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Football Outsiders: Broncos will struggle to be playoff contender in 2017

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MHR asks Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders questions about the Denver Broncos 2017 season outlook.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Chicago Bears Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Kacsmar from Football Outsiders answered some questions about the Denver Broncos for us. From clarifying FO’s very poor season projection for the team and who they think should win the quarterback position, Kacsmar gives his outside-looking-in take on the Broncos 2017 outlook.

Football Outsiders annual Almanac is also available, which offers a complete breakdown of every aspect of ever team. Having read through a copy myself, it is a very unbiased take on what this team did last season and where it might go this season. The tl;dr version:

2016: A late-season scoring drought eliminates the defending champs.
2017: New coaches, same old dilemma.

There were five questions I most wanted feedback from FO regarding the Broncos and Kacsmar provided his analysis on each.

MHR: Why did Football Outsiders project 6-wins for the Broncos in 2017? With that defense, even with terrible quarterback play, they appear able to win a few more than that.

Kacsmar: The mean projection in the book is now 7.0 wins, and it is perhaps one of the more controversial projections we have. The projection is low for a few reasons. For one, the Broncos lost a legendary defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips and a veteran head coach in Gary Kubiak, and the new coaching staff is quite inexperienced to fill those roles this season. We still aren’t a fan of the quarterback position here regardless of who wins the job. The defense should still be very good, but it is hard to project greatness for a third year in a row. We already see injuries to Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett going into the season. Denver also plays in a really good division and has the sixth-toughest schedule by our projections.

Throw it all together, and the potential for a 7-9 season sounds high to me. After all, the 2016 Broncos were 9-7 with the Panthers missing a game-winning field goal in Week 1 and the Saints having a blocked extra point go against them for two points in a 25-23 loss. Whether the record is ultimately 6-10 or 8-8, the key thing is we just do not see Denver returning to the 12-win range again and competing for a bye like the team did from 2012-2015. Those days are over until the Broncos figure out this quarterback position.

MHR: How do you see Carlos Henderson fitting into the Broncos passing game? He looks like he could be really good in yards after the catch.

Kacsmar: The third receiver spot on this team has really been wide open ever since Wes Welker and Julius Thomas departed following the 2014 season. Cody Latimer never stepped up to take it, and the other players (Jordan Norwood, Bennie Fowler) have been nothing special, including the tight ends. So I think Henderson has a good opportunity to give the team a much-needed receiving threat after Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. This offense simply cannot afford to have another season where Devontae Booker is the third-leading receiver.

MHR: The Broncos signed several interior defensive lineman in free agency and also drafted DeMarcus Walker in the second-round. Did they do enough to solidify the run defense inside where they were consistently gashed in 2016?

Kacsmar: I think the swap of Sylvester Williams for veteran Domata Peko won’t hurt one bit. They drafted Walker and Adam Gotsis was a second-round pick in 2016. The Broncos have some answers up front, but it comes down to young, high draft picks getting on the field and playing well.

The run defense was surprisingly awful in Oakland last year, and the rematch in Kansas City was just all around bad for this unit. Those were the two 200-yard rushing games the Broncos allowed on the ground. Obviously they can’t allow such games again, but it would also help if the offense sustained longer drives on the road. Most of Denver’s worst games against the run came on the road in games where the offense was not productive.

MHR: Can Isaiah McKenzie become the kind of weapon for the Broncos that Tyreek Hill is for the Chiefs?

Kacsmar: I don’t think he’ll come close to Hill’s all-around production as a rookie, but if given a shot on special teams, he might be able to be a valuable return specialist. McKenzie had five punt return touchdowns at Georgia and a sixth score on a kick return. This is another area where Denver really doesn’t have a player locked into the spot, so I like for McKenzie to fill that role right away.

MHR: Who do you think will ultimately win the Broncos starting quarterback job and would that final decision possibly change FO’s outlook on the Broncos 2017 season?

Kacsmar: The projection really doesn’t change based on the quarterback, because we expect the offense to struggle either way. As a fan I think you want to see Paxton Lynch win the job. He’s a first-round pick, so there’s a supposed pedigree there as well as an investment that needs to start showing a return in his second year. Reports seem to indicate that Trevor Siemian is running away with the job, which I would find troubling as a fan since Lynch is supposed to be the future here.

I find it hard to believe that Siemian hasn’t already come close to maxing out his talent at this level, but being a better leader in the locker room matters to teams, and I think Vance Joseph is going to value that in his tenure.