Here's Why Fans Should be Thrilled About Broncos' Young Offensive Nucleus
The Denver Broncos offense is still a work in progress. This was always going to be the case, but the growing pains are still painful when forced to watch the offense struggle and come up short seemingly every week.
From the disappointment that was an 'in-his-prime' Joe Flacco, to the inconsistencies in play-calling of Rich Scangarello, to the ups and downs in execution by the players, the Broncos offense is still trying to find out what it wants to be going forward.
Sitting as the 18th-ranked offense according to Football Outsiders, it is still a far cry from being good enough to be relevant in the NFL landscape.
Becoming relevant was not going to happen overnight. This was a roster rather barren in terms of difference-makers on the offensive side of the ball in the post-Peyton Manning era.
While players like Demaryius Thomas, C.J. Anderson, and Emmanuel Sanders hung on, the offense as a whole become stale and stagnant as the team plunged into the depths of ineptitude landing squarely in the ‘World of Suck’. Coaching decisions, roster construction, the offensive line, and quarterback, all deserve blame.
Despite the longstanding issues on the offensive side of the ball, a new era appears to be on the horizon in the Mile High City. Since the transition from Flacco to QB Brandon Allen, the Broncos have started to flash more and more scoring potential.
Whether this is because of Allen’s mobility helping the offensive line, his propensity to toss it up and let his playmakers make plays, or improvements from players and play-callers alike, the offense has had as many high-end flashes the past two games as they have in a long while. There is a pulse.
Encouraging Signs of Life
For the first time in what feels like ages, the Broncos offense is spitting sparks that prelude a roaring fire. The scheme, while some call it antiquated, is a proven one in the league. While its basis does lie all the way back to Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, it has been constantly changing and evolving over time and has been the buzz of the offseason.
Whether it be the Andy Reid coaching tree with Jim Nagy and Doug Marrone, or the Mike Shanahan tree with Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Zac Taylor, and Matt LaFleur, the West Coast Offense is versatile and is shown it can be run in a multitude of ways to highlight different personnel.
While some may pile on the scheme for not being quarterback-friendly enough, given both physical and mental demands, a true issue with it so far this season has been more so Scangarello growing as a play-caller. Sometimes the calls can be rather head-scratching (how many times can he call an end-around to Noah Fant? We get it, Fant is fast but is he that fast?).
This is Scangarello’s first time calling plays at the NFL level, so it was always going to take some time but it does appear to be getting better despite its still bipolar nature. From the highs of the first half of the Week 11 Vikings game to the lows of the second half, playing Monday Morning Quarterback to some play calls is fair.
The execution, however, is as much to blame as the calls or design. In the end, though, it’s about the Jimmies and Joes, rather than the X’s and O’s, as it were.
The Broncos still have talent deficiencies on the roster offensively. Don’t look now, but the offensive line has put together back-to-back solid weeks against rather impressive defensive fronts in the Browns and Vikings.
Is this more of a boost from a more mobile quarterback? An offensive unit starting to gel in a new scheme? Or perhaps the Mike Munchak effect finally starting to take effect? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Garett Bolles is a problem at left tackle, and it seems more apparent by the week that Elijah Wilkinson is a guard playing tackle due to circumstance. Even still, the line does seem to be improving.
Connor McGovern is playing quite well as the snapper and appears to be gelling with veteran Ronald Leary and rookie Dalton Risner, while many still call out for Denver to draft a ‘true center’. Much like Billy Turner last season, given the age, schematic and positional versatility, and upside of McGovern, the Broncos probably would be wise to hop on retaining him sooner than later or risk losing him to a team starved for line talent.
Retaining McGovern should be continually moving up the list of ‘things to do’ for the Broncos this offseason. It does seem likely the Broncos will move on from Leary in the offseason, given his injury history and the fact the team can save $8.5 million if they move on, but a projected 2020 interior trio of Risner, McGovern, and Wilkinson under the eye of Munchak (and offensive line assistant Chris Kuper) can be more than adequate.
Tackle must be solved, however. It is hard to trust Ja'Wuan James at right tackle but given his contract, he will likely be penciled in there as the starter next season no matter what. Left tackle, though?
Hopefully, that is a player yet to be on the roster. The offensive line is improving and it’s hard not to have faith in Munchak, but the team could stand to add another stud tackle to the equation.
A Dynamic Back
Far more obvious than the improvement on the offensive line over the recent weeks, the Broncos appear to have some budding explosive playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Everyone knows about Phillip Lindsay, the son of Denver.
While his efficiency numbers are slightly down from last season, posting a rate of 4.9 yards per carry as opposed to the 5.4 he averaged in 2018, Lindsay is still the heart of the offense. If he is to take his game to the next level, he really does need to become more of a pass weapon for the offense, something that hasn’t happened yet.
Given his agility and speed, one would think Lindsay would be dynamic as a receiver, but that isn’t always the case given the nuance required as a receiver. Lindsay’s stature and how it impacts his ability as a pass blocker undoubtedly play a part in his pass game role, but it would be nice to see it expand.
Even if Lindsay never becomes a great receiving back, his ability to run with vision and tenacity on top of his ability to create explosive plays on the ground is a tenet of the offense now and going forward. Lindsay’s star burns bright in Denver, but he hasn’t been the most valuable player on offense this season.
A Star at WR
That honor belongs to emerging top-10 wide receiver Courtland Sutton. While not possessing elite speed, Sutton has taken a massive step forward in 2019 as the offense’s ‘go-to’ option in the passing game.
With 49 receptions (on 76 targets) amounting to 805 yards, a whopping 16.4 yards per route, four touchdowns, 35 first-down receptions, and 10.6 yards per target average, Sutton is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver at the X position for the Broncos. Given his long gate and physics-defying agility for a man of his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), Sutton always had potential as he flashed last season, but he looks like a different player entirely this season.
We've seen improvements in his route running as well as a plummet in his dropped passes. Sutton might not only be the most improved wide receiver on the Broncos this season, but the entire NFL.
As a wide receiver, he does require the quarterback to do their job to get him the ball, as well as a counterpart at wide receiver to help counteract the ever-increasing rate of double-teams and bracket coverage coming his way, but undoubtedly Sutton is here to stay and a problem. It was always expected he could take a leap from year one to two, but not many could have expected this level of play from the second-year player.
Historic Rookie TE
Speaking of timelines for players emerging, Noah Fant is ahead of schedule. For wide receivers. it typically takes a full season before they truly emerge and show what they will become in the league, but for tight ends, that transition can take two to three seasons.
Given that tight ends must know the playbook and blocking assignments like a tackle, while also knowing the route tree and technique of wide receiver, it shouldn’t be a surprise the position typically spits out slower developers. That is a lot of information to ingest.
With all that said, and likely thanks in large part to the University of Iowa which has quickly become a tight end factory for the NFL, Fant is further along than anyone with realistic expectations would have projected. Much like Sutton as a rookie, there are a fair amount of ups and downs in Fant’s game right now.
From some issues tracking the football in stride to give himself the best opportunity for yards after the catch, to inconsistencies as a blocker (however, it is hard to give him too much grief when matched up one-on-one with an elite edge rusher), Fant is showing weekly that while tight end is typically not a position taken in the first round, his upside in the pass game is as high as any player at his position in the NFL.
Some depict Fant as ‘too small’ for the classic tight end position, but at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and a solid arm length of 33.5 inches, he is essentially ‘average’ in terms of his proportions compared to his positional peers. Fant perhaps could add on some more muscle to help with his blocking ability inline, but that is likely more of something that comes with technique and experience as opposed to the added mass.
When it comes to athleticism, Fant is anything but ‘average’, though. Even compared to his peers at tight end, Fant is one of the better athletic players to come out since Vernon Davis tore up the Combine in 2006.
Testing in the 95th percentile or better against all other tight ends' Combine workouts all-time in the 40-yard dash (4.5-second), 3-cone drill (6.81s), vertical jump (39.5 inches), and broad jump (127 inches), it shouldn’t be surprising his athletic highlights this season.
With his first touchdown coming off a screen pass against Jacksonville and his explosive 75-yard touchdown vs. Cleveland, Fant oozes upside but that comes also with the inconsistencies, such as the maddening game against Kansas City. The variance should be no surprise given his rookie status.
Through 10 games, Fant has amassed 27 receptions on 47 targets for 360 yards, averaging 13.3 yards per reception, 7.7 yards per target, and two touchdowns. His catch rate is not where one would hope at 57.4%, but again in comparison to Sutton, who had a 50.0% rate his rookie season which jumped to 64.5%, he should take a step forward as he gains more experience.
The QB Question
Furthermore, given these issues and lack of talent at quarterback and many, simply put, not accurate targets, that rate is as much about the thrower as it is the catcher of the ball. Fant is on pace to be one of the best rookie tight ends in recent memory and could shatter previously held team records for rookies at the position, especially given how much Fant’s target share has exploded since the Emmanuel Sanders trade (25.5% of the pass targets, a massive number for any tight end).
The Broncos still have a ways to go on offense. The offensive line is still not up to the standards many should hope, but with cap space and draft capital aplenty, the team will likely attack the O-line early and often this offseason to continue growing the unit under the masterful Coach Munchak.
The offense could use more weapons around the likes of Lindsay, Sutton, and Fant. From depth and complementary skill-set, to Sutton at wide receiver in more speed and YAC weapons that can run from the Z or slot wide receiver spot, a more classic Y tight end to help ‘unleash’ Fant from the line of scrimmage and use him more in space, to perhaps a running back with more pass-catching proficiency in the role the team had hoped Theo Riddick would play, this team still has work to do.
In the end, as it does in the NFL, it comes down to the quarterback. If the Broncos can find ‘their guy’, these weapons will only get better and the offense will finally help this team leave the World of Suck to explore planets beyond.
Perhaps Drew Lock can be the answer, perhaps not, but everything is extraneous if the level of quarterbacking post-Peyton Manning continues. The Broncos will find an answer there, eventually… hopefully.
Even still, no matter who is playing quarterback, the Broncos offense feels like it has for the first time in a while, direction and momentum. It still will have its ups and downs, just as any team with so many young players still transitioning in a new scheme will do.
For the first time in a while, the offense is bringing two things to the fanbase it hasn’t in years — hope and excitement. Would that it continues.