One number explains everything: 10. The Broncos have used 10 starting quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired. Only two have a winning record, Trevor Siemian and Brett Rypien. Drew Lock represented hope but fizzled last season. He tied for the league lead in interceptions and posted an NFL-worst 57.3 completion percentage. New Broncos general manager George Paton promised competition, acquiring Teddy Bridgewater. It has done little to soothe concerns in Broncos Country, as the fans wonder if a talented defense will be wasted by an offense that has not averaged more than 20.2 points per game in five seasons.
The Broncos have not been a good offensive team since Manning walked away a champion. They possess young talent but need it to manifest into production. The lack of OTAs and no preseason games proved too difficult to overcome in coordinator Pat Shurmur’s first year. He returns, and while the results were not acceptable, there is belief among players that continuity will microwave the team’s growth.
It starts at quarterback. Bridgewater and Lock will compete for the starting job. Neither excelled last season. Bridgewater carries a slight edge into camp because of his history of winning — last season in Carolina notwithstanding. Before bottoming out with a 4–11 record for the Panthers that led them to trade for Sam Darnold, Bridgewater was 22–12 with 38 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Paton trusts him from their time together in Minnesota, and head coach Vic Fangio, trying to save his job, wants his quarterback to protect the ball after the Broncos finished dead last with 32 turnovers in 2020. The Broncos liked Lock enough not to take Justin Fields in the draft. He is talented but has reached a crossroads, devolving from promising to maddeningly inconsistent.
The importance of getting Pro Bowl receiver Courtland Sutton back cannot be overstated. He played one game last season before tearing the ACL in his left knee. Sutton is open when covered, a security blanket for any quarterback and capable of drawing frequent penalties. His return will also benefit Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy paced the Broncos with 856 receiving yards, but his 14 dropped passes, per Sports Info Solutions, were second most. Having Sutton on the field and in the huddle will create more accountability. Tim Patrick should not be forgotten after registering zero drops and a team-best six touchdowns. KJ Hamler showed flashes in his rookie season, including the game-winning score against the Chargers, but must eliminate hamstring issues that prevented him from breaking out.
With a healthy receiving corps, tight end Noah Fant should find the middle of the field open. It’s time for him to become a star, which is tied to avoiding nagging injuries that have undermined his production.
A strong running game would go a long way for the quarterback. Let’s be clear — the pairing of Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon III did not work. They were rarely on the field together, and no team did a worse job utilizing its backs in the passing game. After a disappointing start, Gordon found his way, averaging 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games while producing a team-best 10 total touchdowns. Gordon believes he can lead the league in rushing, saying, “I am kind of sick of being overlooked.” Rookie Javonte Williams, a tackle-breaking machine, figures to push him in training camp.
The offensive line improved last season but must take another step to help create an offensive identity. The line found a new anchor: left tackle Garett Bolles. After three disappointing seasons, everything clicked, and he earned All-Pro honors and a new four-year, $68-million contract. Dalton Risner is bent on earning Pro Bowl honors in his third season, but the success of this group hinges on upticks from veteran guard Graham Glasgow and second-year center Lloyd Cushenberry III, who needs to add strength. The team suffered an offseason blow when pricey right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who has played only 63 snaps in two seasons because of a knee injury and a COVID-19 opt-out, suffered a torn Achilles.
Fangio was hired to bring back the boom, the turnovers, the big plays. In 2020, though, the Broncos took a step backward, other than sacks and red zone touchdowns allowed. Injuries played a role but cannot totally excuse the points allowed — 27.9, a spike from 19.8 in 2019 — and the lack of takeaways (16). During one ugly stretch, opponents gashed the Broncos for at least 30 points in four straight games for the first time since 1968.
There are reasons for hope when looking at this group. Paton secured safety Justin Simmons and defensive end Shelby Harris on long-term deals, brought back star linebacker Von Miller and hard-hitting safety Kareem Jackson and signed free agent cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. There will never be another No Fly Zone, but the Broncos’ secondary boasts experience and scheme fit that should complement the pass rush. The key is the Chicago connection and first-round pick Pat Surtain II. Fangio needs Fuller, on a one-year deal, to regain his 2018 All-Pro form and Bryce Callahan, who played at a Pro Bowl level before a foot injury ended a third straight season, to stay healthy for roughly 12 games. The arrival of Fuller and Darby will free Callahan to play slot. And Surtain is so technically sound, he should start in nickel and dime packages. In his third season in this defense, Simmons carries All-Pro expectations in what could be his final season with Jackson. Jackson brings pop, attitude and confidence.
For this defense to become special, it needs for Miller to rebound with a vengeance. Inspired by Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, Miller became a more demanding leader in training camp after reporting in his best shape in years. Then, in an instant, he was gone, missing the season with a dislocated left ankle tendon. Paton believes Miller can produce a Pro Bowl season at 32. Miller is determined to rebound in what could be his final year with the Broncos. Paton brought Miller back in part because the entire organization wants to see what a full year will look like with the combo of Miller and Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb. In their one full season together in 2018, the pair posted a combined 26.5 sacks. Miller and Chubb should get more frequent lanes with Harris, rising star Dre’Mont Jones and nose tackle Mike Purcell bringing inside heat and occupying blockers. Inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are tackling machines, but Denver will also need rookie Baron Browning or second-year pro Justin Strnad to find a niche in coverage.
Adding versatile rookies who can play on coverage units proved a priority for Paton in the draft. Kicker Brandon McManus anchors the special teams. He converted 10 field goals of at least 50 yards last season, eclipsing his total from the previous three years combined. After a slow start in his first season in Denver, punter Sam Martin gained traction, improving the Broncos’ net from 40.4 to 42.6. He must get better, though, especially on balls inside the 20. Diontae Spencer averaged 15.8 yards on 16 punt returns, including an 83-yard touchdown against Carolina. Kick return is an open competition.
The Broncos are rebuilding and retooling simultaneously under new GM Paton. Fangio has spent zero days over .500 in his first two seasons in Denver because of abysmal Septembers. He is coaching for his job, as no modern boss begins his career with three straight losing campaigns and survives. The Broncos took a step backward last season because of injuries and ineffectiveness. The excuses are over. Fangio must improve his clock management and craft a top-10 defense, while hoping a maturing offense can score 25 points per game.