Vic Fangio's defense last season turned in an admirable effort in the face of catastrophic personnel losses due to the injury bug. The Denver Broncos lost eight-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Von Miller before the season began, and suffered through a litany of injuries both on the defensive line and in the secondary.
The list of names to land on injured reserve last year was a who's who of impact players, from defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, to starting nose tackle Mike Purcell, to top-10 cornerback Bryce Callahan, to even rookies and up-and-comers like Essang Bassey and Kevin Tolliver II. Even when it wasn't the injury bug, the Broncos still dealt with key personnel losses, like in the case of No. 1 corner A.J. Bouye, who dealt with a shoulder suffered in Week 1 and later a concussion before being forced out for the final quarter of the season as a result of a PED suspension.
Fangio was like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. As soon as he plugged one hole, another sprung open.
However, with the upgrades the Broncos have made defensively — procured through free agency — and by virtue of the sheer volume of talent returning from IR, this defense looks mighty ferocious on paper.
It's so impressive that ESPN's Mike Clay projects the Broncos' defense to be No. 1 in the NFL in 2021.
Although the likes of Casey and Bouye have hit the bricks, the Broncos have acquired more talent than they've lost. Denver signed two cornerbacks in the first wave of free agency in Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, and later ex-Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Shamar Stephen.
New GM George Paton got the Broncos over the hump with Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons, re-signing him to a record contract, while re-signing D-line leader Shelby Harris, and optioning the final year on Miller's contract.
Throw in the return of Purcell at the pivot and Simmons' partner Kareem Jackson on a reduced team-friendly deal, and it's a defense teeming with menace. However, a defense is only as good as its depth and that's where the Broncos could run into some issues.
Fortunately, the NFL draft is just around the corner and the Broncos are likely to fill a few key spots a little lower on the depth chart to round out any possible rough edges. The Broncos could have a defense that'll make the team competitive.
The fly in the ointment? The offense, which Clay has ranked No. 28. It's a unit still in chrysalis.
While some fans hope and expect the Broncos to draft a quarterback in the top-10, the odds point to Drew Lock reprising his role as the starter in 2021. That side of the ball for the Broncos is also teeming with talent but it's mostly unproven and in-potentia.
All it'll take to fully realize it is a quarterback to be that tide that raises all ships. With Lock getting offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur back — the first time the QB has had the same playbook year-over-year since his sophomore-to-junior campaigns at Mizzou — there's optimism in Dove Valley that Lock could well turn the proverbial corner.
If that happens, combined with Fangio's defensive acumen and the talent at his disposal, the Broncos could be a surprise from-worst-to... competitive team in 2021. Provided, of course, that Lock doesn't fail to launch.
Everything Looks Better on Paper
Again, on paper, things are shaping up well for the Broncos and by virtue of the law of averages, this team is due for some sunshine soon. But remember, Clay predicted the Broncos to be a playoff team in 2020 (as did I).
None could foresee the pandemic that rocked the world and the NFL, which wreaked all sorts of calamitous, collateral damage on the Broncos. If this offseason and summer shape up in a more traditional way, with OTAs and mini-camps, a normal training camp, and an actual preseason, I'd be inclined to be bullish once again on the Broncos' outlook for 2021.
Because I project Lock to take that leap forward. It might not be of the quantum variety but it'll be enough to silence the naysayers and win ball games with Fangio's stingy defense in tow.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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