Von Miller and the Broncos hope to contend for a playoff spot in Vic Fangio's second year as head coach
This is what hope looks like. The Broncos won four of their final five games, posted a winning home record for the first time since 2016 and, in their seventh attempt since Peyton Manning retired, found their quarterback in Drew Lock. Lock enters his second season with a new coordinator and more weapons around him, creating optimism that the Broncos will end their first streak of three straight losing seasons since the drought of 1963-72.
Lock took over the job on Dec. 1. He brought energy, attitude “and swagger,” as left guard Dalton Risner put it. If the new additions improve the offense as expected, this is a playoff team. On this idea, most fans are in Lock step.
A number of factors have created the Broncos’ four-year postseason drought, most notably seven starting quarterbacks, five offensive coordinators and three head coaches. Narrow the prism of blame and it rests squarely on the offense.
To address that deficiency, the team took receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam with three of their first six draft picks. Overnight, the Broncos have gone from ginger ale to Red Bull. The Broncos needed a boost after ranking 28th in points (17.6) and in passing (194.7 yards per game), 20th in rushing (103.9) and 30th in third-down conversions (31.7 percent) last season. The onus is on new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to make the pieces fit.
Central to improvement is microwaving Lock’s development. He should match Daniel Jones’ rookie season under Shurmur in New York (24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), at the minimum. Shurmur comes from the West Coast coaching tree — meaning he wants a strong ground game and will not be shy about using three-wide sets. This is salient to why Fangio fired Rich Scangarello and hired Shurmur. The coach wants more creativity and deep strikes. The Broncos ranked 27th in completions of 20-plus yards a year ago. Shurmur’s Giants had 10 touchdowns passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, compared to three for Denver.
Lock, who finished with seven touchdowns and three interceptions as a rookie, has the arm talent and confidence to take more chances. He also boasts mobility, camouflaging concerns about an offensive line that now includes free-agent right guard Graham Glasgow and rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry. Lock was sacked five times in five games, while Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen were dropped 35 times in 11 games.
In the passing game, Jeudy provides a running mate for Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton. Sutton emerged as one of the NFL’s big play receivers, averaging 15.4 yards per reception. He is now the alpha male of this group. With a precise route runner in Jeudy, a burner in Hamler and Sutton’s talent, it will open the middle of the field for Noah Fant, who set a franchise rookie record for receptions (40) and yards (562) by a tight end.
For Lock to blossom, he needs a solid ground game. The Broncos signed Melvin Gordon III to a two-year deal with $13.5 million guaranteed. He figures to start with Phillip Lindsay complementing him. Gordon has shown prowess in short-yardage situations and against eight defenders in the box. He is a three-down back, having averaged 50 receptions over the last three seasons. Lindsay could become the change-of-pace option and force the Broncos to rely on the hot hand if he’s finding creases.
In his second season with Denver, offensive line coach Mike Munchak’s impact should increase. He made struggling left tackle Garett Bolles look functional over the final month. The team also was counting on right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who played only 63 snaps last season with a knee injury, but he opted out of this season. Depth is even more of an issue at the tackle spot now with Elijah Wilkinson (coming off of foot surgery) and Jake Rodgers the only others on the roster that have started for the Broncos.
Fangio came to Denver with the reputation of a defensive genius, a “professor,” in the words of Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. He delivered as promised but only after a disappointing September, when the Broncos became the first team since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 to go three straight games without a sack or a takeaway.
The Broncos yielded 19.8 points per game, 10th best in the league, and ranked first in red zone touchdown percentage. Offseason reinforcements should help despite the loss of a pair of stalwarts in cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe.
The Broncos addressed the trenches, pulling off their best move in landing five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey for a seventh-round pick. In an ideal world, Casey becomes their newest version of DeMarcus Ware, a veteran who leads while still producing on the field. Retaining Shelby Harris on a bargain deal was a pleasant surprise. He found a tepid market but returned after a conversation with Fangio. Harris set a career high in sacks last season after moving from nose tackle to defensive end in the fifth game of the season. With Wolfe gone, it creates opportunities for second-year pro Dre’Mont Jones. Mike Purcell will anchor the nose tackle spot, where he proved effective against the run.
The Broncos decided not to address linebacker help in free agency. Todd Davis returns as a starter and remains a run stuffer. And Alexander Johnson proved to be a revelation, showing strength, size and speed that suggest that a Pro Bowl berth is in his future. Few teams have struggled to cover tight ends as much as the Broncos, but Fangio plans to use more nickel and dime packages to address the issue, pending the health of cornerback Bryce Callahan.
The Broncos replaced Harris by acquiring A.J. Bouye, who fell off last season but is viewed as a better fit for Fangio’s read-and-react zone schemes. Callahan’s recovery from a second foot surgery would ease concerns in the secondary. If he holds down the slot coverage spot, it will ease the pressure on young corners Duke Dawson Jr. and De’Vante Bausby. The strength of the secondary remains the safety position. Free safety Justin Simmons earned second-team All-Pro honors, his football IQ and athleticism a natural fit for Fangio’s calls. Kareem Jackson brings attitude and an edge. In the Broncos’ two most impressive wins — at the Chargers and at Houston — Jackson was the best player on the field.
If the Broncos are to take a step forward defensively, it’s up to outside linebackers Miller and Bradley Chubb, who is returning from ACL surgery. Miller produced only eight sacks, his lowest total since 2012, but at 31, he believes he can still lead the league in that category. Chubb’s impact, if he is healthy, cannot be overstated. He forces teams to make tough decisions in blocking schemes and was starting to take off in Fangio’s defense before suffering his knee injury against Jacksonville on Sept. 29.
The Broncos made the popular decision to move on from struggling punter Colby Wadman, signing Detroit Lions free agent Sam Martin to a three-year, $7.05 million deal. Kicker Brandon McManus remains as one of only four players left from the Super Bowl 50 team. McManus returned to form last season, converting 29 field goals and 4-of-7 attempts from 50-plus yards. Diontae Spencer breathed life into the Broncos’ punt returns, earning Pro Bowl alternate status. Hamler could contribute on kick returns, where he excelled at Penn State.
This organization doesn’t seek participation ribbons. Anything less than a playoff berth would be a huge disappointment. Their prospects hinge on young offensive starters developing. If the Broncos bump their scoring average past the 20-point mark in Lock’s first full season as a starter, they could return to the postseason. Lock has the tools and toys to do it. Now is the time to tailor the attack to his skill set.