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11 things I’m looking for over the second half of the Broncos’ 2020 season

Will Drew Lock rise to the challenge?

With eight games in the rearview mirror and eight still to play, it’s a perfect time to take stock of where the Broncos are at, as well as what needs to happen for them to get where they need to go. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic and thanks to what feels like a thousand bites from the injury bug, Denver sits at 3-5. Mathematically they’re not out of playoff contention yet, but something special needs to occur. Odds are, the playoff drought continues.

Even as they rolled out backup quarterbacks and street free agents, Vic Fangio has found ways to fight in every single game. It’s rarely pretty, but three victories over the Patriots, Jets, and Chargers means John Elway probably won’t pick in the top five again. The “tank commanders” probably need to give up on dreams of Trevor Lawrence.

So far this Broncos roster has been as advertised in the summer. They’re painfully young on offense and often depend on the veteran defense to carry them through long slogs with skilled opponents. When the defense has been up to the task, Drew Lock and Brett Rypien have found ways to steer the team to victory. When it isn’t, they don’t.

Here’s what I’m looking for over these final eight games of the 2020 season.

Teams

1. Can they be special?

If you feel like the Broncos’ special teams haven’t been good since Peyton Manning was yelling “Omaha,” you’d be right. The teams have not finished higher than 24th by DVOA since Super Bowl 50. This year they’re sitting at 26th. With the issues on offense, a strong kicker like Brandon McManus is worth his weight in gold. If not for him, we’d be calling them %@#^y teams.

Defense

2. Who stands out up front?

3. Is Josey Jewell enough for 2021?

4. What happens on the boundary?

5. Are we watching the end of Jackson and Simmons?

6. If Von returns, how does he look?

The way Covid will impact next year’s salary cap makes the future of the defensive line quite fluid. With Shelby Harris out for a second consecutive week to go with Jurrell Casey’s prolonged absence, we’ll once again get a chance to see how the young defensive linemen do. Dre’Mont Jones has hinted that he can be a very good player going forward, but if Elway is going to let the veterans walk (and I think he will), those hints need to become consistent. McTelvin Agim has only played 45 snaps so far this season, so his development is also worth watching. It may not earn as much attention, but DeShawn Williams has quietly been a reliable contributor this year. With Mike Purcell’s injury, his role has only grown.

Elway's going to need to make decisions on Shelby Harris and Kareem Jackson in 2021. What do they show down the stretch?
Elway is going to need to make decisions on Shelby Harris and Kareem Jackson in 2021. What do they show down the stretch?

The desire in Broncos’ Country for an athletic linebacker predates Vic Fangio, but last year showed that Elway is finally on board. There was an attempt to trade up with the Titans for Patrick Queen that fell apart when Eric DeCosta and the Baltimore Ravens scooped him up. Add to that rumored interest in players like Joe Schobert as well as the timing of Todd Davis’ release, and linebacker looked like a priority in 2021.

While that still seems to be a distinct possibility, the way Fangio has maximized Josey Jewell’s skillset bears monitoring. His mental processing has clearly improved, which helps him make up for some of his lacking straight-line speed. He’s also been a viable option when the Broncos dial up a blitz. He had a couple hiccups leveraging gaps before the Falcons game and he’ll always be a matchup to sweat when players like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller come to town, but he may play his way towards another run in the starting lineup in 2021.

Josey Jewell's shown promise.
Josey Jewell has played beyond my expectations.

If you care about PFF grades, it probably puzzles you that the Broncos keep cutting the only corner they have graded above 60 who’s not Bryce Callahan. If you don’t care about PFF grades, it probably still puzzles you. It isn’t just that Davontae Harris looked like an overmatched special teamer against Olamide Zaccheaus or that Michael Ojemudia has given up huge plays to Chase Claypool, Mike Williams, and Julio Jones. It’s both, and that the jury remains out on the A.J. Bouye trade.

All the dysfunction around Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons should only highlight how big a difference they’ve made. Simmons is the only defender to play every snap this season, and after a rough week 3, he’s settled in to look like the All Pro we watched last season. The debate over the Broncos’ Franchise player continues to look foolish: he’s among the elite at his position in football and clearly the best player on the defense who doesn’t wear 58. Safety is one of the most difficult positions to get a read on during broadcasts due to the way the game is zoomed in in order to follow the ball. Like corner, it leads to situations where we only notice mistakes. Just remember when a defensive back is doing his job, we rarely see him. Or go watch the All-22 and marvel at how Fangio uses the two to mask coverages and help everyone up front.

Don't let all the issues around him hide that Simmons has become the quintessential safety. Let's hope Elway notices.
Don’t let all the issues around him hide the fact that Simmons has become the quintessential safety. Let’s hope Elway notices.

On this side of things, it’s easy to look at the return of Von Miller as a huge boon to a defense that currently relies on Alexander Johnson blitzes, line stunts, and Fangio magic to get pressure. He definitely could be, and pairing him up with Bradley Chubb can only help. It’s just important to remember that Miller’s prognosis at the time of his freak injury originally looked likely to be 5-6 months, even if a strong return is hardly unheard of.

Offense

7. How can the Broncos better establish the run?

8. Does the line gel and/or improve?

9. Will the young players do enough to help the pass protection?

10. Who shines in the receiving corps?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?

For this week’s Cover2Broncos with Jeff Essary, I dove as deep into an analytical rabbithole as I could to try to be impartial. I sought to find out where the Broncos’ offense had the most issues, and Football Outsiders’ database does a wonderful job highlighting things. Needless to say, it isn’t pretty.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read my work, you’ll know I’m an ardent supporter of DVOA stats, as they measure efficiency and compare it to a league average unit while adjusting for the strength of an opponent. After all, beating the Jets eight straight times means less if you have to play an NFL schedule. DVOA is a dynamic stat that changes week to week as you would expect, but now that we’re 8 weeks in, I thought there’s enough data to start to see some trends here.

Most of what I found didn’t surprise me. The Broncos are among the worst offenses in the league this year. Only Philadelphia, Washington, and Adam Gase have been worse. While the Broncos rushing offense is a miserable 25th out of the 32 NFL teams, they’re a top ten team by metrics that are closely tied to the performance of the running back, specifically second and third level runs. What’s hurt them most is that Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon get stuffed more than any other backs in football. This combined with the problems in the passing game make the Broncos one of the two worst offenses on first down.

The Broncos running game has had bright moments. Running on 3rd and 9 wasn't one of them.
Lindsay had a long of 6 and averaged 2.9 yards per carry on Sunday.

As much as I’ve complained about Pat Shurmur’s red zone play calling, the Broncos are better than league average in terms of passing the ball in the red zone. They’ve struggled to run here even though the offensive line has performed really well in what FO calls “power” situations elsewhere on the field. If you’re like me and started to lose your mind when Shurmur kept dialing up bombs at the 25-yard line, just know you aren’t going crazy. The Broncos are currently the least efficient offense in football in what’s called the “front zone.”

Before you ask, I can zone in on DVOA rankings per week, and since Lock has come back, the Broncos passing offense has not ranked above 29th in any single week. Keep in mind that DVOA doesn’t separate player performance from the sum so the offense as a whole still gets knocked pretty hard for the receiver’s drops in New England.

What should have been Albert Okwuegbunam's first touchdown reception.
What should have been Albert Okwuegbunam’s first touchdown reception.

So the bad news is, the Broncos offense has been worse by opponent adjusted efficiency numbers than their record, and Lock’s raw stat totals in the Falcon and Charger games hint at. Fortunately, they have eight more games to grow and develop and hopefully improve. Like the Atlanta Falcons, the Las Vegas Raiders are a great litmus test. They’ve been really poor by most metrics, and so Lock should find open receivers to get the ball to. They’ll also have a few favorable matchups since their coordinator likes to dial up the kind of pressures Lock and the offensive line has struggled with this year.

With the plucky Dolphins and surging Saints before a rematch in Arrowhead, things only get more challenging from here. Barring a huge surge from Lock, there’s going to be some ugly games coming up. That’s okay. Keep in mind that the 2020 season was always about evaluating the young players and finding out what the plan at quarterback is for the future. Whether you’re all-in because of his touchdown pass to Albert Okwuegbunam or you’re all-out because of his touchdown pass to Daniel Sorensen, Lock still has eight games to change your mind.

It isn’t fair to expect a monumental shift forward in all of the areas Lock has room for growth. What I hope for most is consistent improvement in Lock’s pocket management, as well as hints that he understands play calls on a conceptual level. When Pat Shurmur was hired to replace Rich Scangarello, it meant the offense would demand more from the quarterback pre-snap. This means things like choosing the right side to attack against single high coverage, or identifying a potential free rusher and finding the hot receiver.

Elway wants a gunslinger and Lock still has the kind of arm talent, athleticism, and competitive toughness you love to see in your quarterback. Thanks to injuries, Lock remains a woefully inexperienced quarterback, so much so that some argue he’s closer to a rookie in his first season than a 24-year-old with off-seasons as the QBOTF under his belt. If Lock can show incremental improvements, Broncos’ Country will rally behind him. The 2021 off-season will see comparisons between Lock and Allen as proof that all you need is love and time. On the other hand, if Lock continues to make elementary mistakes, Elway will be forced to choose between his latest heir apparent and a veteran play caller.

Lock threw Hamler into harms way.
Lock threw Hamler into harm’s way.