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Broncos Betting Preview: Denver Has the Pieces for Surprise AFC West Run

Denver's defense took a step back last season, but took the top pass rusher in the draft in Bradley Chubb. Can he and Von Miller lead the unit back to being one of the NFL's best?

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Broncos 2018 win total: 7.5 (over EVEN, under -120)

Broncos 2017 record: 5-11

Key offseason acquisitions: QB Case Keenum, CB Tramaine Brock, DL Clinton McDonald, P Marquette King, LB Su'a Cravens, OT Jared Veldheer

Key offseason losses: CB Aqib Talib, QB Trevor Siemian, RB C.J. Anderson, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Virgil Green, G Allen Barbre, WR Cody Latimer

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Five things to keep in mind before betting the Broncos’ win total

1. The Broncos led the NFL in defensive efficiency in 2015 and 2016, yet dropped to No. 10 this past season. While their rush defense efficiency ranked third (it was fourth in 2015 and 21st in 2016), it was surprisingly the pass defense that took a step back. Denver is at its best when there’s a strong pass-rushing threat opposite Von Miller to create pressure from both sides. DeMarcus Ware filled that role for the Broncos’ championship-winning squad, highlighted by him and Miller combining for 4.5 sacks of Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50.

Shane Ray, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, registered eight sacks in 2016, and the Broncos thought they had their long-term edge duo. Ray’s production cratered in 2017, as did Denver’s ability to cause chaos to opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. After finishing with 52 sacks in 2015 (led the NFL) and 42 (tied for third), the team’s quarterback takedown total fell all the way to 33, which ranked 23rd.

That’s why John Elway probably thanked the football gods when he was gifted North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb with the No. 5 pick this past NFL draft. Chubb racked up double-digit sacks in his junior and senior campaigns, and was awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player in college football) last season. The rookie has impressed his teammates and coaches early on, and sacked Mitch Trubisky for a safety in the first quarter of Denver’s second preseason game.

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2. Denver’s defense was also incredibly unlucky in one major aspect. The Broncos allowed 25.0 yards per drive (second in NFL), but 1.82 points per drive (14th) in 2017, per Football Outsiders. Why the major discrepancy? Opposing offenses’ average starting field position against Denver was the 32.79-yard line. Not only did that rank dead last (the next closest was Green Bay’s 30.37), it was also the worst average starting field position for any defense since the Bills’ 33.65-yard line in 2010. Considering the Broncos play their home games in extremely high altitude, giving opponents a shorter field to work with is especially detrimental since longer field goals are very much in play at Mile High Stadium.

A big reason behind the defense facing suboptimal starts to drives so often was that the offense had 34 giveaways, which only trailed the Browns’ 41. Denver’s three-headed catastrophe at quarterback—Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch—combined for 22 interceptions, the second-most picks in the NFL. Luckily for Denver’s defense, the Broncos upgraded the most important position in sports this offseason.

3. Elway is pinning his and the Broncos’ hopes on Case Keenum, who the team signed to a two-year, $36 million contract in March. Keenum was viewed as nothing more than a journeyman when the Vikings gave him a one-year deal the previous offseason, but then he was thrust into the starting gig after Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford went down with injuries. Even with Bradford returning in the middle of the season, Keenum never relinquished the job and was responsible for one of the greatest plays in franchise history with his heroic TD throw to stun the Saints in the NFC Divisional Round.

In the regular season, Keenum broke out with a 67.6% completion rate and threw 22 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. He was sharp dealing with the pass rush as well, as his 78.5 passer rating under pressure was the seventh-highest mark in the league. That is a plus considering he’ll be throwing behind Denver’s makeshift offensive line, a group that allowed 52 sacks (third-most) and 207 pressures (fourth-most) last season. Just like in Minnesota, Keenum has an intriguing group of wideouts to work with, as promising rookie pass-catcher Courtland Sutton seems destined to make an impact in his first year on the outside alongside Demaryius Thomas, while Emmanuel Sanders looks rejuvenated in his move to the slot.

4. Another huge boost for the defense and a huge addition for the team as a whole this season was the acquisition of All-Pro punter Marquette King. King’s booming leg in Mile High is a perfect match, and his ability to flip the field will be a major weapon for a team that will be relying heavily on its defense to win games. The former Raider ranked third in net average (42.7) on his punts in 2017, whereas Denver’s punter last season, Riley Dixon, was 22nd with a 40.2 net. While 40.6% of King’s punts landed inside the 20-yard line and 18.8% were inside the 10, Dixon finished at 31.5% and 11.0% respectively.

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5. The AFC West is the most wide-open division in the NFL, as Vegas has the Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos all within 1.5 wins of one another. The Chargers and Broncos have the substantial advantage on the defensive side of the ball over the Chiefs and Raiders. The Broncos don’t have the Chargers’ upside on offense, but with Keenum and rookie tailback Royce Freeman in the fold, it won’t be difficult to top last season’s firepower.

Vance Joseph’s first year as a head coach was a dud, but should a transition that smooth have been expected in the first place? Joseph gets another year to progress as a head coach and become more familiar with his roster, and the pieces are in place for him to pick up a few more wins, and challenge for the AFC West crown, in Year 2.

PICK: OVER 7.5 wins

Other NFL team betting previews: Steelers, CardinalsBrowns, BuccaneersBengalsGiants, SaintsPackers, Falcons, Chiefs, Bears, Chargers, Dolphins, Eagles, Seahawks