In many ways, the Denver Broncos have undergone a massive change since the 2021 calendar began. In others, not so much.
At the conclusion of Denver's 5-11 finish last year, John Elway relinquished his duties as general manager, receding into the background for the final year of his contract as the team's president of football operations. A search for a new GM ensued, with the Broncos interviewing multiple candidates.
George Paton was the hire, formerly the man sitting in the No. 2 chair behind Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman. Despite the arrival of a new general manager, the Broncos opted to keep head coach Vic Fangio, despite two straight years of sub-.500 football.
Again, as things change, some things stay the same, especially in the Mile High City.
Paton rolled into town and executed a lauded free-agent haul, which was followed up by a 2021 NFL draft class that was regarded even higher. The first-year GM also consummated a trade with Carolina to acquire veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whom the Broncos immediately pitted in an open competition with the incumbent Drew Lock.
With training camp and the preseason in the books, the Broncos have whittled their roster down to the final 53 players and constructed an initial 14-man practice squad. What is this team's outlook entering the 2021 season?
Let's start by breaking down the new-look offense.
Bridgewater emerged victorious over Lock in the Broncos' 50/50 quarterback competition. The former Louisville star inherits a supporting cast that is absolutely loaded with talent.
With Courtland Sutton returning from injury, the Broncos' wide receiver corps is teeming with explosiveness. Throw in 2020 draft picks Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, as well as Tim Patrick, this team is four-deep at wideout, giving Bridgewater a true arsenal.
But wait, there's more.
The Broncos loaded up at running back, signing former Viking Mike Boone in free agency and drafting Javonte Williams in the second round. With Melvin Gordon III poised to reprise his role as the lead back in Denver, this backfield should provide Bridgewater with dynamic support.
At tight end, Noah Fant returns for Year 3 and is poised to be one of the NFL's breakout players. Returning from injury is Albert Okwuegbunam, a tight end similar in build and play-style to Fant, only faster.
The Broncos' offensive line saw a star emerge last year in left tackle Garett Bolles, who finished as a top-3 player at his position according to Pro Football Focus. The Elway-led Broncos front office made short work of extending Bolles last fall but the team still needed to figure out the right tackle situation.
When Ja'Wuan James suffered an Achilles tear outside the team facility, the Broncos took their chance to cut bait with the troublesome tackle. In his place, the team signed former Chicago starter Bobby Massie, who ultimately beat out Calvin Anderson for the Broncos' starting right tackle job.
With Denver returning its entire interior O-line trio from last year — including Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III, and Graham Glasgow — this could be the year the unit really takes shape among the NFL's upper-echelon under coach Mike Munchak.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has all the pieces necessary to field a plausibly threatening offense. If Bridgewater can be a point guard of sorts and consistently distribute the ball to this talented array of playmakers, and if the rushing attack takes flight, the Broncos could finally climb out of the NFL offensive doldrums.
Fangio was dealt a bad hand last year by the injury bug, losing one impact starter after another. Fast forward to 2021 and the under-pressure head coach is loaded for bear on this hunt.
Von Miller returns to patrol the edge and has been teamed up once again with Bradley Chubb fresh off his first Pro Bowl campaign. Inside, the Broncos re-signed Shelby Harris to a lucrative extension, giving the defensive line a leader.
The big nose tackle Mike Purcell returns off a 2020 season lost mostly to a lisfranc injury while Dre'Mont Jones is poised to break out this year, if the stars align.
Denver returned both of its starting inside linebackers after Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell graded out among the best run-defenders at the position last year. For depth, the Broncos got back 2020 fifth-round pick Justin Strnad and drafted Ohio State's Baron Browning in the third round.
At cornerback is where the biggest improvements are most apparent. Instead of zigging and drafting a quarterback at pick No. 9 this past spring, Paton zagged, taking Alabama phenom Patrick Surtain II.
The early returns in training camp were positive on Surtain but his NFL preseason debut saw him pick off a pass and return it for a touchdown. This kid is as advertised.
However, Surtain is a rookie. Fortunately, the Broncos spent some serious salary-cap dollars to acquire a pair of veteran cornerbacks to start on the boundary this season. Former Fangio acolyte in Chicago Kyle Fuller arrived on a one-year deal along with Ronald Darby.
Combine that trio of defensive backs with slot-corner extraordinaire Bryce Callahan, and Fangio no longer has to agonize over how he's going to defend against the AFC West's prolific quarterback foes.
At safety, Denver made Justin Simmons the highest-paid guy at his position this past March, though he was recently eclipsed by Jamal Adams in Seattle. After cutting Kareem Jackson, the Broncos re-signed him to a more team-friendly deal, guaranteeing Fangio the return of his trusty safety duo.
This defense is constructed to get after the quarterback and defend the pass. When those stars align, traditionally, it bodes well for a team defensively. On paper, the Broncos' defense is absolutely ferocious.
Record Prediction: 9-8
Yes, the Broncos are stacked on defense and yes, there's an embarrassment of riches on offense. But the quarterback position, as per usual in Denver, is the question mark that keeps the cup of optimism from overflowing.
Bridgewater proved in New Orleans he can win with a championship-caliber roster. But outside of one year in Minnesota, he's never been able to duplicate it.
However, if the stars are ever going to realign for Bridgewater, it'll be here and now in Denver. If that happens and he grows into the quarterback so many expected him to be when the Vikings drafted him in Round 1 back in 2014, the Broncos could win double-digit games.
For now, fans would be wise to err on the side of cautious optimism with hopes of a barely plus-.500 record.
Expected Depth Chart: Offense
- Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock
- Running back: Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, Mike Boone, Nate McCrary
- Wide receiver X: Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick
- Wide receiver Z: Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Diontae Spencer
- Tight end: Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck
- Left tackle: Garett Bolles, Calvin Anderson
- Left guard: Dalton Risner, Netane Muti
- Center: Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz
- Right guard: Graham Glasgow, Netane Muti
- Right tackle: Bobby Massie, Calvin Anderson
Expected Depth Chart: Defense
- Defensive end: Shelby Harris, McTelvin Agim
- Nose Tackle: Mike Purcell, DeShawn Williams
- Defensive end: Dre'Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim
- Rush linebacker: Von Miller, Malik Reed
- Inside linebacker: Alexander Johnson, Justin Strnad
- Inside linebacker: Josey Jewell, Baron Browning, Jonas Griffith
- Rush linebacker: Bradley Chubb, Jonathon Cooper, Andre Mintze
- Cornerback: Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II
- Slot cornerback: Bryce Callahan, Kary Vincent, Jr.
- Cornerback: Ronald Darby, Patrick Surtain, Mike Ford
- Free safety: Justin Simmons, Jamar Johnson
- Strong safety: Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke
Expected Depth Chart: Special Teams
- Kicker: Brandon McManus
- Punter: Sam Martin
- Long-snapper: Jacob Bobenmoyer
- Punt Returner: Diontae Spencer, KJ Hamler
- Kick Returner: Diontae Spencer, KJ Hamler
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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