If you zoom out too far, this season becomes really bleak. All of the injuries and losses to go with the uncertainty of Drew Lock as well as the inevitability that Kansas City will win another Super Bowl. It’s a lot to handle.
Yes, the Broncos are 0-3 and there is no guarantee they pull out a victory over the New York Jets tomorrow. I’ve already written about how Denver looks like the odds on favorite to land the number 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Perhaps Trevor Lawrence is the reward for persevering through the muck and poor luck of 2020.
Lawrence does little to ease the suffering in the here and now, though. Fortunately, Vic Fangio’s Broncos are still fighting like hell. It may get lost in the box score because of so many issues bogging down the final tally, but some of your favorite players are showing out.
Here’s what’s on my mind following the loss to Tampa Bay.
1. Bradley Chubb is making progress
So Chubb’s sack of Tom Brady is technically a tackle because the 43-year-old fell forward. I don’t care. Last week the Broncos’ best healthy edge rusher missed a practice to rest his surgically repaired knee. It worked, as the former fifth overall pick had himself a good game this week and has really impressed me in his growth as a run defender. I’ve also liked what he’s shown when asked to cover in space. He’s also shown up in big moments.
2. Shelby Harris was very good
Simply going off the tape the last three weeks, it’s hard to rationalize why the Broncos were able to retain Harris for just $3.25 million. Truth be told, he’s been the best defensive lineman on the roster even before Jurrell Casey’s injury.
Since coming to the Broncos, Harris has found ways to get to the quarterback. What hurt him in the eyes of evaluators is how much of his production was the result of Von Miller’s presence. Obviously that wasn’t the case on Sunday.
Believe it or not, sacks aren’t everything. What stood out on Harris’ tape is how he’s finding ways to impact the protection. He’s winning with quickness more often, his hand usage looks improved, and he’s doing a really good job incorporating his swim move.
3. Elway should have picked up Garett Bolles’ fifth-year option.
Right after the 2020 NFL Draft it was an open question if the Broncos made a mistake passing on left tackle Josh Jones when he fell to their second round pick. I blasted the decision then because Bolles’ issues with his kick slide and hand placement were evident on tape, even as Drew Lock made his life easier over the last five games.
If Elway disagreed with me as Pro Football Focus did, his decision to forego a fifth year option on his 2017 first round pick is a questionable one. There is no doubt in my mind that Garett Bolles is currently the best player on the Broncos’ offensive line three games into the season. He’s also now a free agent when the 2020 calendar year ends in a league where George Fant made $10 million a season.
Bolles hasn’t been perfect. He’s still going to have some issues with wide 9 rushers who have the savvy to turn speed to power on him. It doesn’t help that he gives up his chest on occasion. He also has two holds, but before we cling to those, I want to make it clear I don’t give two bits of spit about either.
I was wrong when I thought Bolles’ issues were insurmountable, and he’s currently a poster child for why it pays to draft toolsy tackles every year. If he can keep it up, the 28-year-old should be the Broncos’ left tackle going forward.
Willing to admit I was wrong on Bolles if we accept I also wanted him on the roster in 2021. https://t.co/2CkIJXl1Tm— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 29, 2020
4. Brett Rypien is the right choice against the Jets
Rypien showed the kind of promise I expected when he was coming out of Boise State. Even before you keep in mind that he likely had 0 reps this week as the Broncos scrambled to get Jeff Driskel ready, he was impressive for his first action. The way Rypien handled pressure and worked through his progressions were clear upgrades over his predecessor.
It’s way too soon to say Rypien’s ready to become a long term backup. His athleticism takes plays off the table and his mediocre arm talent will put pressure on him to stay on platform to deliver the ball with velocity. That said, it’s pretty obvious he represents the best opportunity for the Broncos’ coaching staff to evaluate the rest of the offense. In a lost season, that’s worth a metric ton.
One of the best plays by a Broncos' QB this season. pic.twitter.com/iBADvRQeOv— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 29, 2020
5. The defense is bound to decline
Very little has gone right over the first three games of the 2020 season, but Fangio’s run defense has. There’s been a couple big runs that hurt the overall grade, but according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA the Broncos have the 14th most efficient run defense so far.
A couple reasons this has happened is Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are a capable pair of run defenders on the second level, while Bradley Chubb looks much improved at setting the edge. Jeremiah Attaochu has been playing more than Malik Reed and his run defense is likely a reason why.
Now for the bad news: Don’t be surprised if that number sinks over the course of the season. Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell are the only defensive tackles from the original rotation who will suit up against the Jets and Patriots. Without Dre’Mont Jones and Jurrell Casey, McTelvin Agim will go from a healthy scratch to his first NFL action.
Since Von Miller got hurt so early, we’ll never have so much as a hint as to how good the Broncos’ pass defense could have been. Health luck willing it looked like a loaded unit, even if only for a season. In their absence Bryce Callahan is playin admirably, and Justin Simmons is hardly as bad as some will have you believe.
Here’s the thing though, even if Miller and Bouye were healthy the Broncos would have had issues defending the second level. The way things went down with Todd Davis leaves me wondering if the plan was for Justin Strnad to take his job before injury sidelined the rookie. Either way, Josey Jewell is now starting. It isn’t for lack of effort, but Jewell’s presence has served as a green light for opponents to attack the middle of the field. Johnson’s done better, but both leave me certain the defense would look better with someone like Patrick Queen.
Unfortunately, the injury to Casey will mean the pass rush is even more dependent on stunts and blitzes to apply anything resembling consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It’s a risky strategy. When it works, we’ll see rushers get home. When it doesn’t?
6. Dotson could be an upgrade at right tackle.
Elijah Wilkinson’s struggles this season are only a surprise if you didn’t watch Elijah Wilkinson’s struggles last season. He doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with speed on the perimeter and his punch can be errant, which leaves him overexposed against savvier pass rushers.
Back when the Broncos first signed Demar Dotson I went over his tape with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Pressing 35, it’s no guarantee he’ll look like the same player for the Broncos. Trevor Sikkema told Jeff Essary and I on last week’s Cover 2 Broncos that it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Dotson came into camp under his listed playing weight as well, which could be the “conditioning issues” Benjamin Allbright alluded to back in training camp.
Still, if he can step in and look like what his tape shows, the Broncos pass protection could see a bump.
There’s a subtlety to Dotson’s game that takes time to appreciate. He has patient hands and displays good placement in both the run and pass game, which helps to make up for many of the issues he should face with his height. Once he latches onto an opponent he knows how to position his body so as to avoid some untimely penalties.
7. Driskel is what happens when you’re afraid of a QB controversy
The Broncos entered 2020 “Locked In” and every single roster decision appeared to happen with him in mind. Pat Shurmur gave the young quarterback an established play caller with experience teaching rookie quarterbacks. Adding Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler to Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant gave Lock a young, but extremely talented group of pass catchers. Melvin Gordon was signed to be the back Elway hoped Royce Freeman would be.
This philosophy extended to the Broncos’ decision at QB2. In an off-season where Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, and yes, Blake Bortles were available, Elway signed Jeff Driskel.
Those who most ardently defend that move will cite how different quarterback is to every other position on a football team. Competition breeds controversy due to the media element. “How can Lock become the guy if the locker room is split?”
I get it, even if I don’t believe it’s the best way to build a football team. Players will follow the quarterback if he’s the best road forward. Choosing to sign Driskel to a 2-year, $5 million contract without kicking the tires on alternatives is a sign Elway didn’t want egg on his face if Lock’s a bust.
Let’s hope it doesn’t haunt the Broncos into 2021.
Shurmur helped Driskel with a ton of 3X1 verts with Noah Fant on a drag last week. On the first third down the Broncos mixed in a similar look, but with K.J. Hamler on the drag from the backside.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 28, 2020
Guess where Driskel didn't throw the ball. pic.twitter.com/1bz0wEC9xP