It’s been a rather strange week in Broncos Country. So much so that it’s easy to overlook the fact Denver managed to somehow beat the Washington Football Team and claw their way back to 4-4.
The victory feels like a hollow one because of the decision to trade Von Miller for a second and third round pick in the 2022 draft. Say what you will about the draft picks and the likelihood that either makes a significant difference, but trading Miller purposefully weakened the lineup and decreased the chances that this banged up roster can force their way back into the postseason picture. When the move first happened, it suggested the Broncos were going to be aggressive sellers ahead of the NFL trade deadline, but that didn’t happen. Following the Broncos’ bewildering approach to the NFL trade deadline, I’ve spent the last day ruminating on the decision to give Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams.
In a vacuum, the move to dump Von makes sense long-term. The 32-year-old Miller is quickly approaching the end of his current contract and because he’s accrued 10+ seasons, if he left in free agency, the Broncos would receive no more than a fifth round compensatory pick for his services. George Paton admitted that the Broncos had doubts they’d be able to bring back their future Hall of Famer at his press conference Tuesday.
“Obviously, he’s in the last year of his deal, and there’s uncertainty on whether we could sign him. We obviously would have liked to have Von come back, but there was uncertainty. We didn’t know. Those things are complicated, as you know. That was a layer. It wasn’t the only thing, but it was a part of it.”
Outside that vacuum, the move raises a ton of questions. The Broncos didn’t make any other significant move unless you count the trade that sent the completely untested Kary Vincent Jr. to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 6th round pick, a good return for a former seventh round pick who hasn’t sniffed the active roster on gamedays. Paton said the Broncos didn’t make any other trades because they didn’t receive any significant offers and that he did not believe in having a fire sale.
“We’re not approaching a rebuild. We’re just trying to do it the right way. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. We want to build a foundation here. We have a lot of good players here. That’s not fair to [S] Justin Simmons; that’s not fair to [QB] Teddy Bridgewater; that’s not fair to some of our core guys to rebuild. I think we have enough players here. Now, do we need to continue to build the foundation to get where we need to go? Certainly. We will continue to do that, and that’s what we’ve done with some of these trades.”
Since the Broncos did not elect to start a true rebuild, it’s worth taking stock of the current state of the team, starting with the defense.
Looking past the Washington game where Fangio was able to take advantage of Taylor Heinicke and an offensive line that was down three starters, the Von-less Denver Broncos have a significant issue up front. Through the first eight games of the season, the Broncos have created pressure on 23.8% of their snaps by Pro Football Reference charting, good for 19th in the league. They ranked 23rd by Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards and were average or significantly worse defending runs in every direction outside of Von Miller’s usual spot over the right tackle.
Without Miller around and Bradley Chubb still on Injured Reserve, Malik Reed will become the Broncos’ primary edge rusher for the first time in his career. Across from him, it looks as if Fangio will rotate between the recently acquired Stephen Weatherly, seventh round rookie Jonathon Cooper, and Aaron Patrick, who was signed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad.
So far the Broncos’ interior defensive line hasn’t succumbed to the injury plague working its way through the defense. Mike Purcell missed the Washington game and DeShawn Williams’ status bears monitoring, but Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones are both healthy. That’s going to be important going forward, as Fangio will surely lean even harder into their ability to create disruption on stunts.
The Broncos individual pressures by @football_sis charting.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 3, 2021
Malik Reed - 15
Shelby Harris - 10
Dre'Mont Jones - 9
Jonathon Cooper - 6
DeShawn Williams - 5
Justin Strnad - 3
Shamar Stephen - 3
Mike Purcell - 3
The Broncos’ issues along the line look sure to exacerbate the ongoing crisis at linebacker. With Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell on Injured Reserve, the Denver defense spent the first half of the season as a sieve in the middle of the field. The Broncos currently rank as the fourth worst team by DVOA against passes to the middle of the field and the current hope is the newcomers can save the day.
Baron Browning and Kenny Young made their first starts in orange and blue in week eight and performed admirably, but one is a rookie third round pick making his first NFL start while the other’s been in Denver a little over a week. Mistakes are going to happen and smart offensive coordinators are going to dial up plays to isolate them and challenge their ability to make the right decision quickly.
I suspect this was a bust by Kenny Young (41) pic.twitter.com/b2ATglrfjv— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
The problems along the defensive front will put additional pressure on the Broncos’ New Fly Zone to hold up their end on the backend. They’ll need to do so without Bryce Callahan, who was placed on Injured Reserve with a knee injury. Without Callahan, Fangio will turn to either Nate Hairston or Kyle Fuller to play snaps in the slot, at least until Michael Ojemudia is activated off of I.R. This could be the rationale behind holding onto Fuller at the trade deadline despite the fact that he’s played four snaps since week five. It’s just about the only way the inaction makes sense, as Fuller’s a free agent after the season and unlikely to receive a contract that factors into the compensatory pick formula.
All told, the remaining nine games paint a pretty bleak picture for the Von-less defense. They’re 4-4 after playing Daniel Jones, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Ben Roethisberger, Derek Carr, Case Keenum, and Taylor Heinicke. Despite facing one of the 10 easiest schedules in the league to date, they rank 26th in defensive DVOA. Over the last nine games of the year they look set to face Dak Prescott, Joe Burrow, Derek Carr, Jared Goff, Jalen Hurts, in addition to two games apiece against Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes.
If the Broncos are still trying to chase wins in 2021 without Von Miller around to help the defense, they will need to more help from their offense. On Tuesday Paton expressed confidence in the veteran quarterback and said the rest of the team needs to play better around him, which seemingly pours cold water on any hope that Drew Lock will take over as QB1. A change at offensive coordinator does not look imminent either.
“We need to be better on offense. Pat knows that, and we all know that. Our players know that. Pat’s had a lot of success in this league. I believe in Pat, but we do need to play better. We just don’t seem to have a lot of rhythm. We’re not good in the critical downs and critical areas of the field. We were this past weekend, but we need to run the ball better. There’s a lot of things, but they’re working on it. Pat has had a lot of success, so I do believe in Pat.”
The good news is that the Broncos offense was finally heathy in week eight. For the first time since the Giants game, every member of the original starting offense suited up. The bad news is they scored 17 points against a team that was allowing more points per game than every other defense in the league coming in, and unfortunately it looks like it will be the last time the starting offense is all together for the foreseeable future. Garett Bolles suffered a grade two high ankle sprain during the Washington game, an injury that typically needs anywhere from six weeks to three months to recover from.
Without Bolles in the lineup, the Broncos will start Calvin Anderson at left tackle. The 2018 undrafted free agent has played in two games so far in his NFL career, one on each side of the line. Sunday will be the beginning of a trial by fire against the Dallas Cowboys and their dynamic edge duo of Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons. Beyond the concerns about the individual matchups Anderson will face is how the pass protection will hold up without their left tackle. If it gets much worse, all the skill position talent in the world won’t amount to anything.
Total QB Hits Allowed Through Week 8:— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) November 2, 2021
PHI, TB: 32
CLE, JAX: 34
BUF, MIN: 40
GB, HOU: 43
BAL*, CIN, NYG: 44
LAC, MIA: 45
TEN, WAS: 46
ATL, NE: 51
CAR, KC: 52
I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to take an objective look at this current Broncos squad and call them anything more than a plucky also-ran. Now that Von Miller’s gone, they have a tattered defense with holes across the front and an underperforming offense that will need to improve without the aid of their best offensive lineman. They’ll play six of their last nine games against teams vying for a playoff spot.
Tuesday’s press conference was Paton’s chance to share his vision for the post-Miller Broncos. Outside of showering Von with praise, expressing confidence in the coaching staff and quarterback, and denying the possibility that a locker room rift led to Miller’s departure, the first-year general manager punted on the opportunity. It’s certainly understandable that fans would have questions after the Broncos shipped their best defensive player to a Super Bowl contender and didn’t follow it up with any other noteworthy move.
By and large, this remains the same team that beat up on the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New York Jets. It’s the same team that couldn’t stop the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, or battered Cleveland Browns. A victory over the Washington Football Team brought them back to .500, something Paton did not ignore on Tuesday.
We’re 4-4, and people think we’re 2-6. We haven’t played great football and we’re 4-4. I’d like to think we’re going to play better and we’re going to get in the thick of it.”
Multiple times during the press conference George Paton leaned on the Broncos’ record, seemingly to remind fans that they were not as bad as just about all the metrics suggest. Maybe he’s in denial, or perhaps the general manager’s plan is to slog through the rest of the ‘21 slate and hope for the Green Bay Packers to implode.