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GIF Horse - The pre-camp Broncos’ preview

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What happens when the San Francisco 49ers’ O meets Chicago Bears’ D?

NFL: Denver Broncos-Minicamp
The Fangio era begins.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The whirlwind offseason is now in the rearview mirror, and the Broncos managed to make it out of the dead season unscathed by injury or off-the-field issues. The same can’t be said for two key rivals in the AFC West.

So where exactly does Denver stand after a coaching and roster overhaul?

Offense

There was a point in the middle of the 2018 season where the Broncos looked like real dark horse contenders for the postseason. Following a 20-23 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6, Bill Musgrave fully embraced Phillip Lindsay as the engine for his offense. Over half the rookie’s carries (93), yards (591), and touchdowns (7) came in the six games after Musgrave gave him all of four carries against the Rams.

It should come as no surprise that it was also the one part of the season where the offense really hummed.

Lindsay proved his size doesn’t prevent him from contributing inside or carrying a heavy workload.

Following the year, the Broncos sought to correct a mistake Elway made when he chose Vance Joseph over Kyle Shanahan in 2016 - hiring Shanny’s former QB coach.

By brining in Rich Scangarello, the Broncos have tapped into the most creative offensive play designer in the NFL. For the casual fan it will look a lot like back to the future as the younger Shanahan’s system is a direct descendant of his father’s, with modern influences mixed in.

The Broncos will lean on more zone blocking in 2019.

What it means for the 2019 Broncos is a blocking scheme designed to give the running backs opportunities to exploit over-pursuit by opposing defenses. Lindsay should continue to thrive, but look for Royce Freeman to look much improved after thriving with a similar blocking scheme during his collegiate career at Oregon.

The Broncos backs will have ample opportunities to display their vision in the new offense.

Look for the Broncos’ passing offense to feature a fullback and play action more than they did in 2018. The 49ers used 21 personnel more than any team in the league, and San Francisco (106) and the Patriots (91) were the only teams to throw more than 40 times out of two-back, two-receiver sets in 2018.

The 49ers used a fullback more than any team in football last season.

The offensive structure should do wonders for Joe Flacco, who had his best season as a pro in the Gary Kubiak offense back in 2014. It’s a quarterback-friendly system that Rich Scangarello helped undrafted rookie Nick Mullens complete 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,277 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

The new offense should help Flacco thrive.

There’s no position group on the Broncos with more to prove than wide receiver. With Emmanuel Sanders still recovering from an Achilles injury that derailed his 2018 season, the pressure’s on sophomore receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. The duo combined for 947 yards and six touchdowns a year ago playing behind Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. If Sanders is slow to return, look for Tim Patrick to step into the void.

Tim Patrick is a sleeper to keep an eye on.

Helping matters is Broncos’ first-rounder Noah Fant. The former Iowa star scored 19 touchdowns over his collegiate career and comes in as a freakier mismatch weapon than former teammate George Kittle, who just broke the single-season receiving record for a tight end in Scangarello’s former offense. Fant looks likely to start the season behind Jeff Heuerman but should get looks early and often.

While it won’t get the same kind of attention, none of the flashier additions to the offense will matter if the offensive line doesn’t improve. Which it should. Mike Munchak is both a Hall-of-Famer and one of the best position coaches in the NFL and moved West to be closer to family. Elway didn’t settle for just one addition though and also spent free-agent dollars and draft capital to fortify the line. On paper it looks like the best line of the post-Manning era.

Defense

No addition to the Broncos defense will have anywhere close to the impact Vic Fangio will.

Under Vance Joseph last season, the Broncos played in base personnel (three-down linemen, four linebackers, four defensive backs) on 45 percent of downs, leading the league. When they weren’t in base, the Broncos D split time between nickel (five DBs) and dime (six) pretty evenly.

Meanwhile, Fangio’s Bears played nickel personnel almost 80 percent of the time and rarely used dime (just 5 percent of the time). What this means going forward is that it’s unlikely these Broncos will have Su’a Cravens or Will Parks as an extra linebacker anywhere near as often as fans are used to. They will have to find the field as true safeties or become relegated to afterthoughts.

Parks showed solid play on the back end last year. He’ll need to do it far more often to continue his ascent in 2019.

As I’ve mentioned in past film studies over the spring and summer, Fangio’s nickel personnel will feature use of both 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 personnel. While he used more 2-4 last year with the Bears, in Denver he may lean toward the latter, as the strength of the Broncos defensive front is the line. Shelby Harris was quietly elite last year in limited snaps, and Derek Wolfe is as steady as they come.

The Broncos will use a lot more Nickel in 2019.

Many in Broncos Country were dismayed when Elway passed on adding a dynamic linebacker in the spring. He went as far as to trade out of Devin Bush at No. 10, which was an indirect show of confidence in Todd Davis. It makes a lot of sense, as the Broncos sixth-year linebacker should look far better in the new zone heavy scheme. Chances are, Josey Jewell is his running mate when Fangio deploys two inside backers. The second year veteran out of Iowa had a number of issues in pass coverage under Joseph, but should improve with fewer man-to-man assignments and more experience.

The Broncos linebackers won’t be asked to run in Man coverage near as often this season.

None of the improvements up front will amount to wins if the back end can’t improve on what was the shakiest secondary of the post-Manning era in 2019. Fangio will be a shock to the system here as well. Since Wade Phillips was prowling the sideline Denver’s D has mostly been a single high safety defense that relied heavily on Cover 1 in critical moments. Under Fangio it will be a lot more two safety splits and match up zone.

The Aqib Talib trade was supposed to give space for Bradley Roby to prove he was ready. Instead he left for Houston in what amounted to a player for player swap. Kareem Jackson came over from the Texans to go with ex-Bear Bryce Callahan.

Pundits played with nicknames for the New Fly Zone while the rest of us tried to decipher if Jackson was going to play safety or corner. OTAs did little to clarify this, but as I mentioned in an article earlier this month:

If Kareem Jackson plays the majority of his snaps at safety, Yiadom’s playing time sees a significant uptick. Coming out of Boston College in 2018, the rub on Yiadom was that he’d need time to adjust to the league. When he entered the fray week 3 to play 31 snaps against Baltimore, he was as green as grass. How much will an off-season to prepare and tutelage from Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell help?

I suspect he’s a corner.

Special Teams

The more things change, the more they stay the same. So it goes with the Broncos’ special teams. Tom McMahon returns for his second year after taking over for Brock Olivo in 2018. Denver’s Pro Bowl long-snapper Casey Kreiter and punter Colby Wadman enter camp without a single competitor, while Brandon McManus will have to fend off rookie Taylor Bertolet.

What’s worth keeping an eye on is the Broncos’ search for a serviceable returner. Devontae Booker finished 2018 leading the team with 10 kick returns for all of 234 yards while Denver averaged a paltry 4.4 yards per punt return.

Any bubble player who shows he’s capable could find his chances of making the roster much improved.

Trinity Benson is an explosive undrafted rookie receiver with return experience.

Camp battles

Drew Lock’s first camp will generate the vast majority of the headlines as Broncos Country still waits for the heir apparent to #18. He won’t be the only quarterback to keep an eye out for, though. Undrafted rookie Brett Rypien had his fans in the Draft community and so long as the Broncos carry three quarterbacks onto the final roster he has just Kevin Hogan between him and a job. Outside of QB and the other two I outlined here, there are a number of other camp battles that really intrigue me.

Justin Hollins earned rave reviews from the coaching staff after he was drafted in the fifth round. The plan has been to integrate him at both edge and inside, so how that goes through camp could have a huge impact on the rest of the linebacker depth chart.

While the starters look set across Denver’s offensive line, Munchak will have his work cut out for him trying to find the best depth players behind them. It isn’t going to generate the excitement many other position groups will, but fans only have to look back to 2018 to see how important line depth is.

In a similar fashion, the backup battles in the secondary look like they’ll be close. Su’a Cravens disappointed after the trade to bring him from Washington, and he’ll need to fend off a number of other safeties if he hopes to stick to the roster. Beyond the big three, the cornerback room has Isaac Yiadom, De’Vante Bausby and a lot of untested players. Bausby will be one to watch, as he led the short-lived AAF in interceptions and chose Denver over a number of teams because of his previous connection with Fangio.

With Sanders expected to start camp unable to practice, there should be ample opportunity for the younger receivers to create some chemistry with Flacco. It could become one of the tightest fights in the preseason. If E can return to health, there is one, maybe two open spots on the depth chart.

The X-Factor

It has to be the Broncos’ young hands. No position group has a wider chasm between national and local perception on the current roster. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently ranked the Broncos receiving group ahead of only Jacksonville’s, while USA Today’s Doug Farrar cited the receivers as a huge weakness in a podcast at the beginning of July.

Meanwhile, most in Broncos Country are optimistic Courtland Sutton will build on a promising rookie season, and can’t help but notice the love DaeSean Hamilton got before Denver nabbed him in the 4th round of the 2018 Draft.

Tim Patrick is a 6’4” 208 lb sleeper I studied over the last month and came away impressed by. He showed plenty of promise after Sanders’ injury and could fit nicely into Rich Scangarello’s plans with the frame and YAC ability to shine on slants and posts.

Promise only gets you so far though, and until the Broncos’ unproven receivers prove it, they’ll look like a liability. If the big three can build upon the combined 95 receptions for 1,262 yards and seven touchdowns they produced in 2018, the future will look a lot brighter.

If they can’t, expect Joe Flacco and the offense to struggle.

Final Thoughts

Last year’s D finished 5th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, despite a shaky secondary and injuries to Chris Harris Jr. and Brandon Marshall. A better scheme, an infusion of talent on the backend, and year two for Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should only help.

Offense was where Denver struggled last year, especially after Emmanuel Sanders’ injury revealed a callow receiving corps:

Realistically, the Broncos have to know they’ll get something resembling average quarterback play out of the 34-year-old Flacco. When I put my orange shades on and squint, I can see a reality where he shocks the world and recreates something resembling the 2014 season when he finished the year as Football Outsider’s eighth best quarterback.

If I take them off, he looks like the Broncos glass ceiling in 2019. If he plays up to expectations, he’ll be a bit of an upgrade over Case Keenum. He’ll be the point guard in a system that merely asks him to make the right decisions and put the ball in the hands of the playmakers.

Where the O can really improve is if those young playmakers around him blossom.

If it does, the Broncos look like they’ll contend for a Wildcard spot in the stupendously loaded AFC West.

If it doesn’t, they’ll have a tough slog to get to eight wins.

Your Broncos’ links

Denver Broncos Roster - Mile High Report

If you’re looking to read up on any Bronco heading into camp, this is your one stop shop.

Denver Broncos pre-training camp 53-man roster projection - Mile High Report

With Denver Broncos training camp beginning in a few days, Scotty takes a shot at predicting the Broncos 53-man roster.

Get ready for the longest Denver Broncos preseason in recent memory - Mile High Report

Your wait is over, Broncos fans. It’s time to strap in for more preseason action than you or anyone else would want! Seriously.

Denver Broncos Training Camp Roundtable: The most exciting Rookies of 2019 - Mile High Report

The MHR staff discuss the rookies they really want to see. Who’s got you excited, Broncos Country?

ESPN ranks Denver Broncos offense second worst in 2019 - Mile High Report

Bill Barnwell of ESPN ranked the Denver Broncos offensive arsenal as being the second-worst in the entire NFL heading into this season.

Could the Denver Broncos improve and be worse off? - Mile High Report

Or am I just being paranoid?

2019 Broncos roster review: Outside Linebacker Von Miller - Mile High Report

The Denver Broncos’ best player could have a breakout year with a new coach.

2019 Denver Broncos roster review: Receiver Courtland Sutton - Mile High Report

Is Courtland Sutton ready to be “the guy” for the Denver Broncos?

2019 Denver Broncos roster review: Rookie quarterback Drew Lock - Mile High Report

Is Drew Lock the Broncos quarterback of the future? Or will they have to enter the 2020 draft chasing one of the top quarterback prospects?

2019 Denver Broncos roster review: Defensive end Derek Wolfe - Mile High Report

The heart and soul of the defensive line is ready to help get the defense back to dominant.

2019 Denver Broncos roster review: Wide Receiver Tim Patrick - Mile High Report

Is a breakout coming?

2019 Denver Broncos roster review: Offensive Lineman Jake Rodgers - Mile High Report

Will familiarity with Mike Munchak and the Shanahan system help him stick?

Broncos to hold joint practices with 49ers ahead of preseason matchup

The practices, which will be closed to the public, follow an NFL-high 19 training camp practices open for public viewing.

NFL’s lack of head-coach diversity, second-year coaches on expectations | SI.com

Nicki Jhabvala, The Athletic, Denver Broncos

On the No. 42 overall draft pick, former Missouri QB Drew Lock: At the risk of getting bashed for being the ultimate pessimist, I could see Drew Lock making his debut after bye, in Week 11 at Minnesota. John Elway and Vic Fangio have said repeatedly that they want Lock to learn behind Flacco and to not rush the process. Coming from the spread at Missouri to the Broncos’ play-action offense is no small adjustment. (It was too big of an adjustment for Paxton Lynch, the last young quarterback pegged as the team’s future.) But if the Broncos look anything like they have the last two years, they won’t have the luxury of time. Given their strength of schedule, they could easily go into the break 2-7. At that point, you have to give the kid a shot.

Defense and Pass Pressure 2018 | Football Outsiders

This may surprise you, but the Broncos D wasn’t as bad as pundits tell you. 1st in DVOA w/Pressure, 5th without it. That’s pretty darn good.

Quarterbacks and Pressure 2018 | Football Outsiders

If you’re looking for a place where Joe Flacco is a clear upgrade on Case Keenum... get down and nerdy here.

FMIA: Peyton Manning (Remember Him?) Quarterbacks New TV Series, Mulls Long-Term Life After Football – ProFootballTalk

Peter King returns from vacation to visit with Peyton Manning as his new ESPN series on the NFL’s 100-year history is set to debut.

Ranking the NFL Rosters: Teams #32 - #25 | The Draft Network

27. DENVER BRONCOS

Joe Flacco, the projecting starting quarterback, is a below average starter throughout the league. That can be fine if the surrounding talent is strong, but Denver’s is just decent. Emmanuel Sanders isn’t getting any younger, and while their young wide receivers are promising, we’ll see how their re-tooled offensive line fits together. Denver has long had a talented defense, and head coach Vic Fangio should cover up some small problems on that side. However, they’ve quietly dwindled in talent in the front 7 outside of Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Bradley Chubb. Bringing back Chris Harris Jr. is an obvious boost to their secondary, but they were below average against the pass last season despite 26.5 combined sacks from Miller and Chubb.

A look around the AFC West

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs offense could buck regression trend | The Kansas City Star

Beginning in 2008, 10 teams have been first or second in both yards and points. Only the 2008 New Orleans Saints repeated the feat. Five of the 10 fell out of the top five in one or both categories the next season. Four fell out in both categories.

New twists in Tyreek Hill case leave plenty of questions | The Kansas City Star

Congratulations if you think you know what to think about Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and what to expect now. Even with release of full audio, this situation remains complicated.

How much leverage does Melvin Gordon really have? - Bolts From The Blue

Ultimately, Gordon’s goal is to maximize his earnings this year and in the future while minimizing risk. So, the only ways he “wins” this is if he gets traded and signs a big deal or if he signs a big deal without being traded. But what happens if the team doesn’t allow either of those things to come to fruition? What can he do then?

Would You Rather: Paying Melvin Gordon | The Draft Network

I tend to have no issue with overpaying for home-drafted players, as that breeds good standing among the players in your locker room and a strong reputation among free agents. You want to protect your good players.

4 Los Angeles Chargers with the most to lose this summer

Here are four players from the Los Angeles Chargers with the most to lose this summer.

Company sues to get paid for work at Raiders Stadium – ProFootballTalk

A lawsuit for $2.8 million sounds like a big deal. It sounds like less of a big deal when it’s part of a $1.8 billion stadium project.

NFL Links

The fans seem to want to stick with 16 games – ProFootballTalk

With the sudden proliferation of stories about the NFL’s desire to expand the season to 18 games, we decided on Friday to get scientific. Or as close to scientific as social media allows.

Which NFL Players Could Still Be Traded This Summer? - The Ringer

As teams around the league gear up for training camp, there are moves still to be made. Here are some of the guys teams could probably land for the right price, and a few others who are still worth picking up the phone for.

Ezekiel Elliott has privately said that he’s planning a training-camp holdout – ProFootballTalk

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon isn’t being coy about his intent to hold out until he gets a new deal. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott apparently is, at least for now. Per a league source, Elliott has privately said that he will hold out of training camp unless he gets a new contract.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 12: Will Carson Wentz stay healthy? – ProFootballTalk

December 2017. Led by second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles rocketed toward the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and Wentz had the inside track to the league MVP award.

Longtime Bengals lineman Clint Boling retires – ProFootballTalk

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he still liked his team’s depth, even after the loss of first-rounder Jonah Williams. They’re a little less deep, and much less experienced today. Via a statement from the team, veteran guard Clint Boling announced his retirement.

Larry Fitzgerald on Cardinals offense: Simpler language, but have to process faster – ProFootballTalk

There’s been a lot of speculation about what the Cardinals offense will look like in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first season in Arizona and a full answer to that question won’t come until the team is on the field in September.

49ers “happy to start off the year on the right foot” with Robbie Gould – ProFootballTalk

There were points this offseason when it seemed that Robbie Gould would be kicking for someone other than the 49ers during the regular season, but his trade request wasn’t granted and he won’t be leaving the Niners any time soon.

Grady Jarrett signs four-year deal with Falcons – ProFootballTalk

They say that deadlines lead to deals and that was the case for Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that Jarrett and the team have agreed on a four-year extension worth $68 million.

NFL draft 2021: NFL awaiting Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence | SI.com

Lawrence is the most anticipated collegiate passer since Andrew Luck.

Friday Mailbag 1.0: NFL Draft Prospect Superlatives | The Draft Network

Colorado WR Laviska Shenault is most likely to be: Something made out of a lab.

There is not a receiver quite like Laviska Shenault in this class. His combination of hulking size, runaway speed, and imposing physicality pops off on tape. At 6’2, 220, he reminds me a ton of former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant after the catch. He is explosive and hard to bring down in the open field because of his competitive toughness. At the same time, Shenault also has the versatility and route polish to play inside or out. I think he is the complete package and a legit contender in this wide receiver class.