After a miserable 2020 can the Broncos rebound to contend in the AFC West?
When the Broncos step on the field in Arrowhead on December 3rd it will have been 2,182 days since the Broncos have last beaten the Chiefs. A streak that should warm the heart of every Chiefs fan even in December. The question now is: does this mean the streak will just keep rolling? Or is it indicative that the streak is bound to end? When it comes to the Chiefs dominance of the Broncos, there certainly have been some close calls: Cairo Santos bounced-in field goal, Patrick Mahomes leading a comeback with his left hand and even the last matchup between the two required a last-minute field goal from Harrison Butker. Division games are always tough.
When it comes to the Broncos, the story has been the same just different chapters since 2015 when Peyton Manning retired. The franchise has struggled to find a long-term answer at the quarterback position despite talent around the roster. It’s easy to see how several games could have went differently in the current win streak if the Broncos had just gotten mediocre QB play. The hope now is that the roster is good enough that it can elevate a game manager in Teddy Bridgewater and/or support a mistake-prone Drew Lock.
The Broncos might have one of the best coverage units in the NFL. It starts in the back end with an elite safety tandem of Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons, who both rank in the top eight of PFF’s safety rankings. At corner, the Broncos were able to add former All-Pro Kyle Fuller to an already strong corner group with Bryce Callahan, Ronald Darby and recent top-10 pick Patrick Surtain II. The back end of the Broncos’ defense has been built to play in a division with Justin Herbert, Mahomes and Derek Carr. Not only is the personnel excellent but the scheme is as well.
Vic Fangio has been one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds in the last decade. He has built top defenses almost every where he’s at. Even against the Chiefs’ potent offense, he has been effective in limiting Mahomes to just five touchdowns and and 934 yards in their four meeting thus far. For most quarterbacks, this is a respectable line, but by Mahomes standards this is noticeably low — especially in the touchdown department.
After losing Super Bowl MVP Von Miller early into the 2020 season Bradley Chubb finally had a season that lived up to his draft slot. Chubb logged 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble to go along with his 19 QB hits as well. Like any pass rusher Chubb will certainly benefit from another strong rusher lining up on the other side of him. Von Miller, though exiting the prime of his career and recovering from injury, is still a great athlete coming off of the edge. Denver also has one of the best interior pass rushers in the league in Shelby Harris, who ranks 8th out of 126 interior defenders in the league. All of this on top of an aggressive blitzing scheme from Fangio will be a great test for the new Chiefs offensive line.
The last few years the Broncos have been able to draft at the top of each round and that has yielded them some offensive talent. It starts with the wide receiver corps: Cortland Sutton, who had a fantastic 2019 season but lost almost all of 2020 due to injury. Sutton is a big bodied receiver that has been able to find the end zone even with mediocre quarterback play. The most promising of the offensive playmakers is second-year receiver Jerry Jeudy, he has the skill set to put himself into the conversation of a top-10 pass catcher in the league in the near future. Even the secondary receivers in Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler are nice pieces for an offense. At tight end Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam have both shown flashes of brilliance. Running back Javonte Williams has extremely high upside as a rookie coming out of North Carolina and he is backed up by two competent backs in Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman.
Of course, this is the most glaring issue on the entire roster and has been since 2014 (yes, I know Manning was there in 2015). Drew Lock has proven two things thus far” he can dance pretty good and he throws interceptions. Though there is undeniable arm talent with Lock, the inconsistencies and mistakes have been a back breaker throughout his career. There is still a chance finally takes the next step as he’s been reportedly working with Manning this offseason, but there is not much time left on the “Drew Lock clock.” Point in case: The Broncos traded for Bridgewater this offseason. Teddy is more or less the anti-Drew Lock, he has limited upside but really eliminates mistakes. It feels like the Broncos move to Bridgewater is almost inevitable at this point. They are stuck in “QB purgatory” until they can find their franchise guy. It will be incredibly interesting to see what Justin Fields does in Chicago. After the Broncos passed on him and Denver arguably could have put a better supporting cast around him too.
Interior Offensive Line
Honestly, this is more of a compliment than anything. If in the inside of the offensive line is a weakness on your roster you’re in pretty good shape. While the interior certainly isn’t awful, center Lloyd Cushenberry was one of the worst centers in football last year. At guard, Dalton Reisner and Graham Glasgow are both average, a better center certainly would help the guard play as well. The Broncos were smart to grab Bobby Massey after they lost Ju’Wuan James to an achilles injury for the year. If Garrett Bolles can match his excellent play from last season, it looks like Denver can be strong on the ends and a little weaker on the interior.
Vic Fangio is a great defensive mind but his game management has really raised some questions thus far. Most memorable was Vic allowing the Titans to run the clock down to 17 seconds on offense to kick a game-winning field goal, virtually ensuring his offense no chance to respond, while he sat with time outs in his pocket. Though Fangio has done lots for the defense, it remains to be seen if he is a net-positive for the offense or the game management side of things. He’s proven to be conservative and hasn’t really elevated anything other than a defense that already had great talent.
Can they contend for the AFC West?
No. Plain and simple. The West is too good for the Broncos to win enough games in a 17-game season to take the AFC West title. I expect them to be in the 8-9 to 10-7 range of things and possibly contend for a Wild Card depending on how their season breaks. This could even be the season the Chiefs’ winning streak is broken, but there’s a big difference between losing a game and losing a division. Just ask the Raiders how much a regular-season game matters.