The Denver Broncos entered the season with an offense that had plenty of talent at the skill positions, and some good players on the offensive line, but the biggest question mark was the quarterback.
Everything suggested that the Broncos were likely to have an average offense, with the potential to be good depending on QB play. While it's easy to judge the Broncos by their most recent loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the overall picture of the offense is that it's lived up to expectations: an average unit, with a couple of good games and a couple of bad.
With 10 games in the books and seven remaining after the bye, we now have answers to more specific questions about each position group and where the Broncos are likely to make changes in the offseason, regardless of what happens after the bye.
For the second part of Mile High Huddle's midseason State of the Broncos series, let's go over each position on offense and what's likely to happen going forward.
Teddy Bridgewater was named the starter to open the 2021 season. Overall, he hasn't been terrible, but he hasn't been great, either. And while his game against the Eagles was bad — and that's not simply because of his actions after the Darius Slay fumble return — he has shown he can be a capable starter.
However, while he may be capable, Bridgewater is clearly not the long-term answer. Meanwhile, Drew Lock, having been removed from the COVID-19 list, is available to play after the bye should the need arise.
The truth is, the Broncos will need to start Lock at some point after the bye. At the very least, the team will need to determine whether he can be the bridge QB to another passer Denver drafts and develops.
Lock will be under contract in 2022 and he'll be cheaper than what veterans are likely to cost. While I wouldn't expect the Broncos to have pay $10 million or more for a veteran, Lock's $1.3M base salary is still less than what the team is likely to pay for a free agent.
My concern is that Vic Fangio won't plan to start Lock at any point, though, because, like most head coaches on the hot seat, he doesn't want to bench a veteran for a younger QB, unless that guy is a rookie.
But for the long-term picture, it's best for Lock to see the field at some point. If he gets the chance to start and fails to get it done, the Broncos can officially close the book on him. But if he does provide a spark, it may be worth moving forward with him in 2022.
I don't subscribe to the argument that Fangio holds a grudge against Lock or thinks starting him will make him look bad. After all, if Lock starts and the Broncos turn their fortunes around, that means a playoff trip and a better chance for Fangio to save his job.
As for Bridgewater, given that he'll likely remain the starter for now, he'll have to do better than his performance against the Eagles — again, it's not simply about pursuing a defender who recovers a fumble. Bridgewater missed open receivers and threw several bad passes, and if that continues, the calls to start Lock will only increase.
But if Bridgewater does last the season, any shot of him returning means he'll have to take a value deal or the Broncos will move on. I don't see any chance for Bridgewater to garner anything close to the three-year, $21M deal the Carolina Panthers gave him in 2020.
Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams have both been productive backs, but they've each fumbled. Gordon's fumbles have been more recent and more costly, though, so they tend to get magnified.
One can argue which should be 1A and 1B in this backfield pairing, but there's no chance of either of them getting all the carries. The truth is, the days of the every-down back are fading, and teams who rely on them can be put into a major bind if that back gets injured.
With that said, Williams is certainly positioned to be 1A in next year's offense, because Gordon will be an unrestricted free agent and might be seeking more money than GM George Paton may be willing to pay.
Expect Williams to become 1A at some point, but whether it's this season or next, the Broncos will either sign a cheaper veteran to be the 1B or draft another back next offseason.
When I sat down to write this series, I was prepared to write about how the Broncos would have to choose between Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, both of whom were going to be unrestricted free agents after this season.
Instead, Paton got a deal done with Patrick, signing him to a three-year extension for what may have been much less money than he would have received on the open market. And the extension still makes it possible to keep Sutton.
How much Sutton receives remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: he's not going to re-set the market. The extensions that DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones recently got are clear outliers, both more about the team pacifying them when it saw other receivers surpass the original deals they signed.
Instead, it's the contracts for Amari Cooper and Kenny Golladay that are more likely to come into play — though it remains to be seen whether any potential free agent surpasses those deals. On one hand, it will be a deep talent pool at wideout for free agency; on the other hand, quite a few receivers might have to take lower-cost deals for one reason or another.
Regardless, it won't be impossible to keep Sutton. Jerry Jeudy isn't eligible for an extension in 2022 and likely won't enter such talks until 2023 at the earliest. KJ Hamler isn't eligible in 2022, either, and it won't surprise me if the Broncos let him play through 2023 before deciding what to do with him.
UPDATE: One hour after this article was published, the Broncos extended Sutton on a four-year deal worth $60.8M with $34.9M.
Noah Fant hasn't quite lived up to expectations this season, though one could debate how much of that is because of him, the play calling, or QB play. Regardless, Fant does need to improve as a blocker, because while he's not a pure blocking tight end, he still needs to be good at that to justify being the No. 1 guy.
The main decision in 2022 will be whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option. The most recent fifth-year options picked up were OJ Howard and Evan Engram, both for about $6M. Because Fant was taking No. 20 overall, his fifth-year option shouldn't be much higher than that.
However, any calls to hurry up and extend him need to be tempered. It's true Dallas Goedert got paid well, but that doesn't mean you rush into an extension for Fant. Give Fant the next two seasons to show he deserves that extension.
After all, Albert Okwuegbanum has shown improvement this season and his deal runs through 2023. If he keeps improving, he could be the one that gets the extension.
As for Eric Saubert, I'm not opposed to retaining him on another cheap one-year deal. He's been a good blocking tight end and isn't likely to get much more than the $990,000 base salary he's earning this season.
Left tackle Garett Bolles hasn't played at the level he reached last year, but he's still been a steady performer. He's kept his penalties down — he has just two in eight games — and he continues to do well as a run blocker and in pass protection.
Right tackle remains a question mark for the long term, though. Bobby Massie has been solid, but he's not getting any younger. He'll be an unrestricted free agent and there's no guarantee the Broncos will bring him back.
Calvin Anderson has played well enough to warrant the Broncos giving him the second-round tender and be penciled in at right tackle in 2022, but the Broncos will still need to draft somebody who can at least be the swing tackle.
As for Cameron Fleming, he is what he is — a good run blocker but bad in pass protection. He won't be back with the team in 2022.
Interior Offensive Line
The injury to Graham Glasgow allowed Quinn Meinerz to step into the starting lineup. He's been good in two games and shows a lot of promise.
Dalton Risner, though, hasn't improved from his rookie season. Perhaps he's trying to do much alongside Lloyd Cushenberry, who has been slightly better this year, but still not good enough to show he can be a long-term guy.
That's why the Broncos will need to make a decision in 2022 about what to do at center. The team might be better served by having a veteran start there, to see if that helps Risner settle down.
The question, though, is whether the Broncos hope Glasgow gets healthy and move him to center (he has experience there) or whether they release him and sign a free-agent veteran.
I suppose you could move Meinerz to center, but he didn't look comfortable there in the preseason. He may be better off playing guard, though I won't rule out the possibility of moving him to center.
And while the Broncos do have Netane Muti, it might be smart to have him as an option at left guard — perhaps even starting him late in the season if it's clear the Broncos won't make the playoffs.
Not only do the Broncos have a decision to make at quarterback, they also need to think about the offensive line, which includes a long-term guy at right tackle, and whether or not they are comfortable with all the interior offensive linemen who have started at some point this season.
Getting the QB situation settled will go a long way to getting the offense out of the average-to-good doldrums and into an offense that allows the Broncos to challenge the rest of the division.
But, as I often believe, the best thing for a quarterback is to have a quality offensive line. Addressing that, along with QB, should mean the rest of the offense takes care of itself.
In our final installment of State of the Broncos, we'll look at the defense.
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