Broncos betting on Case Keenum
In quiet moments of reflection, Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe wondered how it all happened. How did a team that won Super Bowl 50 match its longest losing streak in 50 years and sink into the AFC West basement? “It was miserable. We have to get our confidence back and move forward,” Wolfe says.
The easiest way for the Broncos to forget is to view the quarterback position with renewed optimism. Denver signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal with $25 million guaranteed, believing he can deliver as he did in Minnesota last season (22 TDs, seven interceptions). A quarterback who protects the ball would resuscitate a defense that broke under the strain of turnovers, finishing 22nd in both sacks and points allowed. Second-year coach Vance Joseph kept his job -- barely -- because general manager John Elway said his coach deserved another chance with a serviceable quarterback. Joseph overhauled his staff, adding six new coaches and a new strength and conditioning boss. Joseph operates with no margin for error. The Broncos aim to end a two-year playoff drought while attempting to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972. The return to respectability begins with a caffeinated offense under Keenum and a more opportunistic defense.
After a 3-1 start, the Broncos dissolved before their fans’ eyes, thanks largely to an abysmal passing attack. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s stubbornness in leaning on three-receiver sets cost him his job after the 10th game of the season. Going through dizzying quarterback changes -- Trevor Siemian to Brock Osweiler to Paxton Lynch (twice) -- the Broncos finished with 22 interceptions; only the Browns were worse.
Bill Musgrave takes over as the offensive boss looking to adjust the pass protection schemes with shorter drop-backs (the 52 sacks allowed ranked third worst) and establish a physical running game. The revival starts with Keenum. Elway believes the former journeyman “could be just hitting his stride.” Denver would perform cartwheels if Keenum duplicated last season’s stats in Minnesota. The Broncos were drawn to Keenum because of his toughness, leadership and the fact that “being the Broncos quarterback will not be too big for him,” Joseph says. Only Drew Brees was more accurate last season, and the Broncos are counting on Keenum to show mobility in the pocket and be accurate on short routes.
He possesses two proven targets in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who are part of a core group of stars whom Elway challenged to improve. The Broncos desperately need a third option in the passing game, and it could come from second-year tight end Jake Butt or draft picks Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. The team cut veteran running back C.J. Anderson, but the coaching staff raves about Devontae Booker, who faces a crossroads: Can he become an every-down back and show he can break tackles at the line of scrimmage? De’Angelo Henderson remains in the mix, but the drafting of Royce Freeman adds an interesting wrinkle with his violent, physical running style.
The Broncos believe their offensive line is improved, insisting that Garett Bolles will develop at left tackle and that Jared Veldheer will solidify the endless carousel at right tackle. Ron Leary shifts to left guard, and Connor McGovern, Max Garcia, Menelik Watson or rookie Sam Jones will look to provide a measure of consistency at right guard.
If Keenum can avoid turnovers, manage the game and show creativity in the red zone, he could serve as the long-term answer and not just a placeholder.
The defense kept the team respectable in 2016, but it could not prevent embarrassment in 2017, breaking under the strain of an underperforming offense and horrific special teams. The Broncos looked nothing like the Orange Rush group that spearheaded the Super Bowl 50 victory. Denver dropped to 33 sacks -- 19 fewer than two seasons ago -- and ranked tied for 22nd in points allowed per game. Also, the Broncos forced only 17 takeaways. During the ugly eight-game losing streak, the Broncos rarely led, allowing teams to mute the effectiveness of All-Pro Von Miller and the secondary.
Room for improvement exists with a group that has fewer stars but should boast more depth. First, coordinator Joe Woods must do better in his second season after being exposed in situational substitutions during games against dynamic offenses. The Broncos should rush the passer better with the drafting of first-round defensive end Bradley Chubb. Shane Ray could be part of the mix as well after he decided to forgo another surgery on his left wrist and instead opted for rehab. Ray underwent three different surgical procedures on his wrist last year after initially tearing a ligament in training camp. He was able to return in late October, but was ineffective and managed just one sack in eight games before ending the season on injured reserve. Ray is in a contract year so motivation shouldn't be an issue for the 2015 first-round pick.
If the Broncos don’t develop another pass rusher -- free agent Clinton McDonald, second-year pro DeMarcus Walker or a healthy Wolfe -- they will waste Miller’s prime years. That explains why they chose Chubb. They see him as an impact player as a rookie. Look for Chubb to be involved in simple packages on the inside and outside. He brings an array of pass-rushing moves, belying his youth.
Denver’s No Fly Zone exists in a different form. Cornerback Chris Harris, the founder, remains in place. He will anchor a secondary that lost Aqib Talib -- traded to the Los Angeles Rams -- and hopes Bradley Roby is ready for prime time. Veteran Tramaine Brock represents a potential find as a nickel corner, and safety Justin Simmons is a rising star.
None of that matters if the Broncos can’t cover tight ends better. They identified a potential solution, acquiring safety Su’a Cravens from Washington. He is big enough to operate as a hybrid linebacker in the run game while also helping in coverage.
The Broncos did stiffen their rush defense, dropping from 130.3 yards per game in 2016 to 89.4. Veteran nose tackle Domata Peko found the fountain of youth, anchoring the group up front. Can he continue his strong play? Regardless, he needs help from Wolfe, Walker, and McDonald, and elevated play from linebackers Todd Davis, who received a new three-year contract, and Brandon Marshall, possibly in his last season with Denver.
The special teams players considered gameday a success if they were not embarrassed. The Broncos allowed punt return and kick return touchdowns, had a mediocre punter and relied on rookie returner Isaiah McKenzie, who fumbled six times. Armed with a new contract, kicker Brandon McManus experienced an uneven season, missing eight field goals after missing a combined 10 the previous two years. New special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, formerly of Indianapolis, brings a strong rÃ©sumÃ©, suggesting he can restore sanity to the group with more basic concepts. The Broncos added boisterous and booming punter Marquette King, trading Riley Dixon. McKenzie and Jordan Taylor, who underwent surgery on both hips, will be involved on punt returns, but the team added candidates in the draft. Multiple rookies should play on special teams, including speedy cornerback Isaac Yiadom.
Can this team return to prominence, win an AFC West road game for the first time since Peyton Manning retired and finally boast a reliable offense? The key remains Musgrave’s ability to design an attack around Keenum’s skill set, keeping it simple with doses of creativity. Keenum has shown he can make big plays, but not if he’s throwing 30 times per game. Denver scares no one offensively, but that could change if the team becomes more physical up front and keeps its quarterback upright.
The body language of the defense slumped after every offensive turnover last season -- 34 in all. The Broncos expect that figure to be sliced in half, or close to it.
Even with Keenum stabilizing the quarterback spot and the defense deeper, the Broncos face an uphill climb to .500. The sense of urgency is real, though. Every week will be a referendum on Joseph’s job and Keenum’s future.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC West
(Top photo courtesy of www.denverbroncos.com)