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What to watch for over the remainder of the Broncos 2021 season

Beyond the wins and losses, there’s plenty to keep an eye on.

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Nothing feeds angst quite like life at .500, and no team’s wallowing through the subsequent disfunction quite like the Broncos. Von Miller’s departure for the Los Angeles Rams marks a turning point in George Paton’s first year. Regardless of the odds, the Broncos were all in on 2021 before the trade deadline. Turning the team’s best pass rusher, best run defender, and legendary face of the franchise into a pair of day two picks is savvy management if you can focus on the 32-year-old on an expiring contract, but it also hurts the depleted front seven. It’s a move towards the future, which redirects eyes on 2022 and all the big unknowns that hang over the franchise. With questions about ownership, management, coaching, and the roster, it makes sense for those who bleed the orange and blue to experience a bit of an existential crisis.

At 4-4, everything’s still in front of this current Broncos team. Believe it or not, there’s still a reasonable chance they make the postseason this year. They could even win a game, maybe two if the draws and a little luck works in their favor. As a neutral party, it’d be irresponsible for me to advise you take their Super Bowl odds, but this team could find a way to rally and turn in the Broncos’ best season since Peyton Manning retired. There’s also a slew of activity that could ultimately reshape the Broncos as we know them by the end of the league year in March.

Can Fangio make the playoffs?

After a 3-0 September, the Broncos’ four-game losing streak in October looked like the ground bottomed out beneath their feet. The offense couldn’t score enough as the run defense turned into a sieve in lieu of the injuries to Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. After an ugly win against the Washington Football Team, George Paton sent the Broncos’ best player to a Super Bowl contender in the other conference.

There’s no way around the fact the Broncos’ first-year general manager made it harder for the head coach to save his job with a trip to the postseason. Maybe that’s the sign fans need to know that change is inevitable at this point. I have doubts, but either way, the injury situation combined with Von Miller’s departure looks like a breaking point for Denver’s defense.

That the Broncos landed at 4-4 after one of the five easiest opening schedules currently looks like the blown opportunity that ultimately dooms their playoff run. Losing to the Steelers, Browns, and Raiders leaves them on the sorry end of a few important tiebreakers, and now they have to try to climb out of a hole with backups starting all across the defense. It begins with a matchup against the best team they’ve faced all season in Dallas, and it rarely eases up.

Who could the Broncos send to the Pro Bowl?

The last time Denver didn’t send a single player to the Pro Bowl was 1980, long before I was even born. With Von Miller a Ram and Bradley Chubb on Injured Reserve, there’s some question as to who has the best chance to receive an invitation this season.

Justin Simmons was a Pro Bowler last year after an All Pro nod in 2019, but two of his three picks came on Hail Mary’s from Taylor Heinicke and the New Fly Zone has given up some pretty big plays that coaches and other players won’t forget. Both Simmons and the rest of the defense will need to improve for him to get a spot this year. Patrick Surtain II could potentially make it if he continues to improve and makes enough splash plays that catch the eyes.

As I write this, one player on the Broncos offense looks like they’re on pace to push for a Pro Bowl bid: Courtland Sutton. The 2018 second round pick is currently fifth in the AFC in receiving yards. It’s worth mentioning that both Sutton and Tim Patrick currently rank among the AFC leaders in Football Outsiders DYAR metric, which measures a player’s contributions beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute. As I write this, Patrick is 10th in the NFL while Sutton is 15th, but 11 players ahead of them are either in the NFC or Henry Ruggs. Patrick’s conventional stats will need a big bump over the last nine games if he’s going to earn his first Pro Bowl bid, but he’s doing work this year. Noah Fant could also have a chance, but he’ll need to blow up down the stretch and missing the Dallas game doesn’t help.

Does anyone play their way into a contract extension?

Roughly a third of the Broncos’ roster is currently playing on contracts set to expire after the 2021 season comes to a close. Right now, Denver is expected to have about $77.5 million in cap space in 2022 by Over the Cap estimates, but only have 37 players under contract. Paton can dramatically reshape what the roster looks like this offseason, and obviously has a ton of decisions ahead of him. With half a season left to play, here’s just a few players that could make sense to bring back:

  • WR Courtland Sutton - Prototypical X-receiver with big play chops.
  • WR Tim Patrick - X-receiver who can moonlight as a Z, willing to mix it up as a blocker.
  • QB Teddy Bridgewater - If it’s rookie QB in ‘22, a mentor to serve as a bridge makes sense.
  • RT Bobby Massie - Rookie tackles tend to struggle, so another potential bridge.
  • LB Josey Jewell - Defensive play caller prior to injury and better than casual fans realize.
  • DL Shamar Stephen - Decent rotational nose type who deserves consideration.
  • CB Mike Ford - Core special teamer who should receive offer if price is fair.
  • ED Malik Reed - Quality ED3 stretched thin as a starter. He’s an RFA and should be back.
  • T Calvin Anderson - Probably the Broncos long term swing tackle. RFA and should be back.
  • QB Brett Rypien - QB3 is an RFA. I’d guess Paton gives him a right of first refusal tender.
  • TE/FB Andrew Beck - Coaching may impact his status, but he’s a RFA so easy to retain.
  • LS Jacob Bobenmoyer - Broncos long snapper is an ERFA who should be back.
  • S P.J. Locke - Core special teamer and a capable backup safety who’s an ERFA.
  • WR Kendall Hinton - Depth receiver who is an ERFA. Should be back.
  • LB Jonas Griffith - Athletic special teamer and LB prospect who is an ERFA.
  • WR Tyrie Cleveland - Special teamer with the size/speed to potentially grow on O. ERFA.
  • DL DeShawn Williams - Quality role player and better pass rusher than sack totals suggest.
  • TE Eric Saubert - If the price is right, he’s a capable blocking tight end and special teamer.
  • LB Alexander Johnson - Elite run defender and very good blitzer, but on IR and already 30.

Who makes the most of their newfound role and opportunities?

Injuries aren’t something to celebrate and it’s immoral to root for them, but one can’t help but recognize the way they pave the way for starting jobs in the NFL. The Von Miller trade and Bradley Chubb injury mean Malik Reed is currently the Broncos’ best edge defender, for example. With so many injuries up an down the roster, a laundry list of young players receiving their first significant playing time in the NFL. Some of them were drafted for this, others may have this one opportunity to prove they belong in the league. Others are young vets, but now find their roles significantly altered.

Just a few I have a close eye on:

  • Patrick Surtain II is now Denver’s CB1 and is emerging as a star.
  • Can Javonte Williams find his footing in the second half?
  • What will Baron Browning look like in his second start against Dak Prescott?
  • Caden Sterns is logging time in dime personnel. Is he a future starter?
  • Albert Okwuegbunam will make the third start of his career against the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Calvin Anderson will also make the third start of his career against the Cowboys.
  • McTelvin Agim’s played 186 defensive snaps in his career to date.
  • What does Michael Ojemudia’s role look like upon his return from Injured Reserve?
  • Will DeShawn Williams look the same after his injury scare in week seven?
  • Does Lloyd Cushenberry hold onto his starting job all year?
  • Kendall Hinton’s played 158 snaps this season, how does his role change with Jeudy back?
  • How will Drew Lock look if he sees the field?
  • How do the issues at edge and linebacker impact Dre’Mont Jones down the second half?
  • Can Tyrie Cleveland carve out a meaningful role on offense?
  • How does P.J. Locke look if he finds his way to the field on defense?

Who will the Broncos hire if they fire Vic Fangio?

At 4-4 with a banged up roster facing a tough schedule, there remains a decent chance the Broncos’ current head coach doesn’t survive the 2021 campaign. A few weeks ago, we received our first look at Paton’s initial short list of candidates the first-year general manager would look at as his first head coach. The fact such a list was leaked should signal that conversations have occurred at Dove Valley. A quick look at the names:

I will admit there is a significant part of me that hopes Paton looks beyond what he’s comfortable with to consider all options. Failing that, I’m currently highest on Leslie Frazier from the names above. While Dan Quinn’s tenure with the Atlanta Falcons is certainly remembered more for blown opportunities than memorable victories, he has made a monumental difference for the Cowboys defense this year. Paton could certainly do worse.

Who will be the next owner of the Denver Broncos?

Should Paton choose to hire a new head coach, it could turn complicated because of the ownership uncertainty hanging over the Broncos. The various factions of the Bowlen family agree on a controlling owner and the team moves forward without a sale. My conversations with those who would know, such as the Washington Post’s Nicki Jhabvala, suggest that is extremely unlikely, however. If the Bowlen family decides to part with the Broncos, the earliest a sale would be approved by the league is at the owner’s meetings at the end of March.