Entering the 2018 season, the Broncos figured the worst was behind them. They signed a new quarterback, believing a fresh leader and a second season for the head coach would leave despair in the rear-view mirror. Then they pulled out a shovel and dug up bones for a new rock bottom. Now, following back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972, the Broncos have begun their latest makeover.
Optimism centers on new coach Vic Fangio and quarterback Joe Flacco, who replaces Case Keenum after one forgettable season. For those counting at home, Denver boasts its third coach and fifth quarterback since Peyton Manning retired. Fangio brings an "adult-in-the-room" presence and attention to detail. He will look to enhance a defense that perked up a year ago but was too often torched on the ground and on third down. The offense remains an issue, leaving the onus on first-time coordinator Rich Scangarello to breathe life into a group that has sabotaged the past three seasons.
Scangarello brings a fresh set of eyes and intriguing resume as the Broncos attempt to revive an offense that ranked 24th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 19th in passing (230.9 ypg) and red zone percentage (56.8) and 28th in third down conversions (33.3 percent). Scangarello arrives in Denver after two seasons as the quarterbacks coach in San Francisco. The expectation remains an offense with an old-school base along with a splash of college creativity in space and in the passing game.
At 34, Flacco insists he's in his prime. He is durable, having started 16 games in nine of the last 11 seasons, but his numbers over the past four years have been mediocre: 24–27 record with 64 touchdowns and 46 interceptions.
The Broncos addressed the tight end position with their first pick in the draft, believing Noah Fant can provide a vertical threat missing since Julius Thomas left after the 2014 season. A former basketball player with good body control, Fant is a walking mismatch. He is a red zone threat; anything under six touchdowns will be a disappointment.
Flacco possesses a single proven target in veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who is returning from Achilles surgery. Sanders was on pace for nearly 1,200 yards and seven scores before injuring his leg after the 12th game. A healthy Sanders remains critical for Flacco to take chances down the field. Second-year pro Courtland Sutton produced 704 receiving yards, fourth most by a rookie in team history.
Running back Phillip Lindsay became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl, collecting 1,037 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. Lindsay provides energy and uncommon acceleration through the line of scrimmage that allows him to bounce runs outside. Lindsay will be featured with Scangarello, but the Broncos believe he can be even more effective in a lightning and thunder combination with Royce Freeman, a bruiser whose rookie year left him unsatisfied because of an ankle issue.
For Flacco to work and the ground game to flourish — it ranked 12th at 119.2 yards per game — the line must blossom. Enter Mike Munchak, an underrated offseason addition. The Hall of Fame player and respected teacher will tutor an athletic group. Can he work his magic, or will he end up with an island of misfit toys? Adding Ja'Wuan James — the Broncos gave him $32 million guaranteed — represents an upgrade at right tackle because he's predictable and serviceable in run and pass blocking sets. The Broncos lost center Matt Paradis, meaning Connor McGovern has to accelerate his learning curve; he struggled in the final month a year ago making pre-snap adjustments. Guard Ron Leary needs to show he can regain his form after knee and Achilles injuries. Munchak's biggest project is turning left tackle Garett Bolles into an effective pass blocker.
The defense netted 11 more sacks and 11 additional takeaways over the previous season, and it mattered little. Why? The Broncos allowed 119.6 yards per game on the ground — making it easy for opponents to protect leads — and struggled to get off the field, allowing third down conversions at a 39 percent clip. There are a number of reasons, including stubbornness in using man coverage with an injury-ravaged secondary, but Fangio should fix those issues. He oversaw the NFL's top defense in Chicago, espousing a "death by inches" mantra where micro focus can lead to macro gains. Bears linebacker Khalil Mack calls him an "evil genius." The brilliance lies in the simplicity. Like previous Broncos boss Wade Phillips, Fangio creates schemes that allow his players to play fast. Fangio's Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways.
Coordinating the defense from field level for the first time, Fangio will rely more on zone coverage, and he has proven adept at using corner blitzes to squelch drives. He says tackling is non-negotiable, a welcomed development for Broncos fans after Denver allowed an NFL record for rushing yards in back-to-back losses to the Jets and Rams.
All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller anchors the group. He plans to play heavier — up from 238 to 248 — as he eyes a 20-sack season with the ability to shed blockers more quickly. Fangio believes Miller can be more effective if lined up creatively, sometimes employing him and Bradley Chubb on the same side. Chubb led all rookies with 12 sacks despite often dropping into coverage.
Denver figures to stop the run better with the emergence of Shelby Harris, a role player who made Domata Peko expendable; Derek Wolfe, a veteran in possibly his last season in Denver; and rookie tackle Dre'Mont Jones. Linebackers Todd Davis and Josey Jewell excel at stuffing the run, but both had issues in coverage against tight ends.
The No Fly Zone is the New Fly Zone. If cornerback Chris Harris Jr. returns after an offseason of trade talk, he represents the team's second-best player. He can play slot and outside and is a coach on the field. The team lost the final four games after he suffered a hairline fracture in his right leg. The Broncos added cornerback Kareem Jackson, a physical player, and Bryce Callahan, a slot coverage ace, in free agency. Jackson, however, might play a hybrid safety role in the box, placing pressure on corner Isaac Yiadom to elevate his game after an erratic rookie season.
Free safety Justin Simmons boasts Pro Bowl talent. He played every defensive snap last season, and his versatility should allow Fangio to use him as corner in some alignments. Will Parks takes over at strong safety. He brings effort, attitude and energy, but his fit in the Fangio defense remains unknown because of Jackson's role.
Veteran special teams coordinator Tom McMahon brought sanity to the group, improving their punt and kick coverage. Kicker Brandon McManus remained solid, converting on all 18 kicks from less than 50 yards. However, he is no longer the long-distance weapon he once was, going 2-for-7 on attempts of at least 50 yards. Rookie punter Colby Wadman took over for failed free agent addition Marquette King, but the Broncos finished 28th in net average. Denver's return jobs are wide open going into the season — and should be. The Broncos struggled mightily in the return game in 2018.
Fangio arrives at the right time, bringing normalcy after two awful seasons. The Broncos need him to win with his matchup game plans and added discipline after Denver frittered away victories last season as the second-most penalized team in the NFL. But is that enough to contend in the AFC West, where the Chiefs and Chargers possess more talent? Hopes for a return to the playoffs lie with Flacco. Anything less than a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio from Flacco, and rookie Drew Lock will become the team's sixth starting quarterback since Manning retired.