The Broncos play the Tennessee Titans in less than two weeks. Final cut down for the roster is days away. Believe it or not, we’re finally to the regular season, which makes it time to evaluate the roster as a whole. What position groups have noticeably improved over a year ago? What areas look like weaknesses? Who could surprise?
A quick caveat before I dive in: since this is coming before the final roster cut I’m obviously taking some guesses at a few spots. Where I feel less certain, I’ll make a point to say.
Since the Broncos signed Sam Martin in free agency both kicking positions have been clear. Brandon McManus will return on the last year of his 2017 extension. When Wes Farnsworth was cut last weekend it made clear that Jacob Bobenmoyer will get the first crack at replacing Casey Kreiter.
Worth noting that Tom McMahon’s special teams units were once again among the worst in the league in 2019. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stats, the special teams were the 8th worst unit in the NFL, marked improvement from 2018 when only Buffalo was worse.
This may interest only me, but of all the kickers who tried 30 or more field goals last year only one had less attempts within 30 yards than Brandon McManus. pic.twitter.com/Tc7myWhLKz— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 31, 2020
Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson pair to make one of the best safety duos in all of football. Both have the ability to stick to a receiver in coverage, which helps provide Fangio flexibility in his coverage calls. Neither is soft against the run, either.
The depth behind them is mostly untested. Trey Marshall filled in for Jackson when the veteran missed time due to a DUI suspension at the end of 2019. As I write this Alijah Holder is still battling with P.J. Locke and Douglas Coleman III to make the roster. Holder seemed to make an impression before missing a stretch of practice due to injury. I’d tentatively call him the favorite.
A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan will be the starters. The former was acquired in a trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars after an uneven 2019. The latter has spent his entire career under Fangio, but missed last season with a foot injury. Reports out of camp have pointed to strong play for both so far.
The battle for playing time in Nickel and even Dime personnel will be interesting to watch as the preseason comes to a close. Fangio’s called the battle betweem De’Vante Bausby, Isaac Yiadom, and Davontae Harris too close to call. Last week on Cover 2 Broncos I learned Bausby’s looked the most consistent.
Behind those five, Duke Dawson remains. It’s no sure thing he makes the active roster, and may even feel a squeeze from undrafted rookie Essang Bassey. KOA’s Ryan Edwards suspects in a normal training camp he’d make the roster, and mentioned how the coaching staff seems very pleased with him. His greasy hips could make him better suited to the kind of short area movements necessary in the slot than Dawson.
It’s easy to forget Alexander Johnson sat behind both Corey Nelson and Josey Jewell for the first month of the 2019 season. What he showed across his 12 games is enough for sky high expectations this season. If he can take some strides in coverage, he’ll get national recognition as a top 10 linebacker in 2020.
If healthy, Todd Davis will be the steady contributor beside him. Word out of training camp is Justin Strnad was playing well enough to expect a role. His injury means we’ll probably see Davis and Johnson log the vast majority of snaps at off ball backer this year. Consider this: After week 4 last season Davis and Johnson played less than 80% of the defensive snaps just once the rest of the way.
If Davis’ calf slows him down or injuries strike, this group could go from strength to weakness really quickly. Josey Jewell has been abused in coverage in camp and Mark Barron is such a new addition to the roster it’s unrealistic to expect him to hit the ground running week 1.
Keep an eye out for Justin Hollins as cuts loom. The 2019 fifth round pick played both off and on the line of scrimmage each of the last two camps, but stopped receiving the effusive praise he saw as a rookie. His versatility could be valuable with questions about both Davis and Chubb, but only if he’s ready to play.
There’s little question Von Miller remains the best player on the Denver Broncos. The future Hall of Famer came into camp in superb shape and ready to fight off Father Time. While some point to his first healthy season with less than 10 sacks as a sign of inevitable decline, they overlook how Miller still created more pressure on the quarterback than all but a single handful of players.
What should make the 31-year old’s job easier this year is a return to health for Bradley Chubb. After threatening the rookie sack record in 2018 the former 5th overall pick’s sophomore season was derailed by an ACL tear. The Broncos have been cautious with his return and Fangio isn’t ready to say he’ll be back to rookie form just yet.
“I think he’s where we kind of thought he would be. We never said he was 100 percent yet, at least I never did. I think what he’s going through is a natural progression in recovering from his injury. I’m still optimistic that he’ll be out there in the first week and playing well—probably not playing to the level he was pre-injury, but pretty damn close. We’ll see, but it’s going to be a work in progress.”
Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu round out the veteran depth at edge. Both played significant snaps when Chubb missed time in 2019. Reed is a bit lighter and more fluid in space, while Attaochu is sturdier at the point of attack.
So long as he can stay healthy, Jurrell Casey brings something the Broncos’ line lacked a year ago: he’s the kind of interior disruptor opponents have to account for. With top notch lateral mobility, a vast repertoire of rush moves, and a relentless motor, he should elevate the whole front.
Look for Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones to heavily factor into the rotation alongside Casey. Harris returns after a free agent market never materialized as he hoped a year ago. He’s strong at the point of attack with sneaky quickness and a knack for clogging passing lanes. Jones is a bit of a baby Casey. He’s got good lateral mobility and the ability to squeeze by opponents as a pass rusher. Better play leveraging gaps will give Fangio the confidence to increase his snap counts.
Mike Purcell’s battling some health questions right now, but should give the Broncos a stout nose tackle who has the kind of quickness to attack as a 1-technique as well as a 0. He’s an integral part to the Broncos’ run defense out of their base 3-4 looks and opponents run outside zone against him at their own risk.
McTelvin Agim is this year’s talented rookie. He’s gotten some love from veterans at camp and could wind up a core piece of the line in 2021 or 22. Right now he needs to improve holding up to double teams and owning his gaps against the run. His snap count may be limited this year barring injuries, but I’m excited for his future.
We’ve heard painfully little about the battle for the last defensive line spot. I expect Christian Covington to win it after he was signed in March. The former Dallas Cowboy has starting experience and offers more strength than someone like DeMarcus Walker can.
By midseason, the Broncos’ starting offensive line should be:
LT- Garett Bolles
LG - Dalton Risner
C - Lloyd Cushenberry
RG - Graham Glasgow
RT - Elijah Wilkinson
Questions about Glasgow and Wilkinson’s health as well as Cushenberry’s readiness could mean players like Austin Schlottmann, Demar Dotson, or even Jake Rodgers sees time. Fangio isn’t ready to declare a winner in the battle for the starting center spot, so Patrick Morris could still be in the mix as well. We’ve heard little about players like Calvin Anderson and Netane Muti. Both should make the practice squad at worst.
The tackle situation looks like it will be the biggest question hanging over the Broncos’ offense this year. If Bolles can finally deliver on the potential Elway saw back in 2017, it’d go miles towards solidifying the pass protection for Drew Lock.
Courtland Sutton made the Pro Bowl last year despite catching passes from Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen for 11 games. He did it even while no second receiver ever emerged after the Emmanuel Sanders’ trade. He produced against defenses who figured out he was the Broncos’ only reliable weapon in the passing game. Between the addition of Pat Shurmur, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, and a return to health for Tim Patrick, things should be easier this year.
I'd take Courtland Sutton over Keenan Allen. pic.twitter.com/8NiVHKQwfJ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) July 27, 2020
It’s typical to hear lofty praise at this time of the NFL calendar, but what’s been said about Jeudy is hard to ignore. Kareem Jackson called him the best route runner he’s ever seen, and other veteran defensive players have given the rookie credit for making them better. His route running, hands, and inside/outside versatility should help Shurmur find him playing time early and often. I said it before the NFL Draft, he was the best receiver in this class for the Shurmur offense.
Patrick gives the Broncos a second target who presents a size/speed mismatch for opponents. At 6’5 with 4.5 speed, the former Ute can threaten defensive backs downfield only to throttle down for comebacks. His frame helps him to protect the ball on slants and crossers. He’s also got the wingspan and length to go up and get the ball in traffic.
DaeSean Hamilton looks like he’ll round out top of the depth at receiver behind Jeudy. He’ll serve as a slot option who can play some Z-receiver if need be. He’s not a burner and needs to prove his issues with catching are a thing of the past. If he can do so, his ability to create separation and find holes in zones should help Lock immensely on passing downs.
The injury to Hamler means Diontae Spencer is a near lock for the roster as a returner. His size hurts his ability to factor into the offense on more than gadget plays and schemed touches, which opens the question as to whether Shurmur will carry seven receivers early. If he does, I like Tyrie Cleveland chances. The rookie is a size/speed prospect with extensive time running down kicks at Florida. Even if he can’t do a lot as a pass catcher early on, he’d help the special teams.
What we do know right now is Noah Fant is the starting tight end. Nick Vannett looks like the primary inline player for two tight end packages. Albert Okwuegbunam has turned heads in camp for his work as a receiver in the redzone, but still needs to make huge strides as a blocker.
Jake Butt’s return to health through camp has made this position battle one of the more hotly debated. The Andy Janovich trade in the spring means the Broncos do have a need for a player who can log some snaps at fullback when Pat Shurmur utilizes 21 personnel. What complicates matters is how the Broncos’ new OC very rarely leans on two back sets, he much prefers 11 (3 receiver) and 12 (two tight end) personnel packages.
Depending on what the coaching staff thinks of Nick Vannett’s versatility, the need for an H-back/fullback type could help Troy Fumagalli or Andrew Beck’s odds at the roster. There’s also an outside chance running back Jeremy Cox could make the roster in part due to his ability to line up as a blocking back. Odds are, we won’t know until the final cuts are made.
I’ve been saying since Melvin Gordon signed that Pat Shurmur has leaned heavily on a workhorse back for the vast majority of his career. Gordon’s strengths lay in his contact balance, vision, and pass blocking. He’s also a capable outlet receiver with solid hands. If he’s healthy, expect him to log a healthy majority of the snaps.
Look for Phillip Lindsay to serve as the number two runner and switch hitter. He’s easily the most explosive runner on the Broncos’ roster, but it may not be enough. While there’s been a lot of talk about how he’s improved as a receiver this year, the coaching staff believed in Freeman over him on third downs last year. Barring some huge change, he’s going to see his snap count decline.
Royce Freeman looks likely to stick to the active roster over LaVante Bellamy. He offers size the former Western Michigan Bronco doesn’t, and has the kind of well rounded skillset to serve as the number three back.
The 2020 Broncos will go as far as Drew Lock takes them. Analytics are down on the Broncos’ in part because Lock’s 4-1 finish to last year is such a small sample size it’s hard to put too much weigh on it, which is fair. I’m more optimistic in part because of the growth he showed across his rookie season. I also think he has the perfect skillset for Shurmur to maximize with the kind of weapons around him.
If Lock gets hurt, the season is probably over. Everything from camp suggests Jeff Driskel’s exactly who his 2019 tape paints him as: a mobile veteran who can make a good offense look sort-of-functional. His accuracy beyond 10 yards downfield is inconsistent, and he’s relies far too much on his primary read.
One thing to look for as the roster cuts loom is if Elway and Fangio elect to carry three quarterbacks on the final roster. The expanded practice squad makes this less likely, but it’d speak to their belief in Brett Rypien and his progress if they don’t want to risk losing him.
Every touchdown pass of Drew Lock's NFL career so far. pic.twitter.com/Gow78OjpYd— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 22, 2020
For the first time in years I feel excited about the Broncos’ offense, but don’t be surprised if the Fangio Broncos are once again a team that leans heavily on their defense to win them games. The pieces are in place for an explosive offense in time, but Covid could mean a slow start. Especially with such a grinding schedule to open the 2020 slate.
A few different times this offseason I’ve mentioned how the Broncos are looking up at the Kansas City Chiefs this year. Heck, the whole NFL is at their mercy this year. Patrick Mahomes still carries such an affordable cap number that every major contributor has returned from last year’s Super Bowl team. Add to that better health luck for Mahomes, and we could see Andy Reid’s best offense yet.
With something of an inevitable demise at the end of whatever great run the Broncos go on this year, expectations should be muted. We know the Broncos are extremely unlikely to make it to take home a Lombardi in 2020, and that’s okay. Rather than frame the entire season as a failure if there’s no title, we should relish the journey.
Drew Lock is already the most talented quarterback to wear orange and blue since Peyton Manning. We don’t know if he’ll turn into a legitimate challenger to Mahomes just yet, but finding out should make this season far more entertaining than the last few years.