2020 was a rough year for the Denver Broncos. Finishing 5-11 and earning the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the Broncos finished their fifth season in a row not making the playoffs.
With injuries plaguing the offense and defense, a young offense, an exceedingly difficult schedule, and inconsistencies at quarterback (the most important position), the Broncos' preseason expectations of returning to playoff contention faded quickly as the season progressed.
It's not all reason for doom and gloom, though. In the words of new GM George Paton, the Broncos’ are a “sleeping giant” with a number of young cost-controlled players and a lot of cap flexibility going forward. That cap flexibility will likely be key as many teams around the league will scramble to get below the 2021 salary cap, which is projected to be $20-$30 million less than pre-pandemic projections.
The Broncos are not in 'cap hell' like many teams. Denver likely won’t utilize its minimal space in free agency — outside of a few fringe starters and depth, and its own guys such as Justin Simmons and Shelby Harris — but Paton’s vision remains to be seen.
Paton doesn't have much long-term cap tied up in players on the current roster so really, the Broncos are primed for a real turnover and roster reconstruction under the new GM if he so chooses. If Denver is going to close the gap with the Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers (all of whom boast top-15 quarterbacks), it will likely come down to Paton’s plan of “draft and develop."
Unfortunately for Paton and the Broncos' future prospects, according to ESPN and Pro Football Focus, the team's 2020 draft class was recently ranked as the worst in the entire NFL. While this is something of a fool’s errand (as teams don’t draft prospects for what they are going to do their rookie year, it's about projecting beyond), Denver is going to need better play out of its 2020 draft class if the team has any hope in regaining relevance this year.
PFF via ESPN writes:
“There was not a single rookie in the Broncos’ 2020 class to generate a value above expectation. Their first four selections -- wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (No. 15 overall), wide receiver K.J. Hamler (No. 46 overall), cornerback Michael Ojemudia (No. 77 overall) and center Lloyd Cushenberry III (No. 83 overall) -- all played over 500 snaps, and all four failed to crack the 25th percentile at their respective position in PFF grade.
Jeudy’s drop problems did him no favors. His 17.6% drop rate for the season was the second-worst in the NFL behind his teammate and fellow rookie Hamler at 17.9%. Jeudy did show off the route-running chops we saw from him at Alabama -- the skill set that made him a first-round pick to begin with. Moral of the story: Jeudy had a bad rookie campaign about is still a prime breakout candidate for 2021.”
There is still plenty of hope for the likes of Jeudy and Hamler going forward, as well as the rest of the Broncos’ 2020 draft class. Jeudy did have issues with drops, as well as physicality in contested catch situations but that was a concern for him coming out of Alabama and it continued to show in his rookie season.
Jeudy is far more finesse than power at this point in time, and that may always be the case. However, Jeudy still can uncover as well as any rookie from the 2020 class, but he will need to show better chemistry with Drew Lock or whoever is the Broncos' quarterback next season.
While Jeudy didn’t help his own case with drop issues, especially in situations where defenders were near him and could disrupt him at or near the catch point, the quarterback inconsistencies hurt him as well. This should not be a surprise for a wide receiver relying as much on timing and finesse as him. It takes two to tango, but the distributor of the football has a large influence on how effective any wideout will be.
Many Gems Yet to be Uncovered
Also, while less absurd than ranking draft classes immediately following the event and before any rookie had even stepped on the field, the Broncos also have plenty of stashed away developmental prospects that have yet to make much of an impact. That shouldn’t be a surprise given how draft picks, especially those not taken inside the top-50 picks, are almost always developmental.
Jeudy, Hamler, Ojemudia, and Cushenberry were absolutely erratic as rookies, but we are all still waiting to see what DL McTelvin Agim, TE Albert Okuwegbunam, LB Justin Strnad, OG Netane Muti, OLB Derek Tuszka, and WR Tyrie Cleveland can develop into. Even if none ever develop into anything but average starters or depth pieces, that still has value in filling out the depth of a roster. Judging developmental players before they even make much of an impact is short-sighted.
Wideouts Take Time
An important note for judging the Broncos’ 2020 rookie class, specifically that of the team’s first two picks in Jeudy and Hamler, is the historic learning curve for the wide receiver position. Wideouts typically don’t hit their stride until Year 2 in the NFL.
PFF’s Timo Riske illustrated this point quite well recently. Wideouts gain efficiency in Years 3 and 4, but there is some influence here. By Years 3 and 4 in the league, the wide receivers who 'aren’t it' tend to fade giving way to better players.
Year 2 for wide receivers, just like quarterback given past trends, is the 'make or break year.' The position tends to show its 'average' self in that second season. Jeudy and Hamler 'struggling' in 2020 warrants some concern, but given past trends, both deserve patience to show who they really can be for their career norms in Year 2.
The Broncos are a team that has been stuck in some sort of weird purgatory ever since winning Super Bowl 50. With a team that has seemingly lacked an obvious forward-thinking plan and direction, the Broncos have been piddling in the land of ineptitude and mediocrity, a place this organization and fanbase is not used to dwelling in.
Sure, there are excuses for a number of players given what a weird offseason 2020 was, a new playbook, and an overwhelmingly young offense to go along with an injury-devastated defense. However, excuses only hold for so long. Great teams overcome obstacles and problems, while bad teams make excuses and continue to spin around the toilet bowl of incompetence.
Pump the Brakes on Condemning 2020 Class
It’s far too early to condemn the entirety of the Broncos’ 2020 draft class, but the group will have to take major steps forward in 2021 to prove its worth and help the team climb out of the 'World of Suck.' It won’t be easy in the AFC West given the absurd quality of quarterback play and offensive firepower in the division, but that is the hand the Broncos have been dealt.
Denver can either succumb to a decade of pain such as the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills did during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady reign in New England, or it can improve the team and put up a yearly fight despite the greatness Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, similar to the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings in the face of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.
Either way, the Broncos’ 2020 draft class being ranked 32 out of 32 teams is not a great step in the right direction of regaining relevance. It’s not a nail in the coffin given how much football is yet to be played for these kids, but the class is in a hole it all will have to dig itself out of going forward.
The rookies will need to prove that 2020 was an aberration if the Broncos are to once again contend for anything other than a top-10 draft pick on a yearly basis.