Four Starters the Broncos Need to Upgrade Before the Bye
The Denver Broncos have two more games to go before their bye week. The bye is an opportunity for every team to self-scout and make both schematic and personnel changes where needed.
There’s only so much a team can do with a playbook in-season. Tendencies can be sussed out under the scrutiny of self-scouting and certain plays that aren’t working can be re-examined to see if perhaps different personnel groupings or perhaps, different personnel altogether, might salvage the situation. But changing systems mid-season is literally impossible.
That brings us to today’s topic. The Broncos have several starters, mostly on the offensive side of the ball, who aren’t cutting the mustard.
We’re talking about starters playing at a bottom-five level. NFL teams are always looking to upgrade the roster but when a starter is performing as one of the worst at his position in the league, it creates an urgency for the team to not only look for outside opportunities to upgrade — which are few and far between in-season — but also to consider guys lower on the depth chart, who could be deserving of an opportunity for upward mobility.
For some teams, the question of ‘How much worse could it really get?’ becomes pertinent and compelling. The Broncos have four such starters, as I see it, who have played so badly that in terms of making a change, the team has to acknowledge that it really can’t get much worse than the product these guys are putting on the field.
It's time to take action. And the coming bye week will be the team's best chance to rip the band-aid off.
Here’s where the Broncos need to upgrade, as soon as possible, even if it means giving backups an opportunity to play in place of these floundering starters.
Joe Flacco, QB
Let’s get the most controversial starter out of the way. Some fans say Flacco’s struggles are due to a porous O-line, while others are willing to admit that good quarterbacks make up for and elevate a beleaguered and lackluster starting five.
It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ type of proposition but in this case, if Flacco represents the chicken, that's where it starts. He’s the main culprit. Clearly Flacco is only exacerbating the issues and compounding the problems the Broncos have upfront.
The Broncos allowed eight sacks last week to the Chiefs but easily half of those sacks were on Flacco. We’re talking about a QB that has presided over an offense that has converted just 6-of-38 on third down over the last three games combined and scored just six points at home to one of the league's worst defenses and one that was missing two crucial starters.
Putrid, ugly, horrendous QB play. Flacco’s box score stats might not scream incompetence but all one need do is turn on the film and the truth of the Broncos’ plight under center is laid bare.
The Broncos need an upgrade at QB and fortunately for the team, there is one such option who will soon be able to come off of injured reserve — Drew Lock. The Broncos’ rookie second-rounder won’t be a cure-all and many of the offensive problems might persist for a time but this team needs a hungry, athletic QB who can move and create outside the pocket, if OC Rich Scangarello's vision is ever going to take shape.
And it just so happens that Lock represents a premium-round draft investment that the team needs to get out on the field sooner than later.
If the Broncos were winning with a severely compromised Flacco, perhaps the team could forestall facing the Drew Lock issue. But they’re not and Flacco’s play rendered this team a laughing stock on national television.
If the Broncos play Lock down the stretch, coming out of the bye, and he proves to be overwhelmed or ill-prepared for his NFL opportunity, that will be an answer in and of itself, dictating that this team needs to look at the 2020 class of QBs entering the draft. Better to know that sooner than later, if this team hopes to climb out of the doldrums sometime in the next couple of years.
Garett Bolles, LT
Bolles was flagged three times for holding on Thursday night vs. the Chiefs. The Broncos’ third-year left tackle had a solid stretch of play following his Week 2 meltdown where Mike Munchak appeared to be a miracle worker. But Bolles came crashing back down to Earth in a big, bad way last week.
Bolles is a liability and personifies the ‘it literally can’t get worse than this’ realization. I understand that neither Jake Rodgers nor rookie Calvin Anderson appear to be obvious upgrades but again, when your starting left tackle is relinquishing QB pressures and sacks, and jeopardizes each and every offensive possession as a walking penalty waiting to happen, something’s got to give.
The Broncos have tried to put lipstick on this pig, giving Bolles arguably the best O-line coach in the NFL to learn at the feet of. But eventually, you’ve got to call a spade a spade and waive the white flag of surrender.
The Broncos owe it to themselves and the future of the QB position (see: Lock, Drew) to explore any and all options of upgrading the left tackle position asap. That means getting on the horn with Washington and seeing what it will take to pry Trent Williams off their hands, even if such a trade won’t ultimately affect this team’s destiny in 2019.
Elijah Wilkinson, RT
Fortunately, the Broncos have an upgrade at right tackle waiting in the wings and Ja’Wuan James should be good to go in Week 8. James was the plan at RT all along but a knee sprain 10 snaps into Week 1 has caused James to miss the last six weeks.
Wilkinson’s effort has been admirable. But he’s miscast as a guard being asked to play right tackle. He’s big and powerful and cut out to working inside but lacks the athleticism and footspeed to contend out on the edges.
Barring an unforeseen, catastrophic setback, Ja’Wuan James will make his return to the starting lineup in Week 8 at Indianapolis.
Ronald Leary, RG
Leary has been just as bad as Bolles in terms of being a penalty liability at all times. Perhaps getting James back on the field can be a Eureka moment for this coaching staff to insert Wilkinson at right guard, where he played solidly as a seven-game starter last year.
The Broncos are paying Leary a lot of money, so it’s doubtful the team benches him. But Wilkinson has been more disciplined than Leary, not letting a blown assignment or lapse in technique completely tank a rep and lead to a holding foul.
The Broncos are limping by with lackluster play at multiple positions (I’m looking at you, Noah Fant) and could use upgrades at a lot of places. Some of these spots the team has the power to tweak in the present while others will require the patience of development. Some are simply due to the vagaries of the injury bug, like the other starting cornerback slot (*cough* Bryce Callahan *cough*)
But where the team can feasibly make a change to see even marginal improvements, it is incumbent upon the coaching staff to bite the bullet and rip those band-aids off, damn the optics. It might lead to a little egg on the face of this front office but sitting at 2-5 and coming off a 30-6 beatdown loss to Kansas City, GM John Elway has already suffered the biggest of ‘L’s’ in the court of public opinion.
Now it’s time to do what’s best for the team in both the short- and long-term.