusher, with a career 2.9% pressure rate and his run defense, which used to be above average, has fallen off in the past couple years and now he heads into his age 30 season. Agim and Stephen aren’t terrible reserve options, but they do come with obvious concerns. Still, this is a deep and talented position group overall. 

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One group that was healthy in 2020 for the Broncos were their starting off ball linebackers AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell, who not only made all 16 starts, but played almost literally every down, playing all but 25 snaps and 77 snaps respectively. Both also played well, finishing 17th and 26th among off ball linebackers on PFF. Johnson is another late bloomer on this defense, but took a different path to this team than the rest, as he was a highly touted draft prospect while in college, but was kicked off the team after being charged with rape and went undrafted and unsigned for three seasons until being acquitted in 2018. 

The Broncos gave him a chance and were rewarded, as he took over the starting job in week 5 of 2019 and ranked 3rd among off ball linebackers in a 12-game stretch in 2019. He didn’t play quite that well in 2020, but he had a strong enough season to prove that 2019 wasn’t a total fluke. Because he got off to a late start to his career, he is now in his age 30 season, but he isn’t necessarily about to start declining.

Jewell, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2018. While he flashed in 674 snaps in his first two seasons in the league combined, he’s a one-year wonder as an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue playing at an above average level in that role in 2021. The Broncos have minimal need for depth at the position, but they upgraded their depth as well, using a 3rd round pick on Ohio State’s Baron Browning, likely a sign that they don’t plan to re-sign both Johnson and Jewell next off-season, when both will be free agents. This is a solid position group overall and they’re reasonably well prepared for one of their starters potentially missing time, which could still happen, even though neither one did so in 2020.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Broncos’ one real weakness on this defense last season was their cornerbacks. Slot cornerback Bryce Callahan played at a very high level, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback, but he was limited to 10 games by injury. They traded for the highly paid AJ Bouye last off-season to be their top outside cornerback, but he struggled across 410 snaps in 7 games in an injury plagued season and the rest of the bunch wasn’t much better, as they had four cornerbacks all play more than 250 snaps and see significant action outside and all four finished below average on PFF.

However, the Broncos addressed the position in a big way this off-season. First they released AJ Bouye to free up 11.47 million and used that savings and the cap space they had from not committing significant money to the quarterback position to sign Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency to contracts worth 30 million over 3 years and 9.5 million over 1 year respectively, both of whom should be upgrades. 

Not finished adding at the position, the Broncos then used the 9th overall pick on Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, who could spend his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, but is likely to start long-term, with Fuller only on a one-year deal. With Callahan hopefully to be healthier this season, the many cornerbacks who struggled for the Broncos last season are going to have to fight to even make this roster as special teamers and reserve options.

Surtain will also provide injury insurance, which could be necessary because Ronald Darby, while he has shown a high upside when healthy, has also dealt with a lot of injuries throughout his 6-year career, missing 23 of 96 games and being limited in several others. It seemed like Darby’s injuries might have gotten the best of him when he finished just 129th among 135 eligible cornerbacks in PFF in 2019 across just 506 snaps, but he bounced back in a big way in 2020, finishing 14th among cornerbacks, his fifth above average season in six seasons in the league, with his previous best seasons coming in 13th (2015) and 17th (2017). Still in his prime in his age 27 season after all those injuries, he could continue being an above average cornerback if healthy, but he does come with some downside as well.

Fuller has been healthier, making all 64 starts over the past four seasons, but he’s been inconsistent, ranking 29th in 2017 and 8th in 2018, but earning only middling grades from PFF in two seasons since, leading to the Bears releasing him ahead of his 14 million owed in non-guaranteed money this off-season. He’s only in his age 29 season though, so he has the upside to bounce back, especially now that he is reunited with Vic Fangio, who was his defensive coordinator for his best years in Chicago and, even if he doesn’t bounce back, he should remain at least an average starter.

Bryce Callahan probably has the most upside of the bunch, but he comes with some downside as well, as injuries continually have gotten the best of him in his career, costing him 41 of 96 games in six seasons in the league, with at least three games missed in every season, and now he heads into his age 30 season. It’s a shame because he’s arguably been the best slot cornerback in the league over his last three healthy seasons, finishing 26th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, 11th in 2018, and 3rd last season, while allowing just 0.69 yards per route run total on the slot across the three seasons. 

Callahan might not repeat his career best year from 2020, now on the wrong side of 30 with a concerning injury history, but I wouldn’t expect him to fall off significantly. If he can be healthier, that will be a big benefit for this defense and, even if he does miss time again, the Broncos are better prepared this time around. Not only is Patrick Surtain likely to be their 4th cornerback, but they also have last year’s 3rd round pick Michael Ojemudia, who struggled mightily on 852 rookie year snaps, but has the upside to be better as a reserve in year two. This is a very deep group.

While cornerback was a weakness last season, safety was definitely a strength, with starters Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons making all 16 starts, playing all but 5 snaps, and finishing 6th and 9th respectively among safeties on PFF. Jackson is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, and could take a step back this season, but the long-time veteran, who was a solid if unspectacular starting cornerback in his prime, has found a second life as a safety in the past three seasons, finishing in the top-8 among safeties on PFF in all three seasons, so even if he does decline, he still has a good chance to be an above average every down option.


Simmons, meanwhile, is very much in the prime of his career, in his age 28 season. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Simmons flashed high levels of play for stretches early in his career, but was inconsistent, before putting it all together in a 1st ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019, before following that up with another strong season in 2020. Franchise tagged after his dominant 2019 campaign, the Broncos opted to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 61 million dollar extension this off-season, after seeing Simmons prove it again. 

Simmons is now the highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary, but he’ll be worth it unless he falls off unexpectedly. The Broncos also used a pair of fifth round picks on safeties Jamar Johnson and Caden Sterns, who will provide depth, although either one would likely be a significant drop off if they had to see action. This is a very talented secondary overall though, with the Broncos upgrading their cornerbacks to match their dominant safety duo.

Grade: A

Conclusion

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the Broncos in 2021, even if they aren’t able to acquire Aaron Rodgers. Teddy Bridgewater is a low end starting quarterback, but he should be an upgrade over Drew Lock. He also has a young receiving corps that gets their #1 receiver back from injury and should be better around him, and his offensive line and running game seem likely to be better as well. They still have an underwhelming offense, but they should be noticeably better than last year’s 31st ranked finish in first down rate over expected.

Their defense was already good last season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed over expected, but they are getting arguably their best player Von Miller back from injury and they significantly upgraded their only real weakness at cornerback. Defense is always tougher to predict than offense, but the Broncos have consistently been an above average group for years, Vic Fangio consistently gets the most out of his players and coaches his defenses to above average finishes, and, at least on paper, the Broncos have arguably the most talented defense in the league. If they can be close to that good on that side of the ball, that will take a lot of pressure off of their offense. 

In many ways, this team reminds me of the Buccaneers last off-season. I had them as the favorites to land Tom Brady if he left New England because of how good their supporting cast was and how they were a quarterback away from being true contenders. I didn’t expect Brady to actually leave New England, but I thought the Buccaneers could be a playoff team even with a lesser upgrade at the quarterback position, such as Philip Rivers or another quarterback who was a free agent at the time, Teddy Bridgewater, who is now in Denver with an almost equally good supporting cast. 

I don’t actually expect Rodgers to leave Green Bay, but the Broncos could be a playoff team with Bridgewater and they are almost definitely the favorite to land Rodgers if he does get traded, in which case the Broncos could easily win the whole thing. Their supporting cast is as good as any team in the league and they are legitimately a quarterback away from being a top contender. I will have a final prediction for the Broncos at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

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