Going into the 2021 season, the Denver Broncos hope to right the ship at almost every level. The Broncos' offense had its woes, especially the erratic quarterback play, and the interior offensive line was consistently pushed backward last year.
The defense had trouble staying healthy at almost every position, and the coaching staff struggled with its offensive play-calls and the ability to cater to the strengths of the skill-position players. After such a disappointing year, a handful of Broncos find themselves really under the gun to perform.
Here are the top-5 under the most pressure.
Llyod Cushenberry | C
In the 2020 NFL draft, the Broncos selected the talented center from LSU in the third round. Cushenberry was coming off an impressive year with the Tigers, earning first-team All-SEC honors and anchoring the 2019 Joe Moore award-winning O-line, which is handed out each year to the nation's top OL unit. He was also the first offensive lineman to be awarded the number 18 jersey, given to the best LSU player on and off the field.
Cushenberry's rookie season started out a little shaky as he was the weakest link on the Broncos' offensive line at times. He struggled to match the strength of the defensive linemen he faced early on and was regularly pushed back into the quarterback.
However, as the season continued, he improved and minimized the quarterback pressures. Especially after the Week 3 match-up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Going into the 2021 season, Cushenberry has an excellent chance to remain the starting center but needs to improve on his one glaring weakness: his strength. With the team drafting Quinn Meinerz in the third round, Cushenberry is on notice. Meinerz possesses tremendous power and seems to be seamlessly picking up the center position.
Josey Jewell & Alexander Johnson | LB
When the Broncos decided to part ways with veteran linebacker Todd Davis last year, it cleared the path for Johnson to join Jewell as the starting duo. The smash-mouth pair has excelled in defending the run but needs to improve in pass coverage.
Jewell uses his high football IQ to diagnose and break down offensive formations, allowing him to be in the proper position to make the stop on the field. He also has shown the ability to find his way through traffic to deliver the big hit.
Jewell put this ability on full display when he weaved his way through traffic to deliver a thumping blow on rushing champion Derrick Henry in the backfield for a loss in the season-opener last year. With all that being said, Jewell can be a liability in pass coverage, as he doesn't possess the athletic traits needed in today's game.
Johnson garnered a lot of attention after his impressive 2019 season. So much so, he would earn the right to join Jewell as a starting inside linebacker. With that being said, Johnson is still a little rough around the edges.
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell talked about Johnson's freelancing style last summer.
"We just want him to get tighter and tighter on his assignments, but you know he's got a reckless style to him, and that helps our defense," Donatell said.
Johnson will need to fine-tune his game, but he doesn't have much time to do it, as Denver has two young linebackers in Justin Strnad and Baron Browning champing at the bit to move up in the depth chart. Both Strnad and Browning have all the tools, including the coverage ability to be a true three-down 'backer.
Drew Lock | QB
Lock has the most pressure on him to succeed in 2021. He has all the tools to thrive but needs to continue to fine-tune his skill-set and not fall back on his bad habits.
Lock will first need to remain calm in the pocket, which is easier said than done early in the season, as the pocket was routinely collapsing on him early in his reads. As the season progressed, the pocket held tight, but Lock would get happy feet. Running to his right and cutting off half of his targets in the process.
Lock also needs to work on his footwork. Lock's technical flaws have cost him when dealing with man coverage. This is important when it comes to timing routes in small windows that close quickly, and if you are a split second late because of choppy footwork, it can either be deflected or intercepted.
Lock's time is running out to improve his mechanics and footwork. With the Broncos trading for veteran Teddy Bridgewater, Lock can either correct his mistakes or watch the game from the bench. If Lock fails to win the job, his days in Denver might be done.
Pat Shurmur | OC
The Broncos are littered with talent on both sides of the ball but have fallen short of expectations in recent years. Some of this is due to the team being riddled with injuries, and some have been because of Denver's coaching staff coming up woefully short of putting its players in the best position to succeed.
Shurmur has faced substantial criticism as he has failed to meet expectations after being hired in the 2020 offseason. Broncos Country jumped with joy after the initial hire, but the tune soon changed as the team's offense failed to put the ball in the end zone, along with the misuse of Philip Lindsay and an offense that doesn't cater to Drew Lock's strengths.
Not to compare Lock with an all-timer like Peyton Manning, but Shurmur will need to make specific tweaks to his offense, as Gary Kubiak did when arriving in 2015, to put him in the best position to succeed on the field.
Follow Kenneth on Twitter @KennethMHH.
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