Denver Broncos 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos were just 7-10 last season, but things were better than that suggests. The Broncos were 7-6 and in the middle of a close game with the Bengals when they lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the rest of the season with a concussion, leading to the Broncos losing their final four games of the season. Bridgewater was also knocked out of an eventual loss to the Ravens earlier in the season, so the Broncos were actually 7-5 last season in games that Bridgewater started and finished. Bridgewater also was far from their only key player who missed time last season, as the Broncos had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Despite that, the Broncos actually finished with a positive point differential at +13, suggesting they still were better than their 7-10 record, even with all of the talent that was sidelined.

Bridgewater was unspectacular, completing 66.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while finishing 21st among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, but he was significantly better than backup Drew Lock, who completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while finishing 32nd among quarterbacks on PFF. Still, with Bridgewater set to hit free agency this off-season, the Broncos were in the market for an upgrade and they found one when the Seahawks decided to trade them their long-time franchise quarterback Russell Wilson for two first round picks, two second round picks, a fifth round pick, and three players, including Drew Lock, as well as starting tight end Noah Fant and talented defensive lineman Shelby Harris.

The Seahawks moved him because he is highly paid (51 million over the next two seasons) and getting up there in age (age 34 season), while the Seahawks are seemingly hitting the reset button and undergoing a rebuild, but Wilson was consistently one of the best quarterbacks in the league throughout his 10 years in Seattle and has yet to show many signs of slowing down. In total, Wilson has completed 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 292 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions in his career, while rushing for 4,689 yards and 23 touchdowns on 846 carries (5.54 YPC), and finishing in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in seven of ten seasons.

Wilson missed three games with a finger injury last season, but he had never missed a game with injury in his entire career prior to that and returned from a 6-8 week injury much quicker than expected. Wilson wasn’t quite the same immediately upon his return, but after his first three games back, he returned to form. If you exclude those first three starts after his return, Wilson completed 67.7% of his passes for an average of 8.24 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while earning PFF’s 10th highest grade among quarterbacks over those games.

Athletic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson tend not to age as well, as their athleticism declines, and Wilson is coming off by far his worst rushing season in terms of carries (43) and yards (183), but he should remain at least an above average quarterback for another season, even if he doesn’t bounce back as a runner. He significantly elevates the ceiling of a Broncos team that has a lot of talent around the quarterback and that is clearly in win now mode, after giving up a significant amount of draft capital. 

One thing the Broncos still need to do is find a better backup quarterback, with Brett Rypien currently in line to be the #2 quarterback. Rypien was undrafted in 2019 and has thrown just 42 passes in three seasons with the Broncos, posting a 61.2 QB rating, so he would be a very underwhelming option if Wilson were to go down. Rypien’s only competition right now is career journeyman Josh Johnson, the other quarterback on their roster, who has made just 5 starts over the past 10 seasons. Even with the backup quarterback situation though, the Broncos are still in an enviable situation under center.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One position group where the Broncos had significant injury absences was wide receiver, where Jerry Jeudy missed 7 games and KJ Hamler missed 14 games. Fortunately, the Broncos had a lot of depth at the wide receiver position going into last season and wide receivers Courtland Sutton (58/776/2) and Tim Patrick (53/734/5) led this group in receiving with Jeudy and Hamler missing time. All four should be healthy going into 2022, so this is a deep group, even if they lack a true #1 receiver.

Sutton and Patrick had pretty underwhelming 1.43 and 1.48 yards per route run averages, in part because of their inconsistent quarterback play, but Jerry was significantly better at 1.85 yards per route run, so getting a full season out of him should be a boost for this offense. That would especially be true if the 2020 1st round pick takes a step forward in his third season in the league, still only in his age 23 season. 

Jeudy also had a 1.66 yards per route run average as a rookie, so he’s flashed a lot of potential so far, and he has the upside to be a #1 receiver long-term. Hamler was also drafted early in 2020, taken in the second round, but he hasn’t shown much so far, averaging just 1.18 yards per route run. Hamler still has upside, but coming off a torn ACL doesn’t help and he figures to open the season as the clear #4 receiver, unless injuries strike ahead of him on the depth chart.

Sutton has been a #1 receiver for the Broncos in the past, surpassing the 1000 yard mark with a 72/1112/6 slash line in 2019 (2.08 yards per route run), in just his second season in the league. That made it seem like he’d be a #1 receiver for years to come, but he tore his ACL early in 2020 and did not seem to be the same upon his return in 2021, even if he didn’t miss a game. He has a lot of bounce back potential though, now another year removed from the injury, especially now that he has a significant upgrade under center.

With Jeudy and Sutton possessing the most upside of the bunch, Tim Patrick will likely settle in as the #3 receiver, a role he’s a little overqualified for. The 2017 undrafted free agent didn’t do much early in his career, but he’s had back-to-back solid seasons for the Broncos, with slash lines of 51/742/6 and 53/734/5 respectively and an average of 1.59 yards per route run over those two seasons. He probably won’t match the target totals he had in 2019 (79) and 2020 (85), with Jeudy and Sutton likely to command significantly more targets than him, but he also gets an upgrade at quarterback, so he could still remain a productive player in a smaller role.

Wilson won’t have the benefit of tight end Noah Fant, who went the opposite way in the trade with Seattle. Fant had a solid season as a receiver, averaging 1.52 yards per route run, but he struggled as a blocker and the Broncos have a good internal replacement for him in Albert Okwuegbunam. A 2020 4th round pick, Okwuegbunam hasn’t gotten to play much thus far in his career, limited to 86 snaps by injury as a rookie and then playing 421 snaps as Fant’s backup last season, but he’s flashed a lot of potential as a receiver, averaging 2.02 yards per route run. He’s not much of a blocker either and he’s a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up as an upgrade over Fant as a receiver.

The Broncos will still miss Fant though, as they won’t be able to pass out of two tight end sets as effectively as they did last season. They used a 3rd round pick on UCLA’s Greg Dulcich, but he might be too raw to have a big role as a rookie, so the Broncos could lean on veteran Eric Tomlinson as the #2 tight end. Tomlinson is a capable blocker, but has never been much of a receiver, with 18 career catches in 54 games in the league. The Broncos will likely use more three and four wide receiver sets to make up for their lack of tight end depth, but they have plenty of wide receiver depth and Okwuegbunam has the upside to be an above average receiving option.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Broncos also had a lot of injuries on the offensive line last season, as they didn’t have a single starter play all 17 games, missing a total of 16 games across the five starters. All five starters earned average or better or grades from PFF, so they played well when healthy, and they return four of those five starters, so if they can stay healthier, they have a good chance to be an above average unit. The one change they made was at right tackle, where free agent Bobby Massie was not retained and was replaced by free agent acquisition Billy Turner, which is essentially a lateral change.

Also capable of playing guard, Turner has been a capable, if unspectacular starter over the past four seasons, making 54 starts in total. His age is a concern, now going into his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off, so he has a good chance to remain at least a capable starter. If he struggles, he would likely be replaced by fellow veteran free agent acquisition Tom Compton, a versatile player who should provide depth across the board. Compton has never made more than 14 starts in a season in 10 seasons in the league (44 total starts) and now heads into his age 33 season, but he’s played well when depended on, finishing above average on PFF in three of the past four seasons, doing so both at guard and at tackle.

Compton won’t be the Broncos’ only talented reserve either, as they have four starting caliber players competing for three starting spots on the interior of their offensive line. Graham Glasgow and Lloyd Cushenberry were the Broncos starters at right guard and center respectively going into last season, with 3rd round rookie Quinn Meinerz serving as a reserve, but Glasgow was limited to 384 snaps by injuries, opening the door for Meinerz to play 623 snaps as a rookie and he fared pretty well, finishing 38th among guards on PFF.

At center, Cushenberry made the most starts of any Broncos offensive lineman with 16, but the 2020 3rd round pick was a middling starter, after struggling mightily in 16 rookie year starts, so Meinerz could be an upgrade on him. The Broncos could also keep Meinerz at guard and move Glasgow inside to center, where he has some experience earlier in his career. Another option they have is just moving Glasgow to the bench, which could happen if he doesn’t play well in training camp, coming off of a broken leg and going into his age 30 season.

Signed to a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, Glasgow was a consistently above average starter throughout his time in Detroit, whether he played guard or center, but, in two seasons in Denver, he’s been limited to 20 games total by injury and he’s mostly been a middling starter. The Broncos only kept him this off-season after he cut his expected 9.5 million dollar salary down to 3.2 million and, even if he can bounce back from his most recent injury, the Broncos might not have a starting spot for him, on a deep offensive line.

Left guard Dalton Risner is the most secure in his role of any of the Broncos’ interior offensive linemen, having earned an average or better grade from PFF in three seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2019 (47 of 49 possible starts), including a career best 31st ranked finish on PFF in 15 starts in 2021. He should have another solid season. The Broncos also bring back reserve Netane Muti, who has been underwhelming in four career starts in two seasons since the Broncos took him in the 6th round in 2020 and who will likely be further down on the depth chart on a deeper offensive line this season.

The best player on this offensive line is left tackle Garett Bolles, who finished 26th among offensive tackles on PFF last season, after a 4th ranked season in 2020. Bolles was a first round pick in 2017 and struggled mightily with penalties early in his career, so much so that the Broncos declined his 5th year option for 2021, despite the fact that he allowed just 14 sacks in 48 starts in his first three seasons in the league. 

Bolles’ 45 penalties from 2017-2019 led the league over that stretch, but he’s committed just 15 in two seasons since, leading to the Broncos keeping him on a 4-year, 68 million dollar extension long-term. As long as he can continue to avoid penalties, Bolles should remain one of the best offensive tackles in the league again in 2022. He’ll be backed up by Calvin Anderson, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has just five career starts, but who flashed a lot of potential in 172 snaps last season. This is a deep offensive line without any clear weaknesses in the starting five.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The strength of this offense last season was their running game, as they had a pair of running backs in Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams who both were effective on over 200 carries, leading the team to a 4.45 YPC average, 10th best in the NFL. It looked like the Broncos would lose Gordon this off-season, but they re-signed him as a free agent and they did so relatively cheaply, on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A second round pick last season, Williams could take on a larger percentage of the carries in year two and the Broncos are unlikely to rely on their running backs as much with Russell Wilson being added, but both backs should still have a significant role on this offense and they could find more running room now that the passing game is more of a downfield threat.

Gordon turned his 203 carries into 918 yards (4.52 YPC) and 8 touchdowns and ranked 16th in the NFL in carry success rate (55%), while Williams had a slightly lower YPC average on an identical amount of carries, rushing for 903 yards and 4 touchdowns (4.45 YPC) and a lower carry success rate (48%), but averaged more yards after contact than Gordon (3.42 vs. 3.12), broke more tackles (63 vs. 48). and was the more effective player in the passing game (1.21 yards per route run vs. 0.86). Overall, both finished above average on PFF, with Gordon ranking 15th among running backs on PFF and Williams ranking 18th at the position.

Gordon is a 7-year veteran who has surpassed at least 150 carries in every season in the league, rushing for 4.16 YPC and 53 touchdowns on 1,477 career carries. He used to be used more in the passing game earlier in his career with the Chargers (284 career catches for 2,244 yards and 12 touchdowns), but has not been as involved since joining the Broncos two off-seasons ago. Williams figures to be the primary passing down back again, but both players will play a big role in both situations. The Broncos also have Mike Boone as the #3 running back and he’s averaged 5.52 YPC on 75 career carries in four seasons in the league. He could be a decent fill-in if either running back missed time with injury. This is a talented backfield.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Broncos finished last season 10th in defensive efficiency, which is even more impressive when you consider that arguably their three best players and their three highest graded players on PFF all didn’t finish the season with the team, with Alexander Johnson (323 snaps) and Josey Jewell (82 snaps) going down for the season with injury and Von Miller (328 snaps) getting traded to the Rams for a second and third round pick, ahead of his pending free agency this off-season. 

The Broncos replaced Miller by signing ex-Cowboy Randy Gregory to a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal with 28 million guaranteed in free agency this off-season. Gregory comes with plenty of risk, as a soon-to-be-30-year-old who missed all of 2017 and 2019 with suspension and who has never played more than 14 games or 457 snaps in a season due to disciplinary and durability problems, but Gregory has been heavily effective when on the field, especially as a pass rusher, and he could prove to be a good value if he can keep on his recent play. 

For his career, Gregory has had a 12.7% pressure rate and he’s been especially good over the past two seasons since getting his life on track, totaling 9.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate in 22 games, while finishing 11th and 18th among edge defenders in overall grade on PFF in the two seasons respectively. He’s also missed 11 games over that stretch and it’s unclear if he can hold up as the 600-700 snaps per season type player that the Broncos are paying him to be, but he could easily prove to be a worthwhile risk.

Gregory will start opposite Bradley Chubb, who is coming off of a very disappointing season, being limited to 268 snaps in 7 games by injury and struggling when on the field, with 0 sacks, 4 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate. Chubb also was limited to 233 snaps in 2019 by injury, but the 2018 5th overall pick has shown a lot of potential when healthy, totaling 19.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate in 30 games between 2018 and 2020, and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential. He also has all the financial incentive in the world to perform this season, going into the final year of his rookie deal, with a big payday in free agency likely awaiting him if he can bounce back. Gregory and Chubb both come with risk, but they have the potential to be an above average edge defender duo.

The Broncos have good edge defender depth too, especially after using their second round pick on Oklahoma edge defender Nik Bonitto. The Broncos also have Jonathon Cooper (457 snaps) and Malik Reed (737 snaps), who saw significant roles last season with Chubb missing a lot of the season and Miller getting traded. Cooper was a 7th round pick in 2021 and, while he didn’t show much as a pass rusher as a rookie, with 2.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.7% pressure rate, he excelled as a run defender. I don’t know if he’ll ever develop into a starter, which rarely happens from a 7th round pick, but he should provide decent depth again. Reed, an undrafted free agent in 2019, is a similar player, generally earning above average grades from PFF for his run defense, but totaling just 15 sacks, 17 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate in 45 career games. This group has a lot of potential and depth, but their starters come with a lot of risk.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Shelby Harris was traded to the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson trade and the Broncos will miss him, especially as a pass rusher, with him totaling 6 sacks, 5 hits, and a 9.0% pressure rate last season, a great rate for a player who almost exclusively lines up on the interior. With Harris gone, Dre’Mont Jones will likely be the Broncos’ top interior defender, after playing 560 snaps and 614 snaps over the past two seasons respectively. The 2019 3rd round pick doesn’t hold up well against the run, but he’s an effective interior pass rusher, with 15.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate in three seasons in the league. He also may still have untapped potential, only heading into his age 25 season.

Harris will effectively be replaced by free agent signing DJ Jones, who comes over from the 49ers on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. A 6th round pick in 2017, Jones has developed into a capable player and is coming off the best season of his career, playing 550 snaps and earning above average grades for his run defense and pass rush. If he keeps that up, he should be worth what the Broncos are paying him, but, prior to last season, he had never earned more than a middling overall grade from PFF for a season, nor had he ever played more than 420 snaps in a season, so he’s not a guarantee to repeat the best season of his career. Either way, Jones should have a significant role as a starter alongside Dre’Mont Jones.

The Broncos didn’t retain reserve Shamar Stephen (393 snaps), but they will bring back fellow reserves Mike Purcell (361 snaps) and DeShawn Williams (386 snaps). Purcell is strictly a base package nose tackle and has just a 3.3% career pressure rate, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF for his run defense in three straight seasons and the Broncos won’t need him to play much more than the limited role he’s played in recent years. Going into his age 31 season, there’s some possibility his run defense drops off, but he has a good chance to remain a useful rotational player.

Williams, meanwhile, is more of a pass rusher than a run stopper (career 7.7% pressure rate), but he declined across the board in 2021 and finished below average on PFF, after a surprise breakout year on 436 snaps in 2020. Williams played just 57 career snaps between going undrafted in 2015 and his 2020 breakout season, so there was always skepticism that he would be able to repeat that performance. Now going into his age 30 season, he has a little bounce back potential, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he kept struggling, especially against the run.

The Broncos also have some young prospects competing for reserve roles, as they drafted Eyloma Uwazurike in the 4th round and Matt Henningsen in the 6th round in this past draft and have 2020 3rd round pick McTelvin Agim. Agim has shown nothing in two years in the league, struggling mightily across just 231 career snaps, and the selection of two defensive linemen in this year’s draft isn’t a good sign for Agim’s long-term chances, but he still theoretically has upside. None of the young players figure to see significant action early in the season, but they could be forced into a larger role by injury. This group will miss Shelby Harris, but it’s still not a bad group overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker is the position where the Broncos were the most affected by injury last season, as every down linebackers Josey Jewell and AJ Johnson both played at a high level when on the field, but were limited to 82 snaps in two games and 323 snaps in six games respectively. Both were free agents this off-season and the Broncos only retained Jewell, replacing Johnson with ex-Eagle Alex Singleton. A late bloomer who didn’t play a defensive snap between going undrafted in 2015 and his first career defensive action in 2020, Singleton has plenty of tackles over the past two seasons (257 total), but he struggles mightily in coverage and has only earned middling overall grades from PFF in both seasons, despite his high tackle totals.

Singleton was only signed to a 1-year deal worth 1.115 million, so it’s possible he could see some competition from the Broncos’ reserve linebackers, who were forced into larger roles last season in the absence of Jewell and Johnson. Baron Browning led this group with 528 snaps played last season, doing so in just 10 games, and he held up pretty well for a third round rookie, earning a middling grade from PFF. He will probably be a reserve, but has the best shot of anyone to push Singleton for a starting role.

Justin Strnad (314 snaps) and Jonas Griffith (255 snaps) also played significant roles for this team down the stretch. Griffith, undrafted in 2020, flashed as a run stuffer in his first career action, but didn’t hold up as well in coverage and would be a projection to a larger role, so I wouldn’t expect a significant snap total from him, while Strnad, a 5th round pick in 2020, struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career and would not seem to be a strong candidate for a larger role. Still, with Browning in the mix as a reserve option, the Broncos have better linebacker depth than most teams.

Josey Jewell, meanwhile, re-signed on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal this off-season, so he should be locked into his role as an every down linebacker. If Jewell plays like he did last season before he got hurt, when he was PFF’s 7th ranked off ball linebacker across the first two weeks of the season, then he’ll be a steal at that price. While that’s unlikely, as he’s never shown that over the course of a full season, even if he plays like he did in 2020 he should be a good value.

In 2020, he finished 17th overall among off ball linebackers on PFF and played the 14th most snaps by an off ball linebacker with 1,011, showing himself to be the kind of linebacker who can hold up in coverage and against the run. It’s concerning that he’s coming off of a significant injury, but he had missed just one game in three seasons prior to last season and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so he isn’t a major injury risk. He elevates an overall middling linebacking corps, albeit one with above average depth.

Grade: B

Secondary

With Von Miller no longer with the team, the best player on this defense is probably safety Justin Simmons, who has consistently been one of the best players in the league at his position over the past three seasons, finishing 1st, 9th, and 18th among safeties on PFF over the past three seasons respectively. The 2016 3rd round pick also finished in the top-30 among safeties in two of his first three seasons in the league too, before breaking out as an elite safety in 2019. Still only going into his age 29 season, having not missed a game in four seasons, Simmons should remain one of the top safeties in the league again in 2022 and could be even better than in 2021, which was actually a down year compared to 2019 and 2020.

Kareem Jackson was once an elite safety alongside Simmons, finishing 5th, 8th, and 6th at his position on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, 2018 with the Texans and then 2019 and 2020 with the Broncos, but he’s getting up there in age, going into his age 34 season, and dropped off significantly in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 88th ranked safety out of 98 eligible. As a result, Jackson had to take a paycut down to 2 million this off-season and he may not even be guaranteed his starting spot. 

Caden Sterns was the third safety as a 5th round rookie last season and, while he was nondescript on 311 snaps, the Broncos may view him as a future starter and he could take Jackson’s starting job with a strong pre-season. The Broncos also used a 5th round pick on Jamar Johnson last year and a 4th round pick on Delarrin Turner-Yell in this year’s draft, but Turner-Yell would likely be overmatched in significant playing time as a rookie, while Johnson didn’t get on the field for a defensive snap as a rookie, so it’s unlikely either plays a big role this season. Jackson is the favorite to keep his job and may have some bounce back potential, but he also could decline even more or he could cede his starting job to an inexperienced young player.

At cornerback, the Broncos made a couple changes, with a pair of players who played significant roles last season, Kyle Fuller (719 snaps) and Bryce Callahan (504 snaps), no longer with the team. Fuller struggled mightily last season though, finishing 127th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, so losing him will be addition by subtraction, while the Broncos made a lateral move to replace Callahan with K’Waun Williams, signed as a free agent from the 49ers on a 2-year, 5.2 million dollar deal.

Like Callahan, Williams is an undersized and injury prone cornerback who excels on the slot, where the 5-9 185 pounder has played 86.6% of his career snaps. Williams never played in all 16 games once in eight seasons in the league and has missed 38 games total in his career, but he’s also earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season. Going into his age 31 season, there’s some concern that he’s coming off of a career worst grade from PFF in 2021, only earning a middling grade across 647 snaps, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued declining, but he also could remain a solid slot option for at least another season.

The Broncos didn’t replace Fuller, so, instead, they’ll be hoping they can get a healthier season from starting cornerback Ronald Darby, who missed 6 games last season. That’s probably wishful thinking though, as Darby has been injury prone throughout his career like Williams and Callahan, missing 29 games in 7 seasons in the league, including 26 over the past 5 seasons, while only playing in every game once. Darby is generally an above average player when healthier, finishing above average on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, but he’s also struggled through injuries in the past, resulting in some poor play on the field, especially in 2019, when he was PFF’s 129th ranked cornerback out of 135 eligible. He’s talented, but not the most reliable player.

If Darby misses time, he’ll likely be replaced by 2020 3rd round pick Michael Ojemudia, but he struggled mightily across 852 snaps as a rookie, finishing 114th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, before only playing 85 snaps last season. He could face competition from 4th round rookie Damarri Mathis for the top reserve outside cornerback role, but Mathis also would likely struggle if he had to play significant snaps as a rookie. 

Williams, meanwhile, will likely be backed up by 2020 undrafted free agent Essang Bassey, who struggled across 382 snaps as a rookie, before playing just 11 snaps last season. The Broncos also signed veteran Blessuan Austin, who struggled 16 games with the Jets from 2019-2020, but struggled so much in 2020 that he played just 149 snaps in 2021. The Broncos have questionable depth for a team with injury prone starters.

The Broncos’ best cornerback and de facto #1 cornerback will likely be Patrick Surtain, who they selected 9th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Surtain joined a group of veteran cornerbacks and only played 16 snaps in week one, but moved into the starting lineup week two and started the rest of the way except one game he missed, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF across 900 snaps in the process. 

Surtain has the upside to be better in year two and a big breakout year is certainly a possibility, given his immense upside, still only in his age 22 season. There are some questions in this secondary, with Williams and Darby being injury prone, Kareem Jackson coming to the end of his career, and the depth being questionable, but Patrick Surtain and Justin Simmons lead a group that has the upside to be above average if enough things go right.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Broncos had one of the worst special teams units in the league last season, finishing 30th in special teams DVOA. Kicker Brandon McManus and punter Sam Martin had solid seasons, but they didn’t have a single core special teamer finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF and their return game was among the worst in the league, especially their kickoff return unit, which ranked dead last with just 16.2 yards per return on the season. 

The Broncos did add Montrell Washington, who scored five times in his collegiate career, albeit against underwhelming competition at Samford, but, aside from that, not much has changed in this group, with the Broncos still lacking any high level core special teamers. Especially if Washington doesn’t make much of an impact as a rookie, this could remain among the worst special teams units in the league this season and it could be tough for Washington to make an impact if he doesn’t get help from his supporting cast.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Broncos were a decent team last season, despite being one of the most injury affected teams in the league. This season, they should be healthier and they get a big upgrade under center with Russell Wilson replacing Teddy Bridgewater. Their defense probably won’t be as good this season, because former head coach Vic Fangio got the most out of that unit and is no longer with the team, but their offense should be a lot better and could be one of the best in the league, led by new coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was previously the offensive coordinator in Green Bay.

The Broncos are a legitimate contender, but unfortunately they play in the much tougher AFC and share a division with two of the best teams in the league in the Chargers and Chiefs, as well as another playoff contender in the Raiders. The Broncos are well-positioned to at least get a wild card berth, but they’ll have a hard time getting through the loaded AFC in the playoffs. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Denver Broncos (7-9)

The Broncos had the talent to be a playoff team this season, but they had more than an average amount of player absences, which kept them from reaching their potential. It started early in the season on defense, with their talented middle linebacker duo of AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell both suffering season-ending injuries that limited them to 6 games and 2 games respectively. Talented edge defender Bradley Chubb never suffered a season-ending injury, but he’s played just 6 games due to a variety of injuries, plus time missed with COVID. On top of that, starting cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby were limited to 10 games each. 

With a banged-up defense and the team looking unlikely to make a playoff push, the Broncos traded away Von Miller and his expiring contract at the trade deadline for draft picks, a smart move in the long-term, but another big loss for this defense. However, this team was still in the playoff mix at 7-6 before losing possibly their most important player, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, an unspectacular, but steady quarterback who was replaced by erratic backup Drew Lock, who has overseen the Broncos’ fall out of the playoff race at 7-9. 

Their offense was relatively healthy compared to the defense, aside from season ending injuries suffered by wide receiver KJ Hamler and right guard Graham Glasgow after three games and nine games respectively, as well as seven games missed by starting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and three games each missed by starting offensive tackles Garret Bolles and Bobby Massie, but they couldn’t handle the loss of Bridgewater, which sunk the Broncos’ offense, leaving a depleted defense unable to pick up their slack.

Bridgewater remains out for what is now a meaningless week 18 game for the Broncos, aside from the opportunity to hurt the Chiefs’ playoff seeding, and the Broncos will be even more short-handed than they have been, with a trio of starters in the secondary, safety Kareem Jackson and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain, expected out in this game. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are relatively healthy as a team and are overall one of the best teams in the league, with an offense that ranks 1st in schedule adjusted efficiency, a special teams that ranks 2nd, and a defense that has been much better since a terrible start to the season when they were missing key personnel and that is much more talented on paper than their 28th ranked defensive efficiency. 

Even with their underwhelming defensive efficiency, the Chiefs still rank 2nd in overall mixed efficiency, while the Broncos rank 22nd and are even worse than that now given all they are missing. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of line value in the past week, with this line creeping up to Kansas City -11.5, despite the Chiefs’ last-second loss to the Bengals. My calculated line still favors the Chiefs by 14, but there isn’t enough here for the Chiefs to be bettable at this high number. One thing to keep an eye on is that both the Broncos’ kicker and punter are in COVID protocols and the Broncos have yet to sign a replacement for either. They do expect both players to clear before gametime, but if one doesn’t, it would leave the Broncos in a tough situation, one that might make the Chiefs’ bettable if this line doesn’t skyrocket. 

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11.5

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (7-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)

The Chargers lost on the road in Houston in embarrassing fashion to one of the worst teams in the league, with a final score of 41-29 as 12.5-point road favorites. There are plenty of reasons to expect the Chargers to bounce back this week though. For one, their loss last week was largely the result of losing the turnover battle, as they won the yards per play battle (+0.49) and first down rate battle (+2.86%). 

The Chargers will also be healthier than they were last week, with top edge defender Joey Bosa, stud center Corey Linsley, talented starting wide receiver Mike Williams, and feature back Austin Ekeler all back in the lineup. Teams tend to bounce back from big upset losses anyway, covering at a 57.3% rate all-time after a loss as favorites of 10 points or more, as teams tend to be much more focused after getting embarrassed by a bad team.

The Chargers also get another easy game this week, as the Broncos will be the team with the significant injury issues in this game, rather than the Chargers. The Broncos only lost by four to the Raiders last week, but they lost despite winning the turnover battle by three and they lost the first down rate battle (+13.30%) and yards per play battle (+1.15) by significant amounts, especially struggling on offense in the first start of the season for backup quarterback Drew Lock. 

Lock will start again this week, but he’ll be without at least two of his top wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, as well as starting right tackle Bobby Massie. Meanwhile, their defense is expected to be without talented edge defender Bradley Chubb and stud slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, on a unit already missing a trio of talented players who began the season with the team, AJ Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Von Miller. 

The Broncos could also be without top wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who reportedly could also go on the COVID list with Jeudy and Patrick, giving Drew Lock an even thinner receiving corps. The Chargers aren’t 100% either, as they could be missing a pair of starters in the secondary in Chris Harris and Nasir Adderley, but even if they are out and Sutton plays, I still have the Chargers favored by 10 points. If they play and Sutton doesn’t, my calculated line moves to -13. I want to lock this one in at -7.5 before the line potentially increases and I may increase this play before gametime.

Update: The Broncos will likely have Sutton for this game, but the Chargers are getting Harris and Adderley back, while Broncos interior defender Mike Purcell is out, meaning the Broncos will also be without at least two (DeShawn Williams) of their interior defenders and possibly a third if Dre’Mont Jones, who is questionable, is unable to go. This line hasn’t moved from 7.5, but I am glad to have bet the Chargers at that number, as the disparity in player absences between these two teams is massive.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Denver Broncos 13

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (7-7) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

The Raiders are 7-7, but they have a 4-2 record in one-score games and a 3-0 overtime record, so they could easily have a couple more losses. On top of that, their point differential of -75 is significantly worse than would be expected for their record and ranks just 25th in the NFL overall. That would normally suggest they are worse than their record, but they have faced a tough schedule overall and have largely underperformed on third and fourth downs relative to their early down performance, which tends to even out in the long run. 

The Raiders rank 15th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 28th and 16th respectively in third and fourth down conversion percentage and just 27th and 30th respectively in both third and fourth down conversion percentage allowed. In terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the Raiders rank 15th overall. Their offense has been noticeably worse since losing top wide receiver Henry Ruggs and stud tight end Darren Waller, but they still have an above average defense and are still better than their point differential.

The Broncos have a much better point differential at +42, but rank just 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency. The Broncos are also dealing with a key injury absence as veteran starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is out with a concussion and will be replaced by inconsistent young backup Drew Lock, who will almost definitely be a significant downgrade. Despite the Raiders having the higher schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and a healthy starting quarterback at home, this line is even. 

Not only is that line too low, but it’s also the exact same line as the early line a week ago, despite the Bridgewater injury, which came in a Broncos home upset loss to the Bengals. The oddsmakers and public clearly were not impressed with the Raiders narrowly winning in Cleveland against a COVID depleted team last week, but that game would not have been as close if the Raiders had not lost the turnover battle by two, which is not a predictive metric. In terms of first down rate and yards per play differential, which are much more predictive and are the basis for efficiency ratings, the Raiders had the edge by significant margins. 

My calculated line has the Raiders favored by 3.5 points, so we are getting a lot of line value with them on an even line, line value that would increase in the somewhat likely case that talented Raiders cornerback Nate Hobbs gets cleared from the COVID list before this game. I am not locking in a lot of games until gameday morning because of all of the COVID uncertainty this week, but this is one I’m comfortable betting now because neither team is having much of a COVID outbreak and the line value is too significant.

Las Vegas Raiders 21 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas PK

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) at Denver Broncos (7-6)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams are 7-6 and in the playoff mix a year after finishing well below .500 and both teams have point differentials that are better than their records, with the Bengals at +61 and the Broncos at +47. However, both teams have also faced among the easiest schedules in the league. In schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank 21st, 17th, and 15th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively, while the Broncos rank 18th, 5th, and 29th and have a slight edge in mixed efficiency, ranking 17th, about a point ahead of the 19th ranked Bengals.

My roster rankings still have the Bengals about a point better though, mostly due to the Bengals’ significant edge at the quarterback position. The Broncos have performed about evenly with the Bengals, despite their significant quarterback disadvantage, but my roster rankings suggest they have overachieved to do so. The Bengals have a pair of significant absences in this game, missing starting right tackle Riley Reiff and top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, but the Broncos are shorthanded as well, missing a pair of key front seven players Malik Reed and Dre’mont Jones, as well as talented right guard Graham Glasgow.

The line, favoring the Broncos by a full field goal at home, suggests they are the slightly better team, but I think it’s the other way around, so we’re getting some line value with the Bengals, who I have calculated as just 1-point underdogs. It’s not enough to bet on the Bengals confidently and I still have the Broncos winning straight up, but the Bengals should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes as these two teams are no worse than even and this line suggests the Broncos are the slightly better team.

Denver Broncos 27 Cincinnati Bengals 26

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3

Confidence: Low

Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (1-10-1) at Denver Broncos (6-6)

I have picked the Lions in recent weeks, betting them frequently, as winless teams tend to be a good bet late in the season and, in fact, the Lions have now covered in five of their last six games, after last week’s upset win over the Vikings. However, now the Lions are not winless anymore and they could be in a bad spot after an emotional upset victory, as teams cover at just a 41.0% rate after a win as home underdogs of 5 points or more. The Lions could easily still be overlooked though, especially by a Broncos team that is coming off a tough loss to the Chiefs and now gets an easy opponent before another tough conference matchup against the Bengals. 

Teams cover the spread at just a 42.7% rate as favorites of a touchdown or more before facing an opponent with a winning percentage over 50% higher than their current opponent, which applies in this situation and effectively cancels out the Lions’ bad trend. On top of that, part of the reason why teams tend to struggle after a big home upset wins is because they become overrated off of overreaction to a single week of play, but the Lions went from being 8.5-point underdogs on the early line last week to now being 10-point underdogs this week, despite the Broncos looking underwhelming in Kansas City. 

That’s partially because the Lions will be without a pair of key offensive playmakers in running back Jamaal Williams and tight end TJ Hockenson, after already losing running back DeAndre Swift the week before, but my calculated line still has the Broncos favored by just a touchdown at most, despite the Lions’ injury absences. Even though the Lions have a terrible record, they haven’t been blown out much, as just three of their 12 games have ended in a defeat by more than 10 points, which is important, considering this line is at 10. 

The Broncos are unlikely to be the team that pushes that number to four. The Broncos started 3-0 against a weak schedule, winning all three games by double digits, but they have lost key players like Von Miller, Josey Jewell, AJ Johnson, and Graham Glasgow since then and have slipped to 6-6, while ranking just 21st, 4th, 29th, and 19th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency. The Lions, despite their league worst record, rank 25th, 28th, 9th, and 27th respectively, about four points behind the Broncos. This isn’t worth a big play, but I would expect this to be another relatively close game for the Lions, who are not as bad as their record.

Update: The COVID absences have continued for the Lions, with safety Tracy Walker and edge defender Julian Okwara being the most notable of the players who were also ruled out after Jamaal Williams. I am regretting locking this in at 10, as the line has since shifted to 11, and even at 11 I don’t know if I would be confident in the Lions, given how short-handed they will be this week.

Denver Broncos 23 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Detroit +10

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (6-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

Many people wrote the Chiefs off when they got off to a 3-4 start, but there were always reasons to expect they would turn around. For one, the Chiefs started the season with the arguably toughest schedule in the league. They also struggled mightily in the turnover margin, starting the season with a -11 turnover margin through their first eight games. Turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and common sense suggested that the Chiefs, with one of the top quarterbacks in the league, would not continue to rank among the league worst in turnover margin, especially since so many of their interceptions came off tipped passes. 

On top of that, the Chiefs’ offense was still moving the ball as well as they ever had, with their defense dragging down the team’s performance significantly, as they were arguably the worst in the league to begin the season. Defense is the less predictive side of the ball, however, and the Chiefs had significant injury issues on that side of the ball early in the season, with safety Tyrann Mathieu, edge defender Frank Clark, interior defender Chris Jones, and cornerback Charvarius Ward all missing time. 

Their defense is now healthy, with all four of those players in the lineup, as well as a key mid-season addition in Melvin Ingram. The Chiefs’ turnover margin has also stabilized (+4 their past three games) and now they get to an easier part of their schedule as well. The Chiefs are on a 4-game winning streak and, looking at their remainder of their schedule, it’s possible they don’t lose a game the rest of the way if they stay healthy and play turnover neutral football. 

Even if they do lose another game, I don’t expect it to be this one, at home, coming out of a bye week, against a mediocre Broncos team. Denver is 6-5, but three of their wins were against terrible teams early in the season, when the Broncos were a lot healthier. In total, they are missing edge defender Von Miller, middle linebackers Josey Jewell and AJ Johnson, right guard Graham Glasgow, running back Melvin Gordon, and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who all began the season as key contributors for this team. Even including their solid start, the Broncos rank just 21st, 4th, 29th, and 20th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency on the season.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, rank 1st on offense and 2nd on special teams, with their 31st ranked defense being much improved in recent weeks, but having their rank dragged down by how terrible they were to begin the season. If their defense can even be an average unit the rest of the way, the Chiefs are among the toughest teams in the league and should still be considered the favorites to come out of the AFC. My calculated line has the Chiefs as 12.5-point favorites, so we’re getting value with the Chiefs at -9.5. It also helps that Andy Reid has been one of the best coaches in NFL history when given extra time, going 34-21 ATS in week one games and games following bye weeks in his career. This is my top pick this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -9.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (6-4) at Denver Broncos (5-5)

The Broncos started 3-0 and, while all three games were against mediocre at best opponents, they won all three in convincing fashion, winning all three by double digits. However, since then, the Broncos have lost five of their last seven games to fall to 5-5. Part of the problem is their schedule got tougher, but they still have faced a below average schedule overall and, even when adjusted for schedule, their performance has dropped off significantly. The culprit has been injuries, as the Broncos have lost as much talent to injury since the beginning of the season as any team in the league. 

In total, the Broncos are without a trio of offensive linemen, stud left tackle Garret Bolles, starting right tackle Bobby Massie, talented starting right guard Graham Glasgow, talented edge defender duo Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, every down middle linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, talented starting safety Kareem Jackson, and impressive slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who all played for this team week one this season. It’s possible Chubb returns this week, but he seems to be no better than 50/50 and, at the same time, Shelby Harris, their top interior defender, seems legitimately questionable as well and could miss his first game of the season, which would be a big absence.

The Broncos did beat the Cowboys in Dallas in a convincing win a few weeks ago, but that was more due to Dak Prescott not being 100%, stud left tackle Tyron Smith being out for the Cowboys, and the Cowboys being flat after giving their best effort to beat the Vikings in Minnesota without Prescott the week prior. That win is likely a big part of the reason why the Broncos remain overrated, but their only other win in their past seven games was a one-score game against Washington in which the Broncos blocked a pair of field goals and, missing all they are missing, I have the Broncos 4 points below average in my roster rankings right now.

Despite that, they are underdogs of less than a field goal at home against the Chargers, who are 2.5 points above average in my roster rankings. The Chargers only have one win by more than one score this year, after their only two wins by more than one score last year came in a meaningless game against the Chiefs backups and a game against the eventual 1-15 Jaguars, but they are still a more talented team than a year ago and their lack of blowout wins this season likely stems from the fact that they have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league.

They only won by one-score last week against an injury depleted Steelers team, who were arguably the easiest opponent they have faced to date, but they won that game despite losing the turnover battle and having a punt blocked, which led to the Steelers cutting into what was a 14-point 4th quarter lead. Overall, the Chargers won the first down rate by 12.24% and the yards per play battle by 3.1 yards per play, both substantial amounts. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Chargers rank 4th, 17th, and 32nd respectively on offense, defense, and special teams respectively on the season, while ranking 12th in mixed efficiency. 

The Chargers also have done that despite not having any real homefield advantage, frequently playing in front of crowds that mostly favor the road team. That has been the case since they moved to Los Angeles in 2017 and, as a result, Chargers are 21-13 ATS on the road and 13-22 ATS at home since moving to Los Angeles. The Broncos, meanwhile, rank 24th in mixed efficiency and are even worse now than that suggests because of all of the missing talent. The Chargers shouldn’t have too much trouble handling them in Denver, which makes them an intriguing bet in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover, with only about 8% of games decided by two points or fewer. 

I am leaving this as a low confidence pick for now and not placing a bet on the Chargers because of injury uncertainty, with not only the status of Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris up in the air, but the Chargers also possibly being without talented left guard Matt Feiler, who is reportedly a gametime decision and would be a big absence if he didn’t. Depending on the status of those three players and where this line ends up, I may update this pick and bet on the Chargers. Either way, they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Los Angeles Chargers 20 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -2.5

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (3-6) at Denver Broncos (5-4)

The Eagles are just 3-6, but they also have a +9 point differential, despite facing one of the tougher schedules in the NFL. All but one of their six losses have come to teams with a winning record, with the exception being a 49ers team that has played significantly better than their record suggests. The three easiest games the Eagles have faced this season were all victories for the Eagles, including a pair of blowout wins over the Lions and Falcons. The Broncos aren’t quite as bad as those two teams, who are among the worst teams in the league, but they fit much more in line with the teams the Eagles have beaten than the teams the Eagles have lost to.

The Broncos won last week in Dallas in shocking fashion, but I think that has more to do with the Cowboys not showing up than anything the Broncos did. This is still a team that has won just two of their last six games since starting 3-0 against a very easy schedule, with the other being a one score win over a mediocre Washington team in a game in which Denver blocked a pair of field goals, and they still have a significant amount of key players no longer with the team since their hot start. 

In total, the Broncos are without stud left tackle Garret Bolles, above average starting right guard Graham Glasgow, talented edge defender duo Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, every down middle linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, and impressive slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, all of whom started for the Broncos week one. Without those players, the Broncos still rank well below average in my roster rankings, about five points below average, even despite their upset win last week.

If anything the Broncos’ win last week just puts them in a bad spot this week, as it could be tough for the Broncos to maintain that same effort two weeks in a row, especially with a team with a losing record coming to town. Teams cover at just a 41.2% rate all-time after a win as double digit underdogs, as teams tend to be a combination of flat and/or overvalued by the public and odds makers in that situation. In this case, it seems like both, as we are getting a ton of value with the Eagles at +2.5. My calculated line has the Eagles favored by 4 points, even before taking into account that the Broncos could be flat. This is my favorite play of the week.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 Denver Broncos 17 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +2.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 Week 9 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (4-4) at Dallas Cowboys (7-1)

The Broncos are 4-4, but they’ve had one of the easiest schedules in the league and have yet to beat a team that has more than two wins on the season. On top of that, three of those four wins were the first three games of the season. Those wins all came by double digits, but the Broncos have had as many injury absences as any team in the league since then and, as a result, they are not nearly the same team, barely beating an underwhelming Washington Football Team last week. 

In total, the Broncos are without stud left tackle Garret Bolles, starting tight end Noah Fant, talented edge defender duo Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, every down middle linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson, and impressive slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who all played for this team week one this season. That’s a lot of missing talent. The Cowboys are favored by 10 points in this matchup, but I don’t think the public quite realizes how much worse the Broncos are without all of the players they are missing, as my calculated line has the Cowboys favored by 13.5 points. 

The Cowboys have a key injury absence with stud left tackle Tyron Smith out, but the Cowboys are much better equipped to deal with an absence like that than the Broncos are with Bolles out, as the Cowboys have much more talent on the rest of this offensive line. Right tackle La’El Collins isn’t as good as Smith, but he has missed most of the season and the Cowboys hardly missed him and brought him back in a reserve role because of how well this offensive line played without him. Now Collins can plug into the lineup with Smith out and the Cowboys can still field a strong offensive front. 

This line has moved up from 7.5 last week on the early line to 10 this week, so we’re not getting as much line value as we would have last week, but the Cowboys did have an impressive upset win in Minnesota last week without Dak Prescott and much of this line movement is because of sharp action on the Cowboys. The Cowboys are still worth a bet at 10, and if this line happened to go back down below 10, I would probably make this a bigger bet.

Update: Some 9.5s have started showing up again Sunday morning. I am going to lock this in as a high confidence pick at that number. The talent disparity between these two teams is just so much more significant than this line suggests, with the Broncos losing so much talent since the beginning of the season.

Dallas Cowboys 31 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas -9.5

Confidence: High