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What will it take for the Broncos to make it back to the Super Bowl?

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These areas need improvement for the Denver Broncos to seriously contend in the AFC.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams
All eyes on the prize.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 season coming to a close with a _____ win, it’s now time to start looking ahead. I thought my first post-Lombardi Horse Tracks would serve as a great time to take a look at the current state of the Broncos and where they need to improve if they want to compete for titles in the Fangio era.

Quarterback

This one’s obvious. If you were to enter “Quarterbacks Mile High Report” into the ol’ Google, you’d get posts from as far back as October this year. On the first page. Case Keenum is the odds on favorite to start the opener in 2019, but all reports suggest Elway and the Broncos brass are going to aggressively pursue Drew Lock of Missouri.

Denver Broncos: John Elway calls Case Keenum a “short-term fix” at QB - Mile High Report

I’m on the record as dubious of Lock, in part because I think he needs serious work to break some of his Cutler-esque tendencies. Everyone says they’ll give a rookie time in February, but as soon as Keenum throws the first training camp pick, fans and the media pressure will mount to bench the journeyman for the shiny new toy.

Denver Broncos can’t afford to play it safe at quarterback anymore - Mile High Report

How can the Denver Broncos ensure they get their Quarterback? - Mile High Report

Chances are, Denver will need to move up if they want to avoid the Jacksonville Jaguars or New York Giants grabbing Lock. Speculation about who they’re talking to and what it will cost is going to drive a lot of news this spring.

Safety

QB is the biggest need, but I’d go so far as to say that an elite safety is right behind.

There’s a chance that the Broncos could develop one from the current crop on the roster. Vic Fangio turned Adrian Amos into one of the best in the game over his tenure with the Bears and it’s no secret that Justin Simmons has sky-high potential. There are flashes on his 2018 tape, perhaps a stronger scheme to play within will lead to better results going forward?

Failing that, Denver still has Su’a Cravens (who Elway had a round 1 grade on in 2016) and Will Parks, who really surprised last season. If the coaching staff isn’t sold on any of the three, Amos lurks in free agency. Perhaps he’d be keen on reuniting with the only defensive system he’s played in during his professional career?

Cornerback

Super Bowl 50 feels like a lifetime ago, but the last time the Broncos played for all the marbles, they were led by a defense famously known as “The No Fly Zone.” While the 2018 D was among the league’s elite, replacing Aqib Talib with Tramaine Brock led to something closer to Southwest Airlines at times. Bradley Roby’s promotion to CB2 was a bit of a mixed back, and he’s no certainty to return. Brock’s own return is unlikely. Behind them is Isaac Yiadom and...?

GIF Horse - The Most Valuable Denver Broncos 25-34 - Mile High Report

The 2019 secondary will be led by Chris Harris Jr, who should be Canton-bound when all is said and done. But he’ll need help. The Fangio defense has made hay without elite corner play in the past, but things will be easier if Elway and the Front Office can find another talented cover man to add to the mix.

It won’t be easy: the free agent class has one legitimate headliner: Ronald Darby. The bare market could mean players like Roby still haul in $10-12 million. That leaves the draft, but if it takes a first and additional 2018 Day 2 ammo to get a QB like Lock, pickings could be slim.

Offensive Line

The final Broncos OL from left to right: Bolles-Wilkinson-McGovern-Turner-Veldheer

GIF Horse - The Most Valuable Denver Broncos 16-24 - Mile High Report

Even if you discount the fact that both Ronald Leary and Matt Paradis could depart, the Broncos will need to make decisions about their “hogs.” Veldheer and Turner, like Paradis, are free agents. All three should receive some consideration from around the league. If none return Mike Munchak could have his work cut out for him: Wilkinson’s ceiling is a versatile backup, McGovern’s probably a guard and Bolles needs a lot of work.

Luckily, the free agent class and draft offer solutions. How Elway decides to address the front five could have drastic impact on the offensive production next year.

Wide Receiver

Do you believe Emmanuel Sanders can return to peak health at 32 years old after tearing his Achilles late in the 2018 campaign?

If he can, the 2019 receiving corps will look a lot like the 2018 version. Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick should all return. All three could breakout with another offseason of experience and better play calling to aid them.

If he can’t, the Broncos will need to find another set of hands. In free agency there’s a few options that intrigue, but a lot that come with serious questions. It seems unlikely from here that Denver spends another draft pick on a wide receiver, though the 2019 class has some exciting prospects.

Defensive Front 7

Seemingly the strength of the Broncos defense, there is plenty of room for improvement. Denver’s D finished 4th against the pass per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, but league average vs the run and sub par against passes to the middle of the field. The Fangio system will hopefully lead to internal improvement for the returners, notably Bradley Chubb who should improve on the finer aspects of Edge play in his sophomore season.

GIF Horse - The Most Valuable Denver Broncos 7-15 - Mile High Report

There are a few questions: some wonder if Todd Davis and Josey Jewell have the range to serve as the middle men in the new defense. Brandon Marshall, Domata Peko, Zach Kerr, Shane Ray, and Shaq Barrett are likely to depart. Elway will need to find new depth, but fortunately the talent available in free agency and the draft should provide options.

Running Backs

The 2018 Broncos were an average offense, but actually finished among the five best rushing teams in football. Phillip Lindsay didn’t haul in the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but was voted to the Pro Bowl. He was a dynamic breakaway threat that had to be planned around every week and should serve as a foundational player going forward.

Denver Broncos: Ranking Phillip Lindsay’s 10 best Rookie Runs - Mile High Report

Behind him Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker fill out the depth chart with complimentary skills. Freeman brings strong vision and deceptive mobility for 230 lb back. Most expected him to win the starting job out of camp last year and with a return to health he should give the Broncos a strong 1-2 punch. Booker was the pass catching third down back last year and had route running skills neither rookie had fully developed yet.

The key word, of course is yet. Best case scenario one of the two youngsters shows signs of marked improvement in the passing game. Lindsay is such an explosive player with the ball in his hands that if he can force defenses to account for him in space the vertical game to Sutton would open up.

It’s likely Elway looks to add competition for Booker as well as eat some reps in training camp, but this group has a pretty strong chance to return in tact for 2019. All three remain on rookie contracts and produced with their opportunities last year.

On to your Broncos links

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2019 NFL Mock Draft: Matt Miller’s Post-Super Bowl Predictions | Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights

The Pick: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri The pick with the most buzz around the NFL throughout the Senior Bowl was Drew Lock to the Denver Broncos. Lock has the right traits to excite a Hall of Fame quarterback turned team president. He’s 6’3” with good athleticism, a strong right arm and excellent ability to make throws off-platform and on the move. While some might see a poor man’s Patrick Mahomes, he’s not that refined in his playmaking or as loose and confident on the field. Still, there’s enough here to get Elway excited after he swung and missed on Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. Of the quarterbacks selected in the top 10 of this mock, Lock has the most experience and is the most likely to be ready to start immediately.

Marino’s 2019 NFL Mock Draft 5.0 - The Draft Network

10. Denver Broncos: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri There is almost too much smoke when it comes to the grumblings about John Elway liking Drew Lock that I’m starting to doubt them. Isn’t it a touch early for that? Maybe it’s Buffalo or Detroit putting information out there to entice a team to move up… But it makes sense. Denver will be below average until it gets the quarterback position right and Lock has an exciting skill set. He features a sturdy frame, big arm and good mobility while taking major strides forward in Derek Dooley’s progression-style offense for Missouri in 2018. He had an impressive week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl.

NFL Mock Draft 2019: Two-round projections - The San Diego Union-Tribune

10. Denver (6-10) — Drew Lock, QB, Missouri, Sr. John Elway is desperate for a franchise quarterback. The Mizzou signal caller shares some traits with the college version of Patrick Mahomes. Both have elite arm talent, can extend plays with their athleticism and are overaggressive with their decision-making. He was also the most consistently impressive QB in Mobile. Top needs: QB, CB, OL

2019 NFL mock draft: Here’s 2 rounds after Super Bowl - SBNation.com

10. Denver Broncos: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri One of the hottest pre-draft rumors already is that Broncos top executive John Elway is “smitten” with Lock. That’s sort of ridiculous because it’s only February, but this really is the epitome of draft season. The rumors are coming. Some you stick with, like this one for now.

February 4 - Two Round Mock Draft | Draft Analyst

As mentioned on our podcast last Tuesday, everything I’ve heard since the Shrine Game has the Broncos selecting Lock.

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