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10 Broncos with the most to prove after the bye

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Some have had disappointing starts, some have tons to lose if questions remain unanswered into 2020. These Broncos have to make their mark on what’s left of the season.

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

If you’re the kind of person who can’t look beyond the record, it’s easy to say Vic Fangio has a lot to prove over the remainder of the season. The Broncos are 3-6 and need to go on a 5-2 run to avoid the franchise’s first three-season stretch under .500 since 1972.

However, if you can look beyond the fact that this team is clearly rebuilding under a rookie head coach, there are plenty of positives. Both Courtland Sutton and Justin Simmons have made huge jumps in the new systems, and Fangio has shown a knack for squeezing an enormous amount of production out of some unlikely pieces on defense.

There remain questions to answer though, especially for members of the Broncos offense. It’ll be fascinating to see who, if any, can take steps in the right direction over the final seven games of the season.

Here are the 10 I’d most like to see some growth from:

10. Brandon Allen

The Broncos’ quarterback at the moment is playing with house money right now. Courtland Sutton’s heroics and Mr. 8’s athleticism made sure his final stat line would look really impressive. Mixed in with those spectacular plays were a few dropbocks I’m sure he’d like back. It’s easy to forget that Allen was a really late addition to the roster and didn’t have camp in the system, so the bye week and more preparation could really help him flourish. Fangio said as much himself:

He’s at the point where he knows our offense and he’s been in our meetings since he’s gotten here. Same kind of guy that [a previous question] is alluding to, didn’t get here until after preseason was over. Now he’s getting an opportunity to practice more. Just practice, I think, will produce the improvements we’re looking for.”

While some in the local media will grind their teeth over it, it’d be nothing but great if Allen can settle in as a reliably competent signal caller over the next couple games.

9. Malik Reed and Justin Hollins

Two other young players who can do a ton of good for themselves over the remaining slate. Reed has flashed some really promising plays for a 235-pound edge rusher, while Justin Hollins notched his first NFL sack last week.

Von Miller can’t do it alone. We’ve already seen Derek Wolfe step up his game to help ease the burden as a pass rusher, and Shelby Harris has been batting passes left and right, but if this duo can add in some heat off the edge, it’d do wonders for the rest of the defense today. It’d also provide a road to easing Bradley Chubb back into playing time in 2020.

8. Noah Fant

Pace stats are one of the bigger cons in all of sports, but it’s worth noting that Fant’s currently working toward something like 500-yards of offense and four touchdowns. Maybe not the 1,000 yards and All-Pro start some hoped for back in camp, but if he manages 500 receiving yards, he’d be just the 34th tight end to do so since 1961.

Even more than the counting stats, what I want to see out of Fant going down the final stretch is the same consistency he’s started to show since the Colts game. His blocking is improving from game to game and he’s hanging onto the ball. He has very good athleticism and number 8 has done a fantastic job leveraging that to help others maximize their production, if he can turn into a reliable number two option? It’ll do wonders for the rest of the offense.

7. Rich Scangarello

Remember when Rich Scangarello was on the hot seat after the Chiefs game and annonymous “sources” were citing all sorts of complaints about him? I do. I maintain that Joe Flacco was a far bigger issue in the first half of the season than the rookie play caller.

This doesn’t mean he’s blameless. Working with bad tackles and a QB doing his best Cinderella after midnight impression, Scangarello gets a couple passes for the run heavy approach. I would like to see more passing and play action mixed into the offense with a better option under center over the final seven games.

I remain optimistic, but he has room to really silence the doubters. Especially with so much callow youth peppered throughout the offense.

6. DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, and the WR2+ types.

One of the biggest crocks among the national media last week is how Elway made some huge mistake trading Emmanuel Sanders. He wanted out, and the Broncos got far more value than I expected.

This doesn’t mean his exit leaves a huge void in the offense. It’s an instance where numbers paint a pretty clear picture: After Courtland Sutton’s team leading 44 receptions the next receiver is DaeSean Hamilton with...11.

Part of that issue is due to lack of opportunity. More than once over the last four weeks I’ve noticed the Broncos 2018 4th rounder get open and Flacco didn’t see him. Tim Patrick’s got his own excuse. He suffered a hand injury in the Monday Night Meltdown in Oakland and will come off Injured Reserve following the open week.

With a potentially historically good receiver draft class coming out of the college ranks this spring, these last two months may be the last best chance for either of the Broncos’ promising youngsters to prove they can grow into something like a Kyrie Irving to Sutton’s LeBron James.

5. Connor McGovern and Ron Leary

Dalton Risner is a rookie and has looked very promising. So this poll speaks volumes about how Broncos’ Country sees the players around him.

It’s remarkable how Leary has made his way back from an Achilles tear in 2018. But according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte: “By March 10, the Broncos must make a decision on the team option on Leary’s 2020 contract year. If they exercise it, $1.5 million of his base salary will become fully guaranteed, and will be a strong indication that Leary will remain a Bronco in 2020.

If they decline it, they would no longer be liable for a total of $8.5 million in cash yet to be paid, and Leary would become an Unrestricted Free Agent at the start of the 2020 league year. In addition, Leary will be eligible to become a Compensatory Free Agent that could reward the Broncos with a compensatory draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.”

So, yeah he has a lot to gain or lose over the next couple of months.

4. Ja’Wuan James

I’m not going to linger here too long because injury luck is just that in plenty of cases. But for how much James’ will cost the Broncos in 2020, this factoid I dug up in last spring’s GIF Horse is worth remembering:

Denver Broncos: Ja’Wuan James film breakdown - Mile High Report

In 2021 Elway can walk away from James’ contract and save nearly $21 million if it hasn’t worked out. In 2022 the Broncos actually hold an option on the deal and could decline it to save $13 million if it’s in their best interest.

3. Garett Bolles

The book on Bolles feels pretty written at this point. It’s become a weekly segment in some corners of Broncos’ Country to rail on his play and ask why he’s still playing (spoiler: look at what I just wrote about James and remember Elijah Wilkinson is the only other semi-reliable tackle on the roster.)

At this point, it has to be a foregone conclusion that Bolles’ fifth-year option won’t be picked up in the spring. He’s playing to remain on the roster in some capacity next year, and in the NFL in 2021.

2. Isaac Yiadom

Yiadom and to a much smaller degree Will Parks are 2019’s exhibit A and B for how scheme impacts a player’s production. This time last year Yiadom was a raw developmental corner taken in the third round and pressed into playing time due to injuries. He was up and down, but flashed enough promise to contend for serious playing time on the boundary in training camp. At one point during the preseason he looked as good or better than De’Vante Bausby.

Since then he’s gone from a liability to healthy scratch, passed over by a player the Cincinnatti Bengals waived and a 32-year-old Coty Sensabaugh who signed in October. He’s played as many snaps on Fangio’s defense the last two weeks as I have.

Nothing easy about Fangio’s defense - but very rewarding when players ‘get it’ - Mile High Report

“This defense ... you can’t walk in today and get three calls and think it’s going to be OK,” Parks said. “We have new installs every single day. We’ve got six, seven thousand calls - and they’re all in Italian [laughs].

1. Drew Lock

No player in orange and blue has led to more ground teeth over the last month than the 2019 second round pick. With the Broncos on the bye, Vic Fangio has said his rookie quarterback is under consideration to come off injured reserve after the bye. I’ve mentioned already when his first start would be ideal, so if he’s going to start the final month of the season he’s going to need to come off IR soon.

When should the Denver Broncos start Drew Lock? - Mile High Report

Perhaps Allen’s play has the coaching staff back to what must have been their original hope: sit the Missouri Tiger in hopes that he can fix all of the mechanical issues that would hold him back from reaching his immense potential?

Reports from 9News Mike Klis suggests we’ll see Lock play this year, but with the patience Fangio showed before starting Alexander Johnson, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing for Lock to sit until the coach is completely sure he’s ready. Keep in mind how Scangarello also worked behind the scenes with Jimmy Garoppolo to prepare him after his trade from the Patriots as well. The 49ers kept their new franchise guy on the bench for a long stretch before he got his first start in San Francisco.

The worst thing for Lock would be to play too early, for all parties involved. The quarterback needs a chance to see really whether he’s the guy worth building around.

And if not?

Perhaps Elway’s got his eyes on another toolsy project this spring.

Your Broncos Links

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Cooper Kupp, Chris Godwin, and the New Class of Elite NFL Receivers - The Ringer

Of all the names on this list, Sutton may be having the quietest great year. He ranks 14th in receiving yards per game and no. 10 in yards per target despite spending the first half of the season with Joe Flacco as his quarterback. The first inkling that the second-rounder out of SMU was coming for the Broncos’ no. 1 job this season was in training camp, when he and Emmanuel Sanders got into a rare intrapositional-group scuffle that foreshadowed Sutton eclipsing Sanders in the offense. It turns out that was underselling it. Not only does Sutton lead Denver in air yards, but he leads the league in the percentage of team air yards, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

NFL Draft Links

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Burrow has paired with Joe Brady to completely reinvigorate LSU’s offense. Hired as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach in the offseason, Brady came to LSU after two seasons with Sean Payton in New Orleans as an offensive assistant.

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Tua Tagovailoa is a phenomenal prospect, worthy of a premier pick, but a quarterback needy team should be wary of the long term health of the franchise hopeful.

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Good quarterbacks do what they’re supposed to do. Great ones make it look easy. Everything often looks easy for Tagovailoa. And if your team needs a quarterback, Tagovailoa should be the first to get the call, in my book.

Let’s Make A Deal - A Recent History Of Trades Into The Top 5 For QBs | The Draft Network

What would such a trade look like in the 2020 landscape? Well it depends on where you’re trying to trade up from. But over the last decade, we’ve seen enough trades into the top-5 of the NFL Draft for quarterbacks to have a pretty potent sample size.

NFL Links

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Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said quarterback Patrick Mahomes (knee) will practice Wednesday and the team will increase his workload “a little bit more” this week.

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Whole lifetimes can be lived without a franchise landing an exciting rookie quarterback—just ask Bears fans. So it was baffling when the Jaguars announced that they were benching theirs.

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Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green could make his season debut Sunday against the Ravens. Green has missed the first half of the season due to an ankle injury.

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Brandin Cooks is traveling to Pittsburgh for a second meeting with concussion specialists, according to Rams coach Sean McVay, who added the receiver is out for Sunday.

Considering Cam Newton’s Carolina Legacy - The Ringer

There are two types of football observers: Those who appreciate how good Cam Newton was at his best, and people who do not know what they are talking about.

Rivera won’t talk Cam Newton possibly coming off IR - NFL.com

The Carolina Panthers placed Cam Newton on injured reserve. Coach Ron Rivera would not consider dancing with hypothetical scenarios on Newton potentially coming off IR.

Is Superman Changing Locations? | The Draft Network

A question that many thought would never arise because of just how much he’s meant to the city, team, coaches, and his teammates, but with an expiring contract following the 2020 season and if the team decides to move on from him prior to that point, it would free up $19.1 million in cap space.