On the surface, it seems like the Denver Broncos have not given fans much to be thankful for this season. Of course, it is hard to complain too much about something like football in the grand scheme of things, but fans putting in their hard-earned money and valuable time into what is likely to be the Broncos’ third consecutive losing seasoncan make anyone feel a bit bleak about the organization and their current 3-8 position in the standings.
This team is not likely to make a playoff push this season, and to have thought otherwise was likely a cross of naivety and optimism with the gift of hindsight.
Still, this is football! Broncos football!
This team may not be competing for the Lombardi Trophy this season, but there have been plenty of positive developments so far this season that are worthy of praise. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are the top-10 reasons to be thankful for this 2019 rendition of the Denver Broncos.
(This is Part I because we have so much to be thankful for that it was deserving of two articles!)
1. Broncos have found short-term stability at LB
For years, one of the unifying rallying cries that boomed across the mountains and planes of Broncos County was the demand for the Broncos to do more to improve the inside linebacker position. Sure, those cries piped down a bit while Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall played the Oreo filling between an elite defensive front and defensive backs units, but the desire to find the next ‘Al Wilson’ has been one that many have hoped upon since No. 56 was forced to retire due to a neck injury.
The Broncos still do not have a linebacker in the mold of Wilson today, but that is okay. A linebacker with the athleticism and processing ability to play in coverage while also being big and physical enough to play against the run is considered a unicorn for a reason.
Of course, a team would rather have a Luke Kuechly manning the middle, but there aren’t many of those to go around. Instead, the Broncos have what is shaping up to be one of their best linebacker duos this team has seen in seasons in Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson.
After neither started the season, Davis due to a calf injury that made him miss the entirety of the preseason as well as the first two weeks of the regular season, while Johnson (for reasons unknown) didn’t receive a majority of linebacker reps until Week 5, both have solidified the second level of the defense and are playing at a very high level. Combined, the duo has racked up 139 combined tackles, 53 solo tackles, seven tackles for loss, and graded as two of the top-27 linebackers in the NFL this season per Pro Football Focus.
The scheme has undoubtedly helped both these linebackers, and Vic Fangio seems to put both in position to succeed far more than previous defensive staff, but Davis and Johnson are playing good ball at a high level. While neither are perfect and have deficiencies in their respective games, their level of play has solidified the linebacker position for at least the short-term for the Broncos’ defense.
2. Fant Showing Better Than any Realistic Hope for a Rookie TE
As Erick Trickel stated in his recent piece, Noah Fant is playing at a high level for the Broncos this season. However, this statement deserves a caveat.
In comparison to long-term, elite tight ends in the NFL, Fant is simply more projection than substance at this point as his flashes and high-level impact plays are also combined with plenty of lowlights.
Fant shows amazing athleticism, producing plays both down the field and after the catch, but struggles tracking the football from time-to-time, is an inconsistent blocker, and has had a few drops. But he is a rookie, and more importantly, he is a rookie tight end.
Often considered one of the slowest-developing positions in the pros, rookie TEs do not historically make much of a year-one or even year-two impact at the NFL level. The demands of the position, combining the technique and blocking assignments of an offensive lineman with the strictures of honing the top of the route tree and rigor of playing receiver, only the quarterback position can be reasonably be argued as being more mentally-demanding for an offensive rookie in the NFL.
Despite this precedence of rookie TEs starting slowly as they learn the pro game, Fant is off to a historical start amongst past Broncos’ rookie players at the position, and is right on pace with many of the best TEs of the last decade, compared to their rookie seasons. With 30 receptions (52 targers), 374 yards, 12.5 yards per reception, and two touchdowns, he has consistently flashed his upside in the passing game this season despite an anemic ariel attack with limited depth of weapons and instability at QB.
Does this mean Fant will end up a potential ‘all-timer’ at the position because his rookie stats are in line with other great tight ends of the past decade? Absolutely not, but he looks to be someone this team can plan around going forward as he is further integrated into the offense.
With the athletic upside and explosive play prowess that Fant possesses, the sky’s the limit. Much like how the next player we'll talk about took an unbelievable leap from year one to year two, the ‘next step’ for Fant is worth dreaming on for now.
3. A Legit Go-To WR and Budding Star in Sutton
When it comes to Courtland Sutton, it is hard not to be impressed by the play the second-year receiver has shown consistently this season. Despite not having an awesome co-star opposite him at wide receiver, despite continual pass blocking issues for the offensive line and a new scheme being implemented under OC Rich Scangarello and he himself going through growing pains, and despite the Broncos’ perpetual issues at the quarterback position, Sutton has shown up continually all season.
Sure, Sutton did not have the best game this past week against the Bills and lockdown cornerback Tre’Davious White. White is a heck of a player, but there were other factors at play that influenced this as well.
Sutton injured his ankle early in the game but continued playing, the Bills did not respect the Broncos’ other receiving options to the extent that they would suffer for bracketing Sutton, and the arm talent of Brandon Allen, questionable in its own right, could not overcome the blustery conditions in Orchard Park.
Despite issues going on all around him on the offense, Sutton has made plays time and time again and has emerged as this offense's No. 1 explosive playmaker. With 50 receptions (84 targets), 832 yards, 16.6 yards per reception, and four touchdowns on the season, his stats are impressive for such a low-volume offense. He has made highlights and has improved his game so much from last season, growing as both a route runner as well as improving the consistency of his hands.
There are a number of other young receivers really emerging this season such as Carolina’s DJ Moore, Jacksonville’s DJ Chark, and Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, but Sutton has done arguably as much if not more with less all season, given the Broncos’ deficiencies surrounding him.
Much like a young Terrell Owens in his prime, Sutton’s size, strength, fluidity, physicality, and body control make him a mismatch each week. Denver has found a young true WR1. He needs help, but this team is that much closer with a true stud emerging at wide receiver.
4. Set to Have $78M in Cap Space in 2020
One reason to be thankful for the 2019 Broncos to this point is, well, this team isn’t going to stay stagnant at this 3-8 level going forward. Of course, getting players back, building upon the scheme with continuity in the offseason, and young players improving, are all part of the goal of any team with the circumstances the Broncos currently face.
You know what else helps a team and gives them a chance to turn the ship around after a poor season? Cash to spend in free agency.
The Broncos, as it currently stands, will have approximately $78 million dollars in cap room to spend this coming offseason, which ranks as the 10th-most of any team in the NFL. Now, of course, many curmudgeons will cross their arms, pout, and say, “Well, the team will spend it wrong anyway” and to that I say you are a month too early Mr. Scrooge.
True, the past offseason’s acquisition of veterans (both trade and free agency) did not really work out for the Broncos. Joe Flacco (acquired via trade) flubbed completely, Ja’Wuan James can’t seem to shake that knee injury, and Bryce Callahan continues to battle issues with his foot that have plagued him since last season.
A good chunk of the cap space is due to a good number of listed starters who will hit the market, but also a big reason for the increased space is because of how the Broncos set the salary cap up this season to carry a majority of their dead cap in 2019 to free up space in 2020.
It was another sign in the long list that this team was never truly competing this season, but setting up for future competition. Still, it is in the very least excited about the possibility of being players in the free-agent market this offseason.
That cap space number will change as the Broncos make moves, such as possibly moving on from players like Flacco and OG Ronald Leary to clear more space while also spending that cap on players such as Justin Simmons. The Broncos shouldn’t just spend their cap space just to spend it, and perhaps may need to reevaluate how they spend on players with higher injury chance, but Denver will have a chance to really attack some needs and add some solid players to this team before the draft in April.
5. Simmons a Great fit in the New Scheme & Should be a Long-Term Stud
All this talk about cap space is making me want to throw money at Simmons. After a few seasons of up-and-down play for the Broncos in a more man-centric, one high/one low safety defense, Simmons has found a home playing safety in the Fangio defense.
Unlike the previous scheme where the free and strong safety were much more dichotomized positions, the safety spot featuring more two-high safety looks has been a godsend for the long, athletic, ballhawking safety from Boston College.
Currently ranked as the best safety in the entire NFL, earning a grade of 90.8 from PFF, Simmons has emerged in his fourth season as a pro as one of the better young safeties in the NFL. While he doesn’t have the range of Kevin Byard, or the size and physicality to play match up in the box of Derwin James, Simmons is a near-perfect fit for the defense under Fangio where he doesn’t have to play many single-high looks, nor does he have to try to come down and run fill in the ally or play man coverage against someone in the slot.
Simmons can do those things, but as was shown last season it’s not what he does best. Why continue to put him in those positions last season? Who knows.
Simmons has amassed 65 combined tackles on the season, 49 of which being solo tackles, with 10 passes defended, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. The Broncos' defensive stats against the pass are remarkable considering just how little opposing teams feel like they need to go to the air because they must try to ‘keep up’ with the team’s anemic offense.
It has resulted in limited opportunity for Denver to force the opponent into making more risky, aggressive passing plays, but still, Simmons is making the most of his. Whether the team is able to come to some sort of agreement before free agency opens, or John Elway must resort to using the franchise tag, Simmons should be re-signed and paid well.
Simmons is a homegrown success story of the Broncos’ drafting, developing, and cultivating young leadership that should and will be rewarded.
Don't miss Part II (read it here).