Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 7 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-3) at Cleveland Browns (3-3)

The rule of thumb in these Thursday games is to take a home favorite in a non-divisional matchup, as historically it has proven tough for inferior teams to travel on a short week and face a superior team that is out of their division that they are unfamiliar with. Overall, non-divisional home favorites cover at a 65% rate on Thursday nights, as long as both teams are on normal rest. The Browns are only favored by a point here, suggesting that the visitors are the superior team, but I think this line is way off.

Both teams are 3-3, but the Browns have been much better overall. Their three losses came against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Cardinals, who are all among the top teams in the league, with a combined record of 13-5 and no losses to opponents who are worse than 4-2, and two of those teams were decided by one score and could have gone either way. The Browns’ strength of schedule isn’t that impressive, but they went into Minnesota and won by a touchdown against a Vikings team that is better than their 3-3 record, while their wins over the Texans and Bears came in blowout fashion, with the Browns winning the first down rate battle by 11.26% and 18.86% respectively in those games and the yards per play battle by 1.02 and 4.24 respectively. 

The Browns’ one blowout loss, their loss to the Cardinals, did come just last week, which is concerning because the Browns were dealing with significant injury issues in that game that will carry over to this game, but the Broncos are equally banged up. The Browns are expected to be without starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, their two top running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, their stud right tackle Jack Conklin, possibly starting wide receiver Odell Beckham, and their most impressive linebacker this season, rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, while the Broncos have lost wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, edge defender Bradley Chubb, and inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson since the start of the season.

The common narrative is that the Broncos got out to a 3-0 start by facing weak competition and have fallen back to earth against tougher competition, but the Broncos largely dominated their weak competition and looked like a legitimately good team, while their tougher competition in recent weeks has only consisted of the Ravens, Steelers, and Raiders. It’s not just that their schedule has gotten tougher; they have legitimately played much worse the past few weeks and injuries are the primary culprit. 

This line has shifted from favoring the Browns by 6 points last week on the early line last week to a single point this week, largely due to the Browns injuries and their blowout loss last week, but it seems to ignore the Broncos’ injuries and their recent struggles, all against teams inferior to the Cardinals. When strength of schedule is taken into account, the Browns rank 16th in first down rate, 3rd in yards per play allowed, and 3rd in special teams DVOA, which are the most predictive metrics for each unit, while the Broncos rank 22nd, 23rd, and 25th. 

My roster rankings have these two teams closer together and overall the value of the Browns’ injured players is more than the Broncos’ injured players, but the Browns still have about a four point talent edge and are still in relatively good hands under center because backup Case Keenum is one of the better in the league. Add in their extra homefield advantage on a short week and the Browns should be favored by a lot more than a point in this matchup. This might be a Pick of the Week if this was a Sunday or Monday game, but I hate having my top pick on Thursday before I’ve gotten to review everything during the weekend, so I’m keeping this as a high confidence pick.

Cleveland Browns 23 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -1

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 6 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) at Denver Broncos (3-2)

In a normal situation, I would like the Raiders a lot this week, as 4-point underdogs in Denver. The Broncos got out to an 3-0 start, beating an easy schedule, but also winning by an average of 16.7 points. However, they have lost a lot of players to injury as the season has gone on and haven’t been the same team in back-to-back losses to the Ravens and Steelers. Most notably, wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, edge defender Bradley Chubb, and inside linebacker Josey Jewell have all gone down since the start of the season. 

The Raiders have also lost back-to-back games since a 3-0 start, but they don’t have as many key players missing due to injury and have the slight edge in my roster rankings overall, despite this line suggesting that the Broncos are the better of the two teams. The Broncos are also in a tough spot as they have to turn around and play a tougher game on a short week next week and favorites cover at just a 41.9% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football.

However, this is not a normal situation, with Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigning mid-week. This is not the first time a team has gone to an interim head coach mid-season, but this is really an unprecedented situation. Some teams find success after going to an interim head coach mid-season, but that typically happens when the previous head coach was ineffective and/or disliked, which was not the case for Jon Gruden up until the revelations of the past week made him incapable of leading this locker room.

Gruden was just 22-31 with the Raiders, but usually got the most out of an underwhelming roster and most notably led the Raiders to a 17-10 record in one score games. Gruden’s roster management decisions have been questionable at best, but the Raiders undoubtedly have a worse head coaching situation now than they did a couple weeks ago. We may see a better effort from the Raiders this week than they had last week against the Bears, when the Gruden situation was likely a distraction, but I don’t want to bet on it, even if we are getting good line value. The Raiders are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but aren’t bettable given the uncertainty over how they will respond.

Denver Broncos 19 Las Vegas Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +4

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2021 Week 5 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3)

Going into the season, I thought we could see the Broncos make a big jump in win total and at least compete for a playoff spot in the AFC. They upgraded their quarterback situation by adding Teddy Bridgewater and had a promising group of young receivers, while their defense seemed likely to improve due to significant upgrades at their biggest position of weakness, cornerback, as well as the re-addition of top edge defender Von Miller, who missed all of 2020.

The Broncos got off to a good start, winning their first three games and, even though they had a very easy schedule (Giants, Jaguars, Jets) they won all three games by at least 10 points and by an average of 16.7 points, so they were taking care of business and then some. Unfortunately, injuries have started to mount for this team, as wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, edge defender Bradley Chubb, and inside linebacker Josey Jewell have all gone down for an extended period of time just since week one.

The most impactful injury came in their week 4 loss to the Ravens, their first game against a capable opponent and their first loss of the season, a game in which the Broncos lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the game at halftime. Bridgewater will be back this week, but the Broncos were down 14-7 at the time Bridgewater went down and could have easily lost the game even if Bridgewater had stayed healthy, in part due to their other injury absences. On top of that, the Broncos could also be without another key wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who injured his ankle in Friday’s practice.

Fortunately, the schedule does get easier for the Broncos. The Steelers aren’t quite as bad as the three teams the Broncos beat easily to begin the season, but it’s clear their offense is no better than a year ago and, in fact may be worse, while their defense is still good, but not good enough to offset their offensive performance like they were last season, when the Steelers won a lot of close games against easy competition. 

The Steelers won week 1 in Buffalo, which was a big surprise at the time, but given the results of their past three games, it’s pretty safe to say that result was a fluke and that the Steelers will continue struggling to beat capable opponents. My calculated line has the Broncos favored by two points, which doesn’t give us much value, given that this line is actually at Denver -1.5, but there is not nearly enough here to bet on the banged up Broncos with any sort of confidence.

Denver Broncos 19 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Denver -1.5

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 4 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Denver Broncos (3-0)

The Denver Broncos have gotten off to a 3-0 and, while they have faced bad teams in all three games (Giants, Jets, Jaguars), they have won all three in convincing fashion, by an average of 20 points per game. This home matchup against the Ravens is their first real test and, while they could easily win, I would have liked their chances more before all of the injuries started piling up, with the Broncos already down starting wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, guard Graham Glasgow, edge defender Bradley Chubb, cornerback Ronald Darby, and inside linebacker Josey Jewell just since week one. My calculated line has them favored by a point rather than underdog of a point, as the actual line has, but that’s not nearly enough to bet on. The Broncos are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but nothing more.

Sunday Update: The line has moved to favoring the Broncos by a point now instead of the Ravens. I’ve also rethought this game slightly and see it as no more than a 50/50 toss up, given the opposite direction these two teams are moving in injury wise. Given that, I’m now taking the Ravens since we are at least getting a point with them, but I’m dropping all confidence on this matchup because that one point isn’t worth much.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Denver Broncos 23

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +1

Confidence: None

New York Jets at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 3 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-2) at Denver Broncos (2-0)

Coming into the season, I thought the Broncos could be a playoff team in the AFC, with an improved quarterback situation, a healthier and more experienced receiving corps, and a defense that got Von Miller back and significantly upgraded their biggest weakness at cornerback. They have started 2-0 and, while their schedule has been a big factor, as they’ve gotten to face the Giants and Jaguars, it was still good to see them take care of business, winning both games by double digits on the road.

The schedule doesn’t get any harder for the Broncos this week, as the pathetic Jets come to town for their home opener, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Broncos will cover this 10.5 point spread. Already at 2-0, the Broncos could overlook an 0-2 Jets team, especially with their first real game on deck, a game against the Ravens. Teams also tend to struggle when playing their first home game in week 3, covering at just a 33.3% rate in a week 3 home opener over the past thirty seasons. 

I’m not entirely sure why that is, but it does make some sense that teams would be tired after back-to-back home games to start the season and then relax a little in their home opener, leading to relative struggles. There is enough line value here for the Broncos to still seem like the right side, but I don’t have any confidence in them covering this big spread, as the Jets could easily make this game closer than expected, especially since the Broncos are without key players like Bradley Chubb and Josey Jewell.

Denver Broncos 24 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: Denver -10.5

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2021 Week 2 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (1-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1)

This line moved significantly from favoring the Broncos by 3 on the early line last week to now by 6 this week, as a result of the Jaguars losing convincingly in Houston and the Broncos winning convincingly in New York against the Giants. I wasn’t that surprised by either result, as I thought the Broncos could be playoff contenders if they could get capable quarterback play from Teddy Bridgewater, which they seem likely to get, while the Jaguars didn’t do enough to upgrade their supporting cast around rookie Trevor Lawrence. 

However, now with this line shooting up to 6, we’ve lost all line value with the Broncos and are now actually getting line value with the hosts, who I have calculated as 4-point underdogs. This seems like a runaway line that the odds makers can boost higher than it should be because they know the public will still bet on the road favorite, which they have, as the Broncos are one of the most bet sides in the league this week. I am not confident in the Jaguars, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, as a close game wouldn’t surprise me.

Denver Broncos 24 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +6

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at New York Giants: 2021 Week 1 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (0-0) at New York Giants (0-0)

The Broncos went just 5-11 last season, but they have a good chance to make a significant jump in win total. Their biggest problem last season was their turnover margin, dead last in the NFL at -16, but turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and the Broncos should at least stabilize their quarterback situation with Teddy Bridgewater being added. They also should be significantly better on defense, with Von Miller returning and significant upgrades being added at cornerback, which was by far their biggest position of weakness on defense last year.

However, the Giants are also an underrated team, with a solid defense and more talent being added around young quarterback Daniel Jones, who played better than his statistics show last season, facing tough competition in the first half of the season, getting minimal help from his supporting cast, and then trying to play with a significant hamstring in the second half of the season when they schedule became easier. The Giants might not be a playoff team, but they won’t be an easy team to face either, so they shouldn’t be underdogs of a field goal at home against the Broncos. This isn’t a big play, but there is enough value with the Giants for them to be worth betting.

New York Giants 17 Denver Broncos 16 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +3

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Season Preview


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-


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+


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


The Broncos special teams struggled overall last season, ranking 24th in special teams DVOA. They did have some strengths in their special teams unit though, most notably their place kicking, led by Brandon McManus, who made 24/27 on extra points and 28/34 on field goals, while finishing as PFF’s 12th ranked place kicker. He also excelled on kickoffs, ranking 4th on PFF in that aspect, but the Broncos finished with a well below average kickoff DVOA. 

The same is true of their punting unit, which got solid play from PFF’s 14th ranked punter Sam Martin, but finished well below average in DVOA. The culprit was poor special teams around their kicking specialists, which I will get into more later. The good news is both McManus and Martin remain and seem likely to have similar seasons, as McManus and Martin are veterans of 7 seasons and 8 seasons respectively and have finished below average on PFF just twice, so if the Broncos can improve around their kicking specialists, the Broncos have a chance to have a solid special teams unit.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

The other strength for the Broncos was their punt return unit, as primary returner Diontae Spencer was able to succeed despite issues around him on the return unit, averaging 15.8 yards per return on 16 returns, including a 83-yard score. Spencer struggled on kickoff returns, averaging just 18.7 yards per, but he has career averages of 23.9 yards per kickoff return and 11.0 yards per punt return, which are both above average, so he should be a good option in both roles in 2021, even if his numbers may be kept down by poor play around him.

Spencer could face some competition for the kickoff returner role from 2020 7th round pick wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, who outgained Spencer with 23.4 yards per on 10 returns, but the punt return job should be safe. KJ Hamler returned three punts as a rookie last season, second most on the team, but took them for just six yards and is expected to have a larger role in offense in 2021. This group isn’t great, but they are led by an above average returner in Diontae Spencer.

Grade: B

Special Teamers

The weakness of this unit last year was obviously their special teamers, leading to the Broncos’ issues with kickoff and punt coverage, as well as making life harder for their return men. The Broncos did what you want to see a team with terrible special teamers do, letting five of their top-11 in snaps played from a year ago leave this off-season and adding a trio of experienced special teamers in free agency, but it’s not clear they are going to be any better as a result.

Of the five players who left, Joe Jones (349 snaps) and Anthony Chickillo (144 snaps) were among their best special teamers in 2021 and, while their other three losses, Austin Calitro (230 snaps), Jeremiah Attoachu (145 snaps), and Alijah Holder (174 snaps) did not play that well, their replacements, running back Mike Boone (230 snaps in 2020), linebacker Peter Kalambayi (196 snaps), and linebacker Natrez Patrick (235 snaps), have all never been more than middling in their careers. 

The same is true of holdovers PJ Locke (364 snaps), Trey Marshall (276 snaps), Derrek Tuszka (174 snaps), Andrew Beck (172 snaps), and Royce Freeman (157 snaps), who are all likely to have big roles again in 2021. Their best returning special teamer is Josh Watson, but even he didn’t crack the top-100 among special teamers on PFF in 2020 and that was the best year of his career, so he’s their top special teamer really by default. Barring significant contributions from their rookies, this figures to be a weak group again, which will hold back the rest of this unit significantly. 


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.

8/8/21: The Broncos will not be getting Aaron Rodgers at least this season, but their projection has taken a hit for other reasons. For one, it seems like Drew Lock has a better chance to keep the starting job than expected, rather than the more stable Bridgewater. Their defense also ranked significantly worse in yards per play allowed than first down rate allowed and yards per play allowed is more predictive. The reason for the big difference was how many big plays this Broncos defense gave up last season and conceivably that should be fixed with the additions the Broncos made at cornerback, as well as the return of Von Miller, but I still may have overestimated the Broncos’ defense. The Broncos’ special teams also figures to be a big problem this season, which is more important than I originally realized. I am not that high on their playoff chances any more, barring a surprise trade for a quarterback like Deshaun Watson.

9/4/21 Update: Teddy Bridgewater won the starting quarterback job with a strong pre-season. He will limit this team’s ceiling, but he should be noticeably improved from the Broncos’ 2020 quarterback play, he has a high upside offensive supporting cast, and this defense could be one of the better units in the league with the return of Von Miller and significant improvement at the cornerback position. The Broncos could sneak into the post-season, but I have them just on the outside.

Prediction: 9-8 2nd in AFC West

Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) at Denver Broncos (5-10)

The Raiders lost last week in crushing fashion, kicking what they thought was the game winning field goal with 19 seconds left in the game, only to allow the Dolphins to go 49 yards in one play with no timeouts left to get into position to kick their own game winning field goal, ending the Raiders’ faint playoff chances and effectively their season. Despite that loss, the Raiders have gone from being underdogs of 2.5 points on the early line last week to being 2.5 point favorites this week. That might be confusing at first glance, but when you look at how the Raiders played last week, it’s more understandable. 

Despite losing the game, the Raiders actually won the first down rate battle by 8.25%. They lost the game because they committed the game’s only turnover and because they went a ridiculous 0 for 10 on 3rd down and 1 of 2 on 4th down. Despite their futility on 3rd and 4th downs, the Raiders still managed 23 first downs in the game, meaning they picked up 22 first downs on first or second down. That’s very encouraging to see because performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. That they moved the ball as effectively as they did on first and second down and still lost makes that loss all the more crushing, but it helps their projection going forward, as they go into the final game of their season, so it’s understandable that this line would move. 

Five points of line movement (from +2.5 to -2.5) seems like a lot, but neither line crosses the key number of 3, so it’s not overly impactful line movement. In addition to how the Raiders played last week, the Broncos also lost their top defensive lineman Shelby Harris to injury, which is a big blow to an already injury plagued Broncos defense. The Broncos are very reliant on their defense, which ranks 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.20%, to cover for an offense that ranks just 31st in first down rate over expected at -3.86% and if their defense can’t perform up to their usual level because of injury absences, the Broncos would have a tough time beating most teams, so it’s understandable they’re no longer favored in this game.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, despite how they played last week, they’re still well below average in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, ranking 23rd at -1.53%. The Raiders’ 7-8 record isn’t bad, but 6 of their 7 wins have come by 10 points or fewer, while 4 of their 8 losses have come by 16 points or more, giving them a -45 point differential. Their one win by more than 10 points came against these Broncos in week 10, but that was a game in which the Broncos lost the turnover battle by 5, something that is highly unlikely to happen again this week, given the inconsistent nature of turnover margins. The Raiders only won the first down rate battle by 2.31% in that game, despite the final score being 37-12. I have the Raiders calculated as 1-point favorites in this rematch in Denver, so we’re getting slight line value with the Broncos at +2.5, but not nearly enough to take them with any confidence.

Las Vegas Raiders 26 Denver Broncos 24

Pick against the spread: Denver +2.5

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (5-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)

The Chargers are just 5-9, but most of their losses have been close, with 7 of their 9 wins coming by one score or less, including blown leads against high level teams like the Saints, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Chargers have been a middling team, ranking 20th at -0.52%. They’ve been more reliant on their defense than their offense though, with their offense ranking 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.60% and their defense ranking -1.08% in first down rate allowed over expected at 9th. 

That’s typically a bad thing going forward because defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play. We’ve already seen the Chargers start to slip to recent weeks defensively and I would definitely expect that to continue in this one, with the Chargers missing their top-3 edge defenders Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Uchenna Nwosu, turning a position of strength into one of significant weakness. Ingram has been out for a while, but Bosa and Nwosu are both new absences this week. Missing the players they are missing, I have the Chargers ranked just 28th in my roster rankings. 

The Broncos are an underwhelming team, but I have them a point and a half better than the Chargers right now. With the Chargers being favored by 3.5 points at home with no fans in the stadium, this line is essentially saying the Chargers are about 3 points better than the Broncos, which is very off with the Chargers missing the key players they are missing. On top of that, the Broncos are in a significantly better spot than the Chargers, who have to turn around and play a much tougher game next week in Kansas City, while the Broncos will be playing a far less imposing Raiders team. 

Favorites cover at just a 42.8% rate when their opponents have a winning percentage that is worse than their next opponent’s winning percentage by over 50% (Broncos are 5-9, Chiefs are 13-1), including a 41.7% rate when their next opponent has a winning percentage that is 40%+ better than their opponent’s next opponent (Raiders are 7-7, Chiefs are 13-1). On top of that, favorites cover at just a 41.7% rate at home against a sub-400 divisional opponent before going on the road and facing a divisional opponent with a record better than .700. 

Between the line value and the great spot, there is a lot to like about the Broncos this week, so this is my Pick of the Week at +3.5. At the very least, I would expect the Chargers to win by a field goal if they manage the win (3 of their 5 wins have been by exactly a field goal), but the Broncos have a good chance to pull the straight up upset against a banged up Chargers team that has been eliminated and has a much tougher game on deck to look forward.

Update: Both Bradley Chubb and Keenan Allen are expected out in this game. I originally had both factored in as likely to play, but possibly limited. Both being out doesn’t change this projection much. If anything, Allen is slightly more important to the Chargers than Chubb is to the Broncos. This is still my Pick of the Week.

Denver Broncos 23 Los Angeles Chargers 20 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week