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7 things to watch for after the Broncos’ bye

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These are the things to watch for down the back end of 2019.

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As much as we like to complain about where the rebuilding Broncos are, this bye week has really served to remind me how much we ought to enjoy it while we can. It’s crazy how fast the season flies by once you’re in it. Barring some sort of really crazy Disney movie ending, there’s seven weeks of football ‘til we’re back in offseason mode.

So even with some tough tests ahead there’s a lot to watch for, even if the playoff talk is all but dead. I’ve already looked at the ten Broncos with the most to prove over the back half of the season, but there’s plenty of reasons of other reasons to tune in and enjoy the 2019 Broncos.

Here’s what I’m watching for:

7. Can the stars keep it up?

Justin Simmons and Courtland Sutton are slowly gaining national attention for what Broncos’ Country has noticed on a week to week basis. They’ve been incredible.

For Sutton, it’s going to be interesting to see how he continues to grow as the unquestioned WR1 in the receiving corps. Just last summer there were questions if he’d top out as a good to very good number two, so what he’s done with a bad quarterback situation and a young supporting cast the last two weeks has been impressive.

Simmons’ jump has been forecast since training camp when he was terrorizing the Broncos’ young quarterbacks. In some corners he’s having what’s considered the best season by a safety in the league through nine weeks, so of course the question now turns to: how much will the Broncos offer him?

With the way NFL contracts work, it wouldn’t surprise me if Justin Simmons new deal turns into a headliner kind of deal. The bigger question for me is if Elway will be wise enough to ensure the Broncos’ are the ones giving it to him. He’s a perfect fit in Fangio’s defense and has been ridiculously durable over the last two seasons.

On the other end of the spectrum are the veteran stalwarts. Even if Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr.’s numbers are down, both have played vital roles for this young team. Von is tied for second in the league in pressures according to Sports Info Solutions, despite being the team’s only edge threat that has to be accounted for on every down. Strap’s the only proven corner in a very young secondary and routinely tasked with the most difficult assignment down and ever down. Both dealt with trade rumors in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, and it’s no guarantee either are back in 2020. Best to enjoy the stalwarts while they can, the days they don the orange and blue is getting closer to its end.

6. How do seven more games treat the surprise contributors?

This last week I asked the gang at Mile High Report who were the biggest surprises so far this season. The list is pretty long and most of the contributors come on the defensive side of the ball: Alexander Johnson, Davontae Harris, Duke Dawson, Mike Purcell, and Malik Reed have all performed admirably when called upon this year. What Fangio’s done squeezing production out of them is an underrated reason the Broncos’ defense is among the best in football.

For many of them, the road gets bumpier as the slog turns to colder weather, especially the defensive backs.

Duke Dawson has already had a few up and down moments, and after watching Davontae Harris’ last three starts at length I’m nowhere near ready to consider the cornerback position “solved” in 2020.

There’s been a quite few times Harris didn’t give up catches he probably should have so far.

The 2018 fifth round pick has had some really encouraging moments mixed in with some good luck. What I saw when I turned on the tape was a player with solid athletic ability and competitive toughness who has the kind of range to stay with his assignment deep downfield if called to. He displays promising flashes at the line of scrimmage as well as a feel for disrupting the catch point, despite shorter than desired length.

If you’re looking for traits over raw stats, Harris does show hints that he has a knack for attacking the catch point.

I’d like to see him eliminate the mental miscues as he gains familiarity with scheme. It maybe unfair to hammer him too hard for this as he was a late addition to the roster after the Cincinnati Bengals waived him at the end of camp.

This was a pretty big gaffe that the young corner wasn’t punished for.

Beyond learning a complicated defensive system, Harris is a bit of a mixed bag against the run. He’s a solid wrap up tackler which helps when he’s playing up out of off coverage and he is willing to get his nose dirty, which are both traits Fangio looks for in his defensive backs. He also struggles to disengage from blocks and has a troubling habit of misreading head fakes and other feints by ball carriers. It showed up against the Colts and cost the Broncos points in week nine.

Harris’ play after the catch is inconsistent and the farther away he is from the ball at the catch, the worse he looks.

For how good I felt about Harris’ Browns game based on the broadcast tape, I felt bad about it based on the All-22. Time after time Freddie Kitchens went after him. If I had written my post about Broncos with things to prove after the bye after I’d finished that game, he’d surely make the list. It’s also why I’ve held off on an official GIF Horse post for him so far. I haven’t seen enough to feel confident in what he is.

The next four games will be huge for Harris. Up until now he’s faced off against a two offenses who couldn’t protect their quarterback, a Chiefs’ team with a backup quarterback for most of the contest (and no Sammy Watkins), the Colts’ Zach Pascall and Jarvis Landry. I’m still very happy with how he’s played relative to what things probably should look like, but let’s see how he fares against Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen (if he plays), John Brown, and the Houston Texans before we consider him a true gem.

5. Who’s catching all those extra passes?

Emmanuel Sanders has been targeted on 16.4% of the Broncos’ passes this season. That’s second on the team, even two games after his trade to the San Francisco 49ers. He also remains second on the team in receptions, yards, and touchdown catches.

With seven games to go, Rich Scangarello will have a slew of options to try and replace that production. Against the Browns Diontae Spencer saw his playing time on offense shoot all the way up to 50% as the Broncos used him in motion and as a deep threat to try and help Brandon Allen as well as create space for Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman underneath.

Coming off the bye Tim Patrick will return to the lineup. Neither he nor DaeSean Hamilton offer the same kind of pure top end speed Spencer or Sanders did. That doesn’t mean they can’t offer something.

Patrick’s frame and ability to go up in jump ball situations makes him an intriguing option when the offense gets into the red zone, he’s also good after the catch and showed an ability to beat press coverage in his extended playing time last year. If he can bring that again, it will do wonders on third downs when opposing defenses tend to bring out more Cover 1 and 0 looks.

Hamilton’s a bit of an enigma. He’s clearly solidified his role as the Broncos’ third receiver in 11 personnel and has played more than 60% of offensive snaps this season. The playing time hasn’t led to many opportunities; he has one target since Sanders was traded and just 11 receptions on the season.

With Allen and eventually Lock under center, things could go either way as young quarterbacks tend to lock onto their primary reads, but he also has a clean slate. By the end of the Joe Flacco era it was starting to seem the quarterback didn’t trust Hamilton, as he’d get open only to see the 12-year veteran ignore him in favor of a sack.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the three receivers and Fred Brown rotate depending on the game plan, matchup, and call. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Noah Fant winds up as the de facto number two receiver by season’s end. He’s still learning on the fly and there will be bumps on the road, but his freaky athleticism has been a key part of some of Sutton’s biggest plays this year. If the Cleveland game is any indication, his role is going to grow with quarterbacks who can effectively throw on play action rollouts.

4. Does blocking become boring?

This sounds like an insult, but it really isn’t. In an ideal world casual fans will stop noticing the Broncos’ blocking issues as Munchak’s magic starts to seep in. On the interior, hope remains that the farther Ronald Leary gets from his 2018 injury the better he’ll look on the move. Reps and practice should also help Connor McGovern at center and Dalton Risner at left guard.

I have serious doubts Garett Bolles suddenly turns a corner, but perhaps a return to health by Ja’Wuan James gives the Broncos a reliably marginal Elijah Wilkinson and James as book ends instead of the roller coaster ride the 2017 first round pick has taken the offense on this season.

One other thing that bears watching now that Brandon Allen has replaced Flacco is how the pressure and sack numbers change, if at all. I’ve long argued how sacks are a quarterback sack and the veteran was becoming a bit of a meme for how often he’d willingly eat dirt.

At the same time, one under-reported complaint about the Kyle Shanahan offense could bear out in Denver. This per Football Outsiders’ 2019 Alamanc:

Shanahan’s passing schemes leave room for criticism as well. His offense is very good at getting receivers open for easy completions but not nearly so effective at keeping quarterbacks upright. Between sacks and hits, 49ers were put on the ground 127 times last season, 21.6 percent of all pass plays, second-most in both categories behind the Houston Texans. Each of the three quarterbacks who started for San Francisco last year—Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens—had knockdown rates of 20 percent or higher. This was not a one-year anomaly, either. Beathard had the highest knockdown rate of any qualifying quarterback in 2017. Even in 2016, when Shanahan and the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl, Matt Ryan’s knockdown rate of 18.9 percent was the highest of his career.

3. What will the pass rush look like in the colder months?

I’ve talked about this before, but sacks are a quick way to sort out box score scouts from those who pay attention to the trench war during games. Simply put, they’re nowhere near the best way to evaluate a pass rush. I said this back when the Von Miller and Bradley Chubb had zero and I want to repeat it now.

Expected Sacks: Enhancing the evaluation of pass rushers – Tasteful Profanity

The problem with using sacks to evaluate pass rushers is that they are dependent on much more than just the play in the trenches while lacking year-to-year consistency. As far back as 2009, evidence suggests that sacks may be as dependent on the quarterback as either the offensive or defensive lines. In 2013, Football Outsiders showed that sacks have a better year-to-year correlation than any other quarterback stat except completion percentage. Jason Lisk did a similar study and found the same results in 2018.

Pressures are a critical part of pass defense, and Von Miller’s still terrorizing opposing blocking schemes. The bigger question going forward is where he’ll get help. With Chubb out for the year it’s been a bit of a rush by committee approach. Fangio’s moved Miller around to maximize his effectiveness and dialed up more blitz looks to take advantage of Alexander Johnson and others to force one on one opportunities.

I already told you how Von is second in the league with 34 pressures, per Sports Info Solutions’ charting data. It’s worth noting that Derek Wolfe is now second on the team with 13, Malik Reed is third with 12, and the injured Chubb remains fourth with nine. No other Broncos’ defender has more than five, but 14 different players are responsible for at least one pressure.

Add it all together, and the Broncos still hover around the league average in pressure rate at 29.1%, better than the 49ers and Bears.

2. How does quarterback look by New Years?

Brandon Allen’s having himself a moment thanks to a big win and an extra week. I hope he’s made the most of it, because I’ve had the Minnesota Vikings circled as a horrific matchup for over a month. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin are the best edge rushing duo in football this year, and Mike Zimmer’s exotic blitz looks could quickly turn things ugly for the young signal caller.

Things don’t get easier ‘til November’s come to a close. Buffalo’s offense is overrated, but Sean McDermott’s defense is extremely dangerous. If the Broncos do plan to activate Drew Lock, it makes a lot of sense to prepare him for week 13 and sacrifice Allen’s hype to the next two weeks.

It’s a big “if,” but if Lock gets to play out December, he’ll have five games to show or win enough to keep John Elway from pursuing another QB in a 2020 class that is looking like a special one.

Last week I was asked on Twitter what he’d have to do to earn that kind of faith from the front office. It’s a tough question to really pin down because so much depends on who’s available whenever the Broncos pick, but Lock needs to display consistent mechanics, decision making, and touch to earn my faith. All three traits left enough to be desired that I’ve long held the best possible 2019 for his long term development was a redshirt year.

I hope I’m wrong.

1. Can Fangio spoil some dreams down the stretch?

All seven games over the back half of the 2019 schedule comes against a team fighting for something. The Lions and Chargers face long odds to make the postseason, but there’s a chasm between where they are and, say the New York Jets.

The Chiefs, Texans, Bills, and Vikings are among the league’s upper crust. It’d speak volumes for Vic Fangio and the coaching staff if the rebuilding Broncos can hang in these games, or set fire to some hopes at the Lombardi.

It should be fun.