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What are the Broncos’ big 2021 needs?

It depend$ on John Elway.

Last April, the Broncos had the good fortune to find their biggest draft needs met with the strengths of the 2020 NFL Draft class. An immediate need for receiver help met what still looks like a generational class. A need for help in the secondary met with a deep corner class. Even what many considered a huge need at tackle met with a class that has seen rookies step in and contribute at a Pro Bowl level right away.

John Elway’s plan of attack for the 2020 season centered on Drew Lock. He prioritized receiver by taking Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler back to back and throwing $41.5 million in guarantees at Graham Glasgow, Melvin Gordon, and Nick Vannett in free agency. The Duke tried to patch every single hole on offense with a veteran or promising younger so that there’d be no excuses. Sink or swim, this year was about finding out if the Broncos had their franchise quarterback to compete with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

They say God laughs when man plans. Injuries have battered the depth chart and left the Broncos looking at fifth string right tackles and corners. Courtland Sutton made it into one game before his body betrayed him. Von Miller’s yet to play.

Even with all the uncertainty about the current roster, standing at 3-5 with eight games to play means it’s time to take stock. Who has shown up? Where do the Broncos have issues? What needs loom with contracts expiring?

Special Teams

Brandon McManus signed a 4-year contract extension in September that probably keeps him in orange and blue until he’s at least 33, while Sam Martin is playin out the first year of his 3-year contract. Barring something nutty, the Broncos won’t spend significant resources chasing kickers for a bit. The way the Broncos let Casey Kreiter walk over the difference of about $400,000 suggests as long as the Jacob Bobenmoyer is playing up to his undrafted free agent rookie contract, he’s safe. It’s worth noting that he has no guarantees and could be replaced if the Broncos find another rookie or a really cheap veteran.

Diontae Spencer will see his contract expire at the end of the 2020 season. The way Tom McMahon talks about him, I would expect the former CFL star to return if the special teams coordinator does. There is a possibility players like Hamler or Tyrie Cleveland eat his snaps going forward, however.

It’s worth noting that while the big names that make up the Broncos’ special teams are probably safe, the unit itself will almost certainly undergo massive changes as it does every offseason. The vast majority of any Special Teams’ unit also serve as depth elsewhere on the roster. The hope here is addressing issues elsewhere helps to improve a unit that currently ranks 26th in the NFL by DVOA.

Defense

Money could become the biggest X-factor on defense. With a shrinking salary cap, there’s reason to believe many of last spring’s veteran trade acquisitions could become an avenue towards a reload. Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye combine to cost just over $27 million against the cap next year. Cutting one or both carries no dead money. Kudos to Fangio for keeping the defense afloat under such a tough situation, he showed Elway he can build a solid defense without expensive parts.

One constant through all the injuries and churn over the last two years is Justin Simmons. He’s playing like a top safety on a one-year contract because Elway lowballed him in 2020. The Broncos probably want to see if a broken market gives them leverage. Let there be no doubt: if the Broncos lose him safety becomes a top need.

It’s a similar story for the rest of the best players on this year’s defense. Kareem Jackson is 33-years old and has a contract that could be deemed expendable. Bryce Callahan’s already taken a pay-cut once. Shelby Harris came back on a prove it type of contract after a tepid market.

On the bright side, Alexander Johnson will be a Restricted Free Agent and will all but certainly return. Josey Jewell’s play has justified the $4.5 million saved by cutting Todd Davis, but it remains to be seen if Fangio tries to find a faster backer to pair with his elite run stopper. The Broncos were linked to a number of backers last offseason whose strengths lay in their coverage prowess. Don’t forget, they tried to trade back into the first round for Patrick Queen.

Along the edges, the future is uncertain. While Miller hopes to return this season, it’s hard to say what he’ll look like so soon after a freak ankle injury. It’s hard to know if Elway sees the 32-year old as damaged goods with an expiring contract in 2021. The Broncos could look to draft an heir apparent, sign a veteran to add to the rotation, both, or neither. Anthony Chickillo has played more than 200 snaps this year. Depth couldn’t hurt.

Odds are the Broncos lose at least one of Casey and Harris, which makes the defensive line another area to watch. We know Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, and McTelvin Agim will be back. I’ve given up on guessing the Broncos’ plan with DeMarcus Walker, but even if he’s back and say Harris returns there would be some desire for one more body.

Even beyond the questions around Simmons, Jackson, and Bouye, the Broncos secondary will see probably see some churn. Back in the early days of the preseason Fangio said that he wanted to see the young veteran corners like Davontae Harris, Isaac Yiadom, and De’Vante Bausby prove they belong in the NFL. Since then two have been cut at least once, and Harris just looked like Roc Alexander in the Falcons’ game.

Offense

As bad as the Broncos’ offense has looked, there’s plenty of reasons to believe it looks very similar in 2021. Perhaps a blessing and a curse, most of the O is on rookie contracts. Phillip Lindsay is a Restricted Free Agent in a league that rarely competes for RFAs and unless Melvin Gordon’s DUI voids his guarantees, he’s about as close to uncuttable as a running back gets.

There are some questions to answer, obviously. Garett Bolles’ contract status is going to be an elephant in the room after Elway passed on a fifth year option that was only guaranteed for injury. If he leaves, there’s a massive hole where an elite blindside protector played this season.

Every other starting spot on the offensive line looks settled from here. Lloyd Cushenberry has had more downs than ups this year, but he’s a rookie working his way through a trial by fire. While Dalton Risner’s had notable issues with athletic competition, it’s hard to see Muncak giving up on him. Ja’Wuan James has played all of 63 snaps since he signed in 2018, but opting out pushed his contract numbers down a year. Even if Elway wanted to, it’s cost prohibitive to move the former Dolphin. Depth should be a priority with Elijah Wilkinson and Demar Dotson free agents that are likely to move on.

Last year Jeff Essary and I had a debate on Cover 2 Broncos about how important receivers are in today’s game. Right now, I believe that Sutton’s return and a real offseason for Jeudy and Hamler shouldn’t stop the Broncos. Tim Patrick’s probably gone, while DaeSean Hamilton enters the last year of his rookie contract. Cleveland’s role over the last eight games may change my tune. Maybe.

Tight end is going to be fascinating. Fangio and Shurmur didn’t necessarily plan to carry four tight ends on this year’s initial roster. Jake Butt’s performance drove them to do so. He’s on Injured Reserve again and has an expiring contract. Albert Okwuegbunam’s injury may drive the Broncos to resigning him, or it may open the door for Troy Fumagalli to earn a spot on the 2021 roster.

Which leaves us at quarterback. As is the case with every other position group above, things can change over the final half of the season. Even still, only his friends and family can say Jeff Driskel’s job is safe. Whether he’s replaced by Brett Rypien, a veteran backup who can log a few snaps, or a new shiny quarterback prospect remains to be seen.

Poll

What is the Broncos’ biggest 2021 need?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Quarterback
    (142 votes)
  • 0%
    Running back
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Receiver
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Tight end
    (0 votes)
  • 8%
    Left tackle
    (71 votes)
  • 0%
    Left guard
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Center
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    Right guard
    (15 votes)
  • 30%
    Right tackle
    (246 votes)
  • 2%
    Edge
    (21 votes)
  • 8%
    Linebacker
    (70 votes)
  • 22%
    Cornerback
    (183 votes)
  • 0%
    Nickel
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Safety
    (13 votes)
  • 4%
    Defensive line
    (39 votes)
  • 0%
    Kicker
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Punter
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Long snapper
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Other(?)
    (6 votes)
817 votes total Vote Now

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