Ranking Broncos' Roster Needs That Will Have to be Addressed in 2021
It seems that the Denver Broncos are back on the national radar in 2020. Despite the Broncos residing in a ‘World of Suck’ over the past three seasons with back-to-back-to-back losing campaigns, it appears as if the team is finally trending in the right direction.
Much of that has to do with the optimism surrounding second-year quarterback Drew Lock. If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you are likely going nowhere fast.
Lock hasn’t proven to be that guy just yet… but he gives Denver its best shot at a long-term option at quarterback since the young Jay Cutler days.
It starts and ends with the quarterback position, but the scrutiny surrounding the 2020 Broncos just isn’t due to the hype surrounding the quarterback position, but also how GM John Elway went out and empowered Lock. Adding another solid offensive lineman in Graham Glasgow, as well as an assortment of weapons in Melvin Gordon, Jerry Jeudy, and KJ Hamler, would make any fan base excited about its team’s new acquisitions.
Elway also did quite well using Denver’s excess of capital in the 2020 draft to add a few veterans to a defense. While the defense was solid in Vic Fangio’s first season, the Broncos still went out and arguably improved the unit in the offseason, trading for A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey, who will effectively be replacing long-time fixtures Chris Harris, Jr. and Derek Wolfe.
If Bradley Chubb can return to his rookie season form coming off of an ACL tear and Von Miller continues to be himself, the defense should be locked in as a top-10 unit in 2020.
Even still, with all the excitement finally back in the Mile High City, the Broncos have plenty of areas of concern not just in 2020, but in the future. There is no such thing as a perfect roster, but probing over the depth chart and looking at the contracts, age, and overall build of the team can indicate which direction the Broncos may need to go in the future in free agency, but more importantly the draft.
Last year at this time, I was pounding the table for the Broncos to take advantage of a fantastic 2020 wide receiver class, dreaming of adding someone like Jeudy to compliment Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. Elway did one better not only adding Jeudy but also Hamler to the mix.
Once again, though, it's time to look to the future to try to decipher the best method for how the Broncos should be built. Join me in a quick look at what I call the Positional Tiered Big Board for the 2021 draft, which reveals how the Broncos need to prioritize their roster-building efforts.
Tier 1: Offensive Tackle & Cornerback
The Broncos’ biggest two weaknesses on the 2020 roster are also their biggest concerns long-term for the makeup of the team. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that of the offensive tackle position.
Elway has not skimped on the tackle position during his time in the front office, but outside of a few moves such as drafting Orlando Franklin or trading for Jared Veldheer, most of the GM's moves at the position have blown up spectacularly.
The current Broncos are no exception. With former first-round pick Garett Bolles set to play the last year of his rookie contract after the team declined his fifth-year option, 2020 looks to be a make-or-break season for the team’s maligned left tackle. Bolles is far from the worst tackle in the NFL and did play much better once the offense transitioned to Lock under center, but Bolles has failed to live up to his first-round pedigree.
Bolles may catch the ire of Broncos Country, but equally deserving of concern is right tackle Ja’Wuan James. After cashing in last offseason, James played a total of 65 snaps while battling a lingering knee injury.
He has a tendency to miss most of the season in odd years only to be healthy and show off his talent in the even years. For the sake of the Broncos offense, let’s hope that trend holds.
With Bolles’ disappointing play under his rookie contract and James’ inability to stay healthy, tackle is arguably the Broncos’ biggest need on the roster and one of the most valuable positions in the NFL. Given how both tackle spots are questionable at best, the tackle position is entrenched as a Tier 1 need.
Perhaps not as discussed but of equal concern is that of the cornerback position. Many will argue that the Fangio defense does not need great cornerback play, and while it’s true the scheme isn’t as reliant on corners playing on an island like in the Wade Phillips’ scheme, cornerback is still a massive need and concern on this roster.
The Broncos do have a young unknown in 2020 third-rounder Michael Ojemudia, but he is really the only young long-term prospect on the team. Isaac Yiadom has struggled in his first two seasons in the NFL and while De’Vante Bausby flashed in two games last year, the sample size was so small it’s hard to have confidence that he is as a corner just yet.
The Broncos also have age and expense at corner in Bryce Callahan and Bouye. Callahan, much like James, has had a laundry list of injuries in his career already.
If he can play this year at all it will be a large boon for the defensive backfield. How effective will Callahan be if he can stay on the field and what role he will play (slot vs. boundary) remain a mystery?
Meanwhile, Bouye was a fantastic get for the Broncos only giving up a late fourth-round pick, but there are concerns. A player who misses games every year due to injury, Bouye did not look like the player he was in his last year at Houston or his first two seasons in Jacksonville in 2019.
Are the injuries catching up or was being elevated to a cornerback one spot after the Jaguars moved on from Jalen Ramsey exposing to Bouye? If Bouye doesn’t live up to expectations in 2020, the Broncos can move on from him with zero dead cap and saving $13.5 million.
Given the value of the cornerback position in the NFL, and just how important having quality depth is at corner, cornerback is deserving to be listed as a Tier 1 need right next to offensive tackle. With the amount of 3-by-1s the defense will show under Fangio, having a cornerback the team feels confident in by themselves is key to the function of the defense.
In the track meet that is becoming the AFC West, having a plethora of corners may go beyond a luxury soon if not already.
What happens next for the Broncos in free agency and the draft? Don't miss out on any news and analysis! Take a second and sign up for our free newsletter and get breaking Broncos news delivered to your inbox daily!
Tier 2: Edge Rusher & Off-Ball Linebacker
Quarterback is king in the NFL but beyond the obvious, the positions that have the most value are the ones that have the biggest impact on the passing game. There is a reason that offensive tackle and cornerback were Tier 1 on this big board as both have been argued as the second most important position on the field.
The only other position that can be argued to be more valuable than offensive tackle and cornerback? The edge rusher.
The Broncos are pretty stacked at the edge position when considering the team starts two former top-five picks in Miller and Chubb, but that doesn’t mean the Broncos’ shouldn’t be looking ahead.
Miller is now officially an ‘old man’ in the NFL at age 31. Typically non-quarterbacks or specialists tend to start their decline at age 30, where the question becomes whether that decline is gradual or if that player appears to fall off of a cliff.
Despite some statistical struggles with sacks last season, Miller was still one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the NFL, racking up the seventh-most total pressures in the league last season.
The questions surrounding Miller isn’t simply about his play on the field either, but is also financial. After the 2020 season, the Broncos can move on from Miller, which would result in a dead-cap hit of just over $4 million but a savings of $18 million.
While Chubb is younger and should have many years left of phenomenal play, the elephant in the room is that he has now suffered two significant ACL injuries to the same joint in his football career. Sports medicine and surgeries have improved over the years but a third injury to the same ACL is a possibility with ramifications no one wants to consider.
With Miller’s contract and age and Chubb’s injuries, the Broncos should be considering the edge position as soon as next season. Even if that player is simply a rotational piece their first season, that's fine. With how valuable edge rusher is in the NFL, being proactive and having a contingency plan is a smart organizational move.
The off-ball linebacker position is not nearly as valuable as any I've detailed today but in the Fangio defense, it is something the team must consider. With rumors the Broncos attempted to trade up and select LSU's Patrick Queen in this past draft, as well as the team's reported interest in both Devin Bush and Devin White in 2019 (the trade back value was just too good to pass up), linebacker is a relative need.
That isn’t to say that Todd Davis nor Alexander Johnson are not good linebackers. The issue is both overlap too much in terms of skill-set. Neither have explosive movement skills in space nor coverage chops needed to take the Fangio defense to a new level.
Finding a three-down linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed and fluidity in coverage is a valuable commodity in Fangio’s 'Match Quarters' defensive scheme.
Tier 3: Interior Defensive Line & Safety
The Broncos are set to have one of their best interior defensive line corps the team has rostered since Super Bowl 50. However, there is a catch, the team’s most likely two =-snap accumulators are either older and on an expensive contract (Casey) or is on a one-year contract (Shelby Harris).
Much like the Bouye situation, the Broncos made a fantastic, low-risk/high-reward move in obtaining Casey, but also like Bouye, if Casey struggles in 2020, the team could look to move on from him which would result in a savings of just over $12 million and zero in dead cap.
Harris was brought back after a rather surprisingly dry free agent market. Signed for just 2020, Harris should not be considered a long-term option for the defensive line.
Mike Purcell, the other veteran on the unit, came in last season and solidified the run defense in sub-packages. However, as a run-stuffing nose tackle with little pass-rushing ability, Purcell likely does not figure into the long-term plans filling in a role that is easy to find in the open market.
The Broncos do have two young potential prospects in Dre’Mont Jones and McTelvin Agim, but neither have proven much if anything at the NFL level yet. Just like the San Francisco 49ers over the last few seasons, adding talent and depth on the defensive line is never a bad idea given how rotational the position is in the league.
The last position on the tiered big board? Perhaps the Broncos’ best position in 2020 — the safety position. With Justin Simmons arguably the Broncos’ best player and Kareem Jackson playing exceptionally well transitioning to safety, the Broncos’ back-end of the defense will be fantastic in 2020. However, the depth and long-term prospects are unknown.
With how much Will Parks played last season for the Broncos defense, that third safety position was heavily utilized by Fangio. Also, while Jackson was great last year at safety, he's entering his age-32 season, so the Broncos should think beyond 2020 at the position.
The Broncos could also move on from Jackson after this coming season if he were to flop, saving $10 million with just under $2 million in dead cap.
Neither safety nor the interior defensive line are positions the Broncos must address, but both are positions the team could look to add talent to if the opportunity presents itself.
Listen, everyone is excited about the potential of Lock. But there is a chance, even if one believes it to be minuscule, that he flubs completely in 2020 and proves he does not belong.
Typically a quarterback will take a massive leap in year two and which is indicative of just how good they will be in their career. If Lock fails in 2020 despite the talent around him, the Broncos very well may and should consider going back to the quarterback well.
Here’s to hoping Lock exceeds expectations in 2020 and the search for quarterback can be put to bed for at least the next decade.