The 2021 Broncos are lost at sea. Back in September they set sail for the playoffs and found smooth sailing in the early going. They beat the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets on their way to 3-0 and the top of the AFC standings. Since then, the mast has caught fire and the rope holding the anchor snapped. Falling to the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders, and Browns leaves Denver at 3-4 with no realistic hope at the postseason. The slew of injuries ate a dozen holes through the hull of the ship, eliminating the slim hope that Fangio and company can somehow fix the defense.
Denver runs a 3-4 defense. For about half the game last night they had zero starters at linebacker playing with Bradley Chubb, Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell and Von Miller all injured. I can't remember a season where the Broncos lost an entire starting position group to injury.— Joseph Mahoney (@ndjomo76) October 22, 2021
There’s no way back to shore, holes up and down the ship, and the burning hulk of a mast means the Broncos are going to drift wherever the waves take them. A brutal schedule that still includes two games against both the Chiefs and Chargers as well as matchups against the Cowboys, Bengals, and Raiders means things will surely get worse this year. With the postseason talk now little more than a sick joke, I’ve already advocated for George Paton to sell everything that isn’t nailed down.
Beyond any potential trades, here are three moves that the Broncos should make.
Start Quinn Meinerz
Injuries to Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow sent the rookie third rounder into the Jets game against Quinnen Williams. The next week, the former Warhawk made his first NFL start against Wink Martindale’s talented Ravens defense. I’ll admit I was extremely nervous for him. Wisconsin-Whitewater didn’t play football last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so on top of the precipitous jump in competition, the rookie would be exposed to one of the most aggressive defensive play callers in the league.
Meinerz made me look stupid, as he handled it with gusto. He performed like a starting caliber guard and displayed the patience, discipline, and technique to pick up stunts with little trouble. That combined with his competitive toughness and play strength made him a load at the point of attack.
Any effort to play Meinerz is going to raise questions about who he replaces in the starting lineup. In the limited exposure I’ve had to Meinerz pro tape, it seems obvious that he is more comfortable at guard than center, which complicates things because Graham Glasgow’s playing solid football on the right side. Should Denver bench Dalton Risner or Lloyd Cushenberry? I defer to Mike Munchak.
Some growing pains up front with some new faces, but Meinerz ends up blocking both guys inside, picking up Rankins flashing in late. pic.twitter.com/ZW8mVQ1eqx— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) September 29, 2021
Start Drew Lock, trade Teddy Bridgewater if possible
Way back in training, every report from the Broncos and local media suggested the QB competition was essentially 50-50. If that’s the case, it seems peculiar that a battered and bruised Teddy Bridgewater remains the starter over Drew Lock.
Back then it looked like the Broncos defense would live up to expectations and perform as a top five unit in the league, so it made sense to start a competent game manager over the high variance gunslinger at quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater’s ability to win pre-snap, make the right decisions under duress, and deliver a catchable ball gave Shurmur no excuse for a hapless passing offense. The veteran quarterback has had his fair share of miscues, but by and large he’s done his part. Believe it or not, the Broncos offense was better than their defense over the first six games of the season.
As injuries mounted, that came to a screeching halt in the Browns game. Bridgewater’s interception took points off the board at the beginning of the second quarter and Shurmur’s offense couldn’t make up for it. The second pitiful performance from the starting quarterback has raised questions about how much he has left after a concussion, foot, and quad injury. It’s also become clear Shurmur is trying to coach around the issue, and by doing so he’s exacerbating the issues with the passing game.
3rd and goal screen from the 10. Tell me you don't trust your QB, etc, etc— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) October 22, 2021
The Broncos are strapped to their hapless defense for the remainder of the year. The linebacker situation is so poor that any offensive line worth its salt will find consistent success, while the pass rush is close to nonexistent and makes the secondary a shooting gallery. Neither of these issues are Bridgewater’s fault, but if the defense is too weak to compete, the rationale for starting him over Lock rests on his individual performance. It isn’t good enough.
The younger QB has a year remaining on his rookie contract and some hope that he can improve his trade value before the offseason, while the other is a 28-year-old journeyman George Paton acquired for a sixth round pick. If Bridgewater’s contract lasted into ‘22, there could be some argument for playing him because of how the locker room has rallied around him as the starter. He could also be a valuable mentor to a rookie down the road, but alas, his contract expires after 2021 reaches its merciful conclusion.
Unless Paton brings Bridgewater back to serve as a mentor to a rookie, his value to the Broncos already peaked. That’s in stark contrast to Lock, who currently has little to no value around the NFL right now. Keep in mind, during Lock’s second season in the NFL, he finished:
- 30th in DYAR
- 29th in ESPN’s QBR
- 24th in EPA
- 32nd in traditional Passer Rating
- 35th in Completion %
- Tied for 1st in total interceptions
- Tied for 9th in Adjusted Interceptions with 16
In addition to the numbers above, only 65.4% of his career attempts have been deemed “on target” by SIS charting. His on target percentage actually declined in 2020 even as the Broncos’ offense utilized horizontal leading throws at a bottom 10 rate. Lock also missed significant time to injury in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.
As painful as it may be for some to accept, switching quarterbacks probably isn’t going to be the miracle cure Lock’s most ardent supporters hope for. The truth is it’s a long shot gamble on upside in hopes that the third year pro can figure things out after a full offseason and time learning behind a proven NFL passer. Odds are Lock starting goes one of two ways. In a best case scenario he does enough to improve his standing around the league that Paton can deal him for draft capital in the offseason. In the worst case scenario, he helps them race to rock bottom, which is probably where this Broncos team needs to land if they want to chase a real franchise quarterback.
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