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How can John Elway fix the Broncos?

How could the Duke get “Win from now on” back on track?

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With nine games to go and seven games left, it feels fair to say 2020 has not been kind to the Denver Broncos. There has been notable arguments among the fanbase about booing a home team and loyalty this past month, which speaks to a bigger issue at play. Broncos’ Country is seeing the same issues week after week. It’s a gameday groundhogs day with little end in sight. Without an immediate solution to all that ails this young roster, wins remain elusive and there’s no way to measure success. It all smells like failure. To cope, Broncos Country has resorted to an endless debate about who is most at fault. The aim of this post isn’t to continue that vicious cycle that has ruined so many positives of this injury plagued campaign, but to look ahead to the bright days that could be.

So what exactly is wrong with the Broncos? Is it injuries? Is it quarterback play? The offensive line? What about the play calling? An inconsistent pass rush? The battered run defense? Tom McMahon?

It’s all of it.

Yes, John Elway also bears responsibility. At the end of the day, the buck stops with him. He collects the ingredients and gives it to Vic Fangio to cook. No, I do not believe Broncos’ Country will see a new general manager in 2021. The Duke will run out his contract at the very least. It falls on him to fix things in order to live up to his “Win from now on” mantra that has rung hollow in recent years, or at least set the table for his successor.

So how can he do it?

Secondary

Justin Simmons is currently the best player on the Broncos’ defense and having another All Pro type of season. He’s among the best coverage players in the NFL as well as a reliable tackle and run defender. He only just turned 27-years old and brings the kind of character to the locker room any respectable organization would cherish. An extension isn’t only reasonable at this point, it’s long overdue.

Bryce Callahan looks like an elite cornerback when he’s on the field and has another team friendly year on his contract. His injury history isn’t going away, but the fact that he can play on the boundary as well as in the slot has allowed Fangio to mix and match the pieces around him.

What happens around them depends on a few moving pieces elsewhere on the roster as well as their play down the final stretch of the 2020 season. Kareem Jackson still looks like a good safety who can cover like a corner. It hurts his cause that he carries a $12,882,353 cap figure next season and turns 33-years old before the next NFL Draft. With a rookie quarterback contract, two safeties on star contracts makes sense. The math gets complicated if a veteran contract has to be squeezed into the ledger.

Regardless of the cap, it’s safe to assume Michael Ojemudia returns for his second season. He’s earned a supporting role in three star receivers’ highlight reels this year, enough that Fangio made him a healthy scratch for week 10. It’s hardly rare for a rookie corner to struggle in a normal year though, and this coaching staff has extensive histories developing defensive backs.

The rest of the secondary is an open question right now. Both Duke Dawson and Essang Bassey have shown bits and pieces to believe they could be in the plans going forward. A.J. Bouye’s been shaky and carries no dead money on his contract because of he was acquired in a trade.

Fangio’s shown time and again over the last two seasons that he can piece together a decent pass rush with duct tape and elbow grease. He shouldn’t have to, and part of the problem defending teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Las Vegas Raiders is mismatches at the skill positions. Those don’t go away because your scheme is good, and still show up at the worst times.

In football, a defense is only as good as it’s weakest link. It’s never been easier to pass the ball than today in the NFL, so Elway would have a hard time investing too many resources into his secondary. The best approach may be to swing at another DB or two in the draft along with a veteran if Jackson and/or Bouye are jettisoned.

Offensive Line

Four people have played right tackle for the Denver Broncos in 2020, none of them Ja’Wuan James. The best among them came late as an Opt-out fill in. Demar Dotson’s been as advertised, a reliable pass protector and adequate run blocker when healthy. The other three have all been turnstiles in their time in the lineup.

Elway should have never declined the fifth year option on Garett Bolles, as it was only guaranteed for injury. Hindsight is 2020 though, and the only logical plan forward is to apply the franchise tag and negotiate an extension. Most offensive lineman take three to four years to really find their stride in the NFL, but because Bolles was drafted old he’ll be 29 at the start of his fifth season. This will be his only pay day and he has every reason to chase it, just like Elway ought to fight to protect the Broncos against peak play in a contract year vs. three years of notable gaffes. The guarantees should be a sticking point. If the best player on this Broncos’ offense has to play on a one year contract while Mike Munchak tries to groom his replacement, so be it. There’s no reason to lose who looks like the best left tackle on the upcoming free agent market. None.

Knowing what we know about the development curve of offensive lineman, it’s too soon to give up on Lloyd Cushenberry or Dalton Risner. When healthy, Graham Glasgow looks like a good starting guard trying to perform with huge issues around him. Austin Schlottmann should also return, as his versatility across the interior has value, even if he winds up as little more than competition for Netane Muti.

Elijah Wilkinson’s always been caught between too tall to be a guard and too slow to survive at tackle, he still may develop into a serviceable utility guy for someone. Injuries and the glare of the starting lineup have ruined him in the mind of Broncos Country, and I doubt the free agent returns. Replacing him and finding a potential successor for Bolles are the priorities along the line.

Coaching

After what may be three of the more embarrassing years of special teams’ play in franchise history, it’s hard to believe the Broncos can’t do better than Tom McMahon. Brandon McManus has been the one bright spot, and while he’s a professional and knows enough to toe the company line, the writing is on the Twitter wall.

The rest of the Broncos’ coaching staff comes down to Fangio, who will face a hot seat if for no other reason than his GM will enter a lame duck 2021. When you stop and consider Fangio has an extensive background on the defensive side of the ball, it made all the sense in the world to hire Pat Shurmur. Formely of the Giants, Shurmur came to Denver an experienced play caller with years of history making chicken salad out of guys like Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and the 37-year old Eli Manning. Few believed in Daniel Jones, and yet he finished his rookie season with 3,027 passing yards to go with a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio.

There’s a multitude of reasons why things have gone off the rails for Shurmur’s offense this year. Chief among them is that the book is out on the Broncos’ protections. Look no further than the hit Arden Key landed on Lock last week. It’s true that a struggling center, quarterback, and a fifth string right tackle are going to have issues, but one would hope a Hall of Fame line coach and veteran play caller can adapt to help them.

At its core this latest Broncos’ offense relies on a quarterback’s ability to read the field, find an open receiver, and throw it to him as he breaks open. When that goes haywire, there’s no plan B. It sounds easy to fix such an obvious issue, and Shurmur’s tried. The offense has become simplified in recent weeks in order to help Lock make the right decisions. You can only do much before stripping the bells, whistles, and subterfuge lead to other issues.

Quarterback

Unless Drew Lock makes a marked improvement over the last seven games of this season, his run as the starting quarterback should come to an end. Whether you cling to the numbers or the film, to call Lock’s 2020 performance poor would be kind. He looks lost. While it’s true Lock’s woefully inexperienced because of all the time lost due to injuries, there’s little reasonable doubt he’s at the center of all the issues in the passing game. Even still, Elway built this team to find out if he has starting caliber quarterback, so it only makes sense for Lock to start every game if he’s healthy enough to do so. Leave no doubt.

If the Broncos do elect to move on, things get murky fast. Unless John Lynch does Elway a huge solid, the best quarterback on the market looks like it may be Cam Newton. Fans calling for Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, or Carson Wentz need only look at the guarantees on their contracts. They won’t be available.

Sam Darnold definitely looks like he will be, as it certainly looks like the New York Jets will win the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. The only problem is the book remains firmly out on Darnold. The PR bots could spin the addition as a change of scenery working some Mile High Magic, although it’s an arguments built on faith, not reason.

Looking at the rest of the 2021 QB class provides some hope. The Buckeye’s Justin Fields has fought tooth and nail to knock Lawrence off his perch atop the draft boards. After an injury plagued sophomore campaign BYU’s Zach Wilson’s doing his best Joe Burrow impersonation. Florida’s Kyle Trask looks the part at 6’5 and 240 lbs. and plays in the SEC. Even if Von Miller’s return sparks a resurgence down the backend of the season, the Broncos could even catch a sliding Trey Lance, who’s biggest issues are his inexperience and that North Dakota State playing one game has taken him out of the limelight.

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