Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Broncos, a team that, with the best of luck, could match their 7–9 record from Vic Fangio’s first season. While it wasn’t the resurgent campaign many fans (and gamblers in Vegas!) expected, it may be laying the foundation for a strong Year 3 of the Vic Fangio regime.
1. What went right this year?
The Broncos sent two defensive players to the Pro Bowl this year and should have sent a third player, left tackle Garrett Bolles, as well. It’s interesting how stars just seem to emerge defensively when Fangio arrives and puts his hands on a scheme. Justin Simmons, while absolutely talented in his own right, saw his Approximate Value metric almost double in 2019, the year Fangio arrived. Bradley Chubb, the No. 5 pick in 2018, made his first Pro Bowl this year and should be on pace to have the most pressures and hurries of his career. What went right is what we thought would go right: The Broncos have a top-15 defense and an offense in need of an identity.
2. What went wrong this year?
After smoking down the stretch in 2019, the Broncos replaced offensive coordinator (now Eagles analyst) Rich Scangarello with Pat Shurmur. The result? The are 28th in points, last in turnovers lost, 28th in passing yards are 26th in passing touchdowns. Scangarello was steeped in the Kyle Shanahan system and had been laying the groundwork to run that offense—believed to be the easiest and most efficient for a quarterback in the league right now—before the decision was made to go in another direction for 2020 with a moldable young quarterback under center. Drew Lock finished in the Mitch Trubisky, Gardner Minshew, Andy Dalton tier of ESPN’s total QBR ranking this year. His CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) was a minus-4, which is the third worst among qualifying starters this year, ahead of only Carson Wentz and Dwayne Haskins. Yet John Elway recently reupped his confidence in Lock, and it’s not hard to see why. When in the right system, everything seems to click for Lock. The challenge is finding the right system.
3. The Big Question this offseason
If you’re Denver, and you have what could very well shake out to be a top-10 pick, depending on how the final two weeks of the season go, the question is how you’ll allocate that pick, especially in a year where four or five quarterbacks could surge their way to the top of teams’ boards. Because Lock’s contract is not cost prohibitive, it could make sense to spend a top-10 pick on another quarterback and allow the better man to start on opening day 2021. Or, if you believe in Lock unquestionably, the question might be: Do you believe in Shurmur enough to keep him for a second year, or is it worth exposing Lock to his third offensive coordinator in three years, with the big risk being stagnancy if you decide to keep Shurmur around. John Elway, ever the tinkerer, might end up tipping the scales one way or another.
To me, this roster is not far away. Not by a longshot. So, you have to decide how best to capitalize on this opportunity. A wild-card spot in 2021 is not out of reach for Denver and, if the offense can take a step forward, looks like a real possibility.
4. Coach/GM outlook
Last I checked, it seemed like the Fangio regime would continue on into Year 3. Will that change over the final two weeks of the season? Who knows. I think that the Broncos are in a difficult division and are making lemonade out of the lemons they were handed. The problem is that the Chargers’ roster is just as talented, if not more so, and will not be dormant for long. Las Vegas is a wildcard, per usual. Denver’s defense is holding up its end of the bargain, which John Elway said he wanted all along.
5. Key free agents
• Von Miller, edge*
• Kareem Jackson, safety**
• Justin Simmons, safety
• Shelby Harris, defensive tackle
• Alexander Johnson, linebacker
• Phillip Lindsay, running back
• Jake Butt, tight end
• Elijah Wilkinson, tackle
• Jeremiah Attaochu, linebacker
•DeMarcus Walker, defensive end
*Denver has its second of two straight club options they can exercise on Miller should they see fit. They have until the first day of the 2021 league year in order to do so. Miller missed the entirety of his 2020 season with an Achilles injury.
**Like Miller, Jackson has a team option that must be picked up by the end of this season. Jackson will be 33 in 2021 but playing at an exceptionally high level.
6. Top priority
Aside from quarterback, the Broncos need to decide what they want to do with Von Miller. It would make sense to keep him around given how close Denver is to contention, however, not picking up Miller’s option before his age-32 season saves them a serious amount of cap space. And if you believe that Fangio can craft a formidable top-15 defense without Miller anyway, does he become a luxury negated by your coach? (Please do not read this as us saying Miller is bad. He is extraordinary).
7. Positions of need
Quarterback, cornerback, swing offensive line depth.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Punch the accelerator on one of Kyle Shanahan’s two “offensive coordinators,” Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel and see if you can pay through the teeth to get one of them to run your offense in 2021. Shanahan held on to both tightly during the head coaching cycle last year, so perhaps some kind of “assistant head coach” title would be necessary to subvert all the administrative red tape. I really think Lock is savable and that Denver has all the pieces to win 10 games. While this would be a temporary fix, given that both LaFleur and McDaniel are on a head coaching track, installing and committing to the Shanahan offense is among the safest bets you can make right now as a head coach.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Sign Marcus Mariota and leave your options open at quarterback. I think Mariota’s performance on Thursday Night Football a week ago signaled that the modern NFL has finally aligned to the skillsets he brought to the draft in 2015. While he may get a starting opportunity elsewhere, I love the idea of Mariota legitimately pressing Lock in camp. This isn’t to say Lock needs to be challenged à la Mitch Trubisky, but Fangio will need to buttress the position given that Year 3 could turn into a make-or-break proposition for him.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. This team checks the boxes at most positions of need and should be a wild-card contender.