Denver Broncos 2017 Preview

I knew the moment that my Broncos woke up to Super bowl sized hangovers would be the moment the uncertainty would begin. All the niggling questions “what if?’s” Became hypothetical banana skins on the path to continued domination. I lay awake well after my milky drink and bedtime story pondering…. Could we repeat? Could our incredible defense get any better? Could we see the 6’8″  Brock Osweiler lift a Lombardi a few inches higher than any other QB in history? Could we stave off challenges from 3 of the strongest teams in the AFC?. All of them in our division?

The answer to all of these questions would, in time prove to be an emphatic no.

 

2016 Season

The loss of inside linebacker Danny Trevathan to the Bears, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson to the Jags initially panicked me somewhat given their crucial roles shoring up the middle of the Run defense and creating interior pressure ( More on THAT subject later! ). Nonetheless I chanted the same mantra to myself “Hey! Hey! It’s Elway!! He knows what he’s doing”

Coach Kubiak gave me pause for comfort though because whilst Peyton Manning had yet to retire I had faith that he had shown he could get a good standard of  execution in the system from Brock Osweiler. I had some faith that the Broncos would negotiate a contract that suited both sides and that Brock would be the De-facto developmental starter.

Well, we all know how that ended and as Brock signed that contract with Houston and invested in a Scrooge McDuck sized vault for all that filthy lucre  I felt furious and a little Nauseous. It would appear that Osweiler had voted with his feet which a vote of leave from the QB meant Brock-xit.

So, it was with a furrowed brow that I observed pre-season watching Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez (swoon) and Paxton Lynch flaunt their wares . Inevitably Trevor Siemian was entrenched as starter for week one almost immediately and  I braced myself for a year of terrifying destabilising QB controversy. But….it never came.

Seemingly, for the first few weeks of 2016 it appeared that it would be business as usual at Invesco. Stifling defense complementing a run-based rollout offense with relatively limited QB play. Still a recipe to win with right?.

Nope.

For me, the biggest disappointment with the 2016 Broncos was everything to do with the running game. Both Gaining yards and, even more crucially giving them up. From week 1 onwards the front seven consistently gave up excessive yardage totals to relatively weak rushing attacks. The smothering secondary was still utterly stellar in its dominance of all but the very best of passing games, allowing less than 200 yards passing per game and an average QB rating of 69.4  but ultimately, teams that could generate decent results on the ground, manage down and distance, limit their pass attempts on the perimeter and use running backs vs their LB’s in coverage exploiting the lack of relative mobility of Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis. Those teams generally won games against Denver.

To compound matters offensive tackles Russell Okung, Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo, in rotation all underperformed, not just in run blocking for Kubiak’s Outside Zone running Scheme but in pass protection also. This meant an awful lot of Kubiak’s gameplan often fell apart, putting the onus on the relatively inexperienced Trevor Siemian to direct a more pass heavy attack than Kubiak would have liked in siege-like conditions.

To be fair in the context of the imperfect circumstance Siemian was put in I think he performed considerably better than we all realistically expected a sophomore 7th rounder to deliver. In a handful of games Siemian proved he could generate offense all by himself. But week to week he proved inconsistent and demonstrated his all too obvious ceiling. Paxton Lynch meanwhile, flashed glimpses of just how high his ceiling could be with his superior athleticism and arm talent. However Lynch was still an unrefined talent, obviously still in need of some serious work, but then we knew that already. Lynch’s time will come in due course it is just a question of when, not if…..or is it? ( More on that later )

For me Superbowl 50 was a by-product of a team that could generate rushing yards and big running plays when it was needed most. That element was sorely lacking and it meant that with a weakened front seven on the defensive side too, the clock was always against them. Also they were susceptible to giving up big rushing yardage late in the game. The absolute nadir of this, is the game vs the Titans where Mariota had a QB rating in the 50’s and completed less than half his passes, a game where Tennessee only scored 15 points, but dominated the clock and ran for over 200 yards in a 15-13 victory.

Denver finished with an average time of possession of just over 29 minutes, not exactly a recipe for a repeat. Especially in a division that is already the most competitive in the AFC ( more on that also, later ).

The overriding theme last year was how limited Denver were in the trenches, and how a few key moves and injuries saw a championship team suddenly become very, very ordinary at times.

Come January with Chiefs and Raiders in the playoffs and the announcement that Gary ‘all my own hair’ Kubiak was retiring I suddenly felt a small tremor in the force as I swear I felt a seismic shift in the hierarchy of the AFC West. As if a shadow descended over Mile High, and it should be noted, my soul too. DeMarcus Ware retired, Wade Philips went to the Rams and it all reminded me of the scene in Almost Famous when Stillwater and their entourage are at the airport about to go their seperate ways, and I felt like the young William Miller vomiting cathartically into a bin as the exhausting ride came to an end.

 

Bronc-Xit means Bronc-Xit.

Well, just missing the playoffs, then losing your head Coach and Famed Defensive Coordinator to retirement and the Rams respectively suddenly makes things seem even more precarious doesn’t it? And a potentially seismic shift in offensive philosophy to Mike McCoy’s pass-centric approach and suddenly all bets are off. There is now so much unknown, that I am feeling a bit insecure and just typing this is making my head spin.

I know McCoy is returning to a team where he helped coordinate one of the most explosive offenses in NFL History. But the only high-level piece still on the depth chart from that time is Demaryius Thomas. And whilst Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are the perfect receiving duo for young quarterbacks ( reliable, good after the catch and savvy operators ) the layer of talent behind them is not on par with Wes Welker and 2013-2014 Julius Thomas. Plus none of the three QBs in the mix in camp are likely to ever be Peyton Manning.

Luckily Mike McCoy is something of an offensive “magpie” as a coordinator. Happy to use the nicest and shiniest pieces of other peoples offenses in order to ease transition and maximise the abilities of the players on the roster. So I fully expect there will be elements of Kubiaks system still in place to ease that transistion. But McCoy has to find a way to scheme around limitations on the offensive line although Ronald Leary and Garret Bolles are significant upgrades, however the answer to their tackle problem is still not an emphatic one. McCoy needs to find ways to accentuate the talent they have at running back which, while it is not an elite group I would certainly expect new addition Jamaal Charles to add new flexibility in terms of the way they use backs in the passing game. He is, when healthy a swiss army knife type player who can have a transformative effect on an offense. In addition to Anderson and Devontae Booker that running back group is suddenly much stronger.

On the defensive side of the ball the promotion of defensive backs coach Joe Woods to Defensive co-ordinator also reassures me somewhat in regard to the philosophical direction defensively. The addition of Domato Peko is very much a step in the right direction in regard to stiffening that line versus the run, Peko is versatile as a big bodied DT in a 4-3 with the size and skill set to play nose tackle in a 3-4.

Hopefully Woods also addresses the coverage issues that Todd Davis amd Brandon Marshall had last year, as a rule teams that could split backs out wide and send  them out running routes were Kryptonite to that defense. For example Atlanta were able to do whatever they wanted underneath with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman and they did it from their standard 2 backs 2 Wide receiver sets which kept Denver in their base defense creating favourable personnel match ups easily. This is a less terrifying version of the same problem the Raiders suffer from, but its something teams now actively look to exploit vs Denver. They need to fix this issue emphatically this year.

 

Mr Irrelevant, a Big Butt, and a Big Daddy.

Denver’s Draft was actually, for me, pretty sound. With perhaps the greatest coup de gras coming at the very end of the draft…

Picking up tackle Garrett Bolles in round 1 was no surprise, and Big Daddy carrying his baby daughter in his arms on draft day was a refreshing first. Elway had the chance to take younger tackles with more pure strength or fewer penalties (Bolles was one of the most penalised linemen in all of College football), but picked a character player who was a willing combatant and a finisher. He is the symbol of the bad attitude that the Broncos line has needed for all this time. Hopefully that edge is the tonic they need.

Defensive end DeMarcus Walker in Round 2 represents a partial replacement for Demarcus Ware, whose absence should not be underestimated. Walker is a technically sophisticated, multi-move pass rusher who is a little small and lean for anything more than sub-packages in year one, but the potential for him to blossom into a good starter is undeniable. High effort and strong fundamentals he has in spades, the strength and conditioning will come in time.

3rd Round pick Slot WR Carlos Henderson had 48 missed or broken tackles last season 20 more than the 2nd best receiver in College football – he is a player who potentially can deliver consistent Yards after catch and clocked up 1700 receiving yards in 2016. This is key with receiving production on the inside being an issue for Denver since Wes Welker left. He also offers great value in the return game, along with Isaiah McKenzie who was drafted as a special teamer.

Tight end Jake Butt coming off of a torn ACL was a steal in Round 5. He is a big reliable pass catcher who, whilst he isn’t in the same class athletically as say David Njoku, he is certainly an upgrade at a position that Denver needs to be much better at going forward.

Defensive back Brendan Langley is a raw prospect. However as a converted wide receiver he is an excellent athlete with low 4.4 speed and great ball skills. He will add depth to an already very deep secondary.

For me though, drafting QB Chad Kelly as Mr Irrelevant is probably the smartest move Elway has made in a long time. Regardless of how one feels about the off field issues the fact is that Chad Kelly is a talented young player with a lot of interesting tangible athletic traits and a strong arm. His presence on the depth chart is not outwardly a scare tactic on Elway’s part but you can bet his presence will certainly add some spice and edge to this QB competition that a Chad Henne or a Mark Sanchez just can’t.

And just like that Elway unbroke my heart.

 

So can I dream the impossible dream yet?

Nope.

That might sound harsh but the reality is that key departures have left big question marks and new additions are not yet able to provide an authoritative answer. Take the quarterbacks. Who are any of these QB’s anyway? Really? My gut tells me Lynch has about 3 months to make his move on the starting job or risk being a ‘just a guy’. This becomes an absolute necessity with Chad Kelly sniffing around the QB3 spot like a hungry dog outside a chip shop. If Lynch fails to progress it’s entirely possible that Kelly could make a push for QB2 by year end.

QB contests aside, my sense is that the waters in the AFC West got a lot more muddied this off season and it is, from top to bottom the closest division in the AFC by far. Lots of rosters got better and it would not surprise me if any one of these teams won the division. If the Broncos are to compete, I have to think it will be on the back of the defense, and an improved running game and even then every divisional matchup may as well be a coin-flip.

My prediction this year, is probably a wild card if they can sweep the Chiefs ( a HUGE if ). But more likely a 3rd place at 9-7 is realistic.

I am a homer, but a realistic one and ultimately we are in a spot where there is still a future for Denver, but this future is most likely a year away.

One thing is for sure however. Denver are still one of the most competitive teams in the league and will be exciting and intriguing in every game.

So hang in there folks.