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Paton’s Spaces: Are these Broncos ready for a “win or you’re done” playoff chase?

A look at the Denver Broncos roster ahead of the final stretch of 2021.

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The Broncos are in the midst of a sort of identity crisis at 6-6 with five games to go in the 2021 season. They’re simultaneously the best roster Denver’s had since 2016 and potentially a continuation of the worst stretch of Broncos football since Gerald Ford was in the White House. With John Elway’s contract set to expire after the season, they also represent the end of an era that began with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow a decade ago.

While the Broncos are facing long odds for the playoffs, the chase represents a fantastic opportunity for George Paton to evaluate his first roster. Who rises to the occasion with the playoffs on the line? Who wilts? Who does enough to stick around? Fortunately the Broncos’ general manager kept an eye on the future with his moves during the 2021 offseason. With almost $50 million in cap space and five top 100 picks, Paton will be able to reshape the roster according to his vision.

Special Teams

Since Tom McMahon took over one of the worst special teams units in the NFL in 2018, the Broncos have never finished above 24th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric that measures efficiency relative to the strength of opponent. This year they rank 29th despite a new general manager who’s prioritized special teams prowess as he stocked the back half of the Broncos’ depth charts. Diontae Spencer’s muff in Kansas City is only the most recent special teams disaster. Both Brandon McManus and Sam Martin have had kicks blocked this year, Dre’Mont Jones’ leverage penalty turned a field goal attempt into a touchdown in an eight point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Jamal Agnew scored on a 104-yard kickoff return in week two.

After attempting 15 50+ yard field goals in 2020, Brandon McManus has tried three and made one this season. Outside of the Philadelphia Eagles’ block, all his kicks from within the 50’s have been money. Normally automatic on point after attempts, it’s worth mentioning McManus did miss an extra point in Dallas.

It’s hard to fairly evaluate Sam Martin because so much of his job is mitigating the issues with his coverage units. He’s currently the 12th best punter by net punt at 42.1 yards and 20 of 47 punts have landed within the 20 while only two became touchbacks. 17 were fair caught. To my eye, he’s been fine. So has Jacob Bobenmoyer, though I’d be lying if I said I spent much time watching the long snapper.

To say there are only three specialists on the Broncos is a bit misleading. Players like Mike Ford, P.J. Locke, Jonas Griffith, and Aaron Patrick are on the active roster primarily because of what they add to the forgotten side of the ball. Ford will be an important X-factor this week against the Detroit LionsKhalif Raymond, who is averaging 11.6 yards per punt return this year.

Defense

When Fangio was hired as the head coach, the hope was he’d lift what was a good defense into the stratosphere. Against that expectation these last three years will be a huge disappointments, as the Broncos’ defense looks like it will peak at 13th in DVOA. As has been the case through Fangio’s tenure, it’s not an excuse so much as a grim reality that injuries threw a huge wrench into the starting lineup. At no position is this more evident in 2021 than linebacker. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell both suffered season-ending injuries before Halloween, and since returning from an ankle injury, Bradley Chubb has been a shell of himself. When you add in the Von Miller trade, the Broncos’ original starting linebackers played less than 20 snaps together this year.

The Broncos have a better pass than run defense this season.

Defensive Backs

Justin Simmons, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, Nate Hairston, P.J. Locke, Mike Ford, Essang Bassey, Jamar Johnson

  • Simmons is the best player on the roster and should make the Pro Bowl. He’s given up 154 yards in coverage this year by Sports Info Solutions’ charting, and opposing passers are averaging 5.6 yards per target when throwing at him. His length and range help to erase space when the Broncos are playing zone, and he routinely displays the route recognition and fluidity to erase most assignments in man coverage.
  • Surtain is already one of the best cover corners in the NFL and should make the Pro Bowl. Opposing passers have completed 47.5% of their targets against him for just 5.8 yards per target, and he’s pitched in 10 pass breakups to go with his four picks.
  • Darby has manned the right boundary corner spot since he returned from a hamstring injury in week six. He’s giving up completions at the highest rate in his career and the Broncos are currently a bottom 10 team against passes to his area by DVOA. Thus far his $13 million cap number in 2022 looks quite rich compared to his play this season.
  • Bryce Callahan’s injury may have taken Fuller’s free agent market off life support, as it gave the former first round pick a chance to slide into a fulltime nickel role. Playing in the slot suits Fuller because he’s a willing run defender who has the processing to make quick decisions in tight quarters, and a willing run defender. It also helps to hide that he’s lost a step or two. It will be interesting to see how the nickel role is split up if Callahan is able to play. He began his 21-day practice window on Wednesday.
  • If the Broncos are eliminated from the playoff contention, we could see Sterns begin to eat into Jackson’s reps on the back end. The 33-year-old veteran is quietly having his worst season in Denver right as the fifth round rookie looks like he deserves the first shot at a starting job, so an argument could be made to make the switch sooner rather than later.
  • Locke is the fourth string safety and plays on most of the special teams. Currently in Covid-19 protocols, he’s a longshot to play against the Lions. He looked like he belonged on defense during the preseason, a potential solution to the safety depth in ‘22 and beyond.
  • Ford is an emergency corner who is on the roster as a special teams ace.
  • Inactive last week, Bassey played 10 special teams snaps against the Chargers in his return from a torn ACL that ended his 2020 season. With two years left on his rookie contract, he’s a potential developmental nickel corner.
  • A fifth round pick in the 2021 draft, Johnson hasn’t played a snap this season. A safety who played nickel reps at Indiana, he finished with seven career picks with the Hoosiers.

Off Ball Linebackers

Baron Browning, Kenny Young, Justin Strnad, Jonas Griffith

  • Considering the way injuries robbed him of OTAs and most of training camp, Browning has exceeded my expectations this year. A work in progress when it comes to zone spacing, route recognition, and the speed of the game, he’s a better run defender than I anticipated with a willingness to mash. His elite athleticism suggests tantalizing potential.
  • By and large, Young’s lived up to my expectations since Paton acquired him for a seventh round pick. With Johnson, Jewell, and Young all free agents at season’s end, the 2018 second round pick has a lot to prove. He’s good in pursuit and fluid in space, but lacks oomph at the point of attack and will give up space to decent route runners.
  • Strnad played every single defensive snap against the Cleveland Browns and looked so bad it may be his last start in the NFL. He’s played on 70% of the special teams snaps the last two games.
  • Griffith is on the roster to help the kick coverage units.

Edge Rushers

Jonathon Cooper, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Stephen Weatherly, Aaron Patrick

  • Cooper’s had a quiet couple of weeks after a breakout performance against the Dallas Cowboys. Given the opponent, I found his game against Rashawn Slater very encouraging. His lack of length is going to be an issue against players like the Chiefs’ 6’8”, 344 lb. Orlando Brown Jr.
  • Chubb hasn’t looked the same since his return from ankle injury and now has a shoulder issue. If the Broncos fall out of contention, there’s an argument for shutting him down.
  • A Restricted Free Agent after the season, Paton may let him test the market with a ‘22 draft class deep at edge on the horizon. Reed’s having the worst statistical season of his career and playing a lot of snaps across from Von Miller and a healthy Bradley Chubb. Like Cooper, he has size limitations which will always show up against the wrong matchups. That said, he’s fluid in space and a high motor player with good bend.
  • Weatherly’s a solid rotational player who is adept at setting the edge. His athleticism makes him a viable threat on games.
  • Patrick’s on the roster to help the special teams.

Defensive Linemen

Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Shamar Stephen, DeShawn Williams, McTelvin Agim

  • Jones and Harris continue to serve as threatening gap shooters despite the rotating cast around them. Jones is generating pressure on 8.5% of his snaps and his 20 hurries are more than the Giants’ Leonard Williams and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox. Harris is playing through an ankle injury that seems to have taken a bite out of his wiggle.
  • Purcell and Stephen are the line’s big bodies. Purcell’s the better run defender and brings underrated quickness to the nose that helps him to disrupt outside zone runs. Stephen’s length and hands make him more threatening on passing downs.
  • Williams is a backup nose who contributes to nickel personnel. He’s creating pressure more often than Harris right now, but he’s not as stout in the run game. He’s got a knack for chasing the ball down.
  • Agim’s played 60 snaps since week seven and had the best day of his young career abusing the Chargers’ Senio Kelemete in week 12. A former five star recruit, Agims’ the kind of toolsy second year player who should see more playing time if Denver falls out of the playoff race.

Offense

On it’s head, Teddy Bridgewater’s career year is exposing the divide between statistical models and scouts this season. He’s the eighth best quarterback by rbsdm’s expected points added per play metric which quantifies a player’s contribution towards performance above expectation. Out of every passer who’s thrown 300 passes this year, he’s the 12th best quarterback by Football Outsider’s DYAR stat, which measures a player against what an average replacement would do in the same situation against the same opponent.

A quarterback’s importance to offensive production can’t be overlooked, of course. He has a gravitational pull on every other part of the whole. So as you’d expect, the Bridgewater conundrums carry over into the Broncos’ offense. They’re the 14th best offense by EPA/play and the 15th best offense by DVOA.

The Broncos are performing like an above average offense by advanced stats, though there’s cracks in some rather important areas. They’re converting 36.84% of their third downs this year, the ninth worst mark in the league, and only nine teams are averaging less than Denver’s 19.8 points per game. It’s even worse than it looks if recent play is any guess at what we’ll see as Denver moves forward: the Broncos are averaging a whole two points less per game since their 3-0 start.

Offensive Linemen

Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz, Bobby Massie, Netane Muti, Cam Fleming, Austin Schlottmann

  • Bolles looked better in his return against Frank Clark than I dared hope for. Even if his ankle limits him he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Quinn Bailey, who finished the Chargers’ game. Trey Flowers’ injury dramatically curtails the Lions’ edge talent, which should give him a chance to settle back in before a slew of talented edge rushers in the closing month.
  • Denver’s interiors each offer promise to go with glaring individual weaknesses. Risner’s mobility is a weapon on gap concepts, but he has issues with twitch and doesn’t offer the same power at the point of attack he’s shown in recent years. Cushenberry has much improved on his rookie season but still suffers from a lack of play strength that impacts him in all phases, leading to tackles for loss and pressure, He’s vulnerable to bull rushers. Meinerz is a snowplow at the point of attack, a bull when he lands on lead pulls, and a heady rookie who can pick up stunts but he’ll give up his base in pass pro and needs to quick his hands.
  • Massie’s the Broncos’ best tackle since Billy Turner. He gives Shurmur a second reliable pass protector on the edge who can win against the average edge. His length can work to his detriment and he could be in store for a rough game against the Raiders. It seems his limitations as a run blocker are contributing towards less gap concepts.
  • Muti’s a callow bulldog who has trouble against longer opponents who bring a repertoire with them to passing downs. His strength, athleticism, and mean streak leave me optimistic about his development.
  • Fleming is a more powerful run blocker than Massie and a weaker pass protector who tends to lose to speed, stunts, and length. If he’s forced into action it’d make sense to use more gap concepts and rely on more chips in pass pro.
  • Schlottmann’s the backup center with Graham Glasgow on Injured Reserve. He also serves as a utility guy across the interior behind Muti.
  • With Calvin Anderson on Injured Reserve, Bailey is the next man up off the practice squad if there’s an injury to one of the tackles.

Wide Receivers

Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Kendall Hinton, Diontae Spencer

  • Since returning from a scary hamstring injury in week one, Jeudy’s served as the Broncos’ primary receiver and Bridgewater’s favorite target. His game pairs perfectly with Teddy’s strengths in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Let’s hope he scores a touchdown over the final stretch so it’s not the talk of this upcoming offseason.
  • Now that Sutton and Patrick have signed big money extensions, there’s a been microscope aimed at their production numbers. Since Jeudy’s return, Sutton and Patrick have seen their targets plummet, and their receiving numbers with it. The two have combined to catch 22 of 40 targets for 308 yards and one touchdown since week eight. Before alarm bells are pulled, there are extenuating circumstances to consider. Sutton drew a key defensive pass interference in Dallas that set the Broncos up at the one-yard-line. Bridgewater’s limitations show up most on the kind of isolation routes Patrick and Sutton excel at in Shurmur’s offense, and if his shin injury is hurting his ability to drive the ball, it will only be harder to consistently deliver intermediate and deep passes to the boundary.

It’s worth remembering that extending both pass catchers was about building the nest for Denver’s next franchise quarterback. Sutton’s 4-year, $60 million contract is considered a steal, and Patrick’s 3-year, $30 million extension is also considered team friendly. By Pro Football Focus estimates, the Broncos signed the two receivers for about $14 million less than they could have earned on the free agent market. The structure also provides Paton flexibility should the Broncos need to create cap space by 2023.

  • Spencer hasn’t logged more than four offensive snaps since his 24 immediately following K.J. Hamler’s knee injury against the New York Jets in week three. He’s on the roster because of what he offers as a returner.
  • Don’t be surprised if the Broncos find a way to elevate Seth Williams for game action if they’re eliminated from the playoffs. The 2021 sixth round pick is oft protected, and it’d make sense to give him some playing time.

Tight ends

Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck

  • Fant is an easy target for both Teddy Bridgewater and frustrated members of Broncos Country. The 2019 first round pick entered the league as one of the most athletic tight end prospects ever, which suggests he should be capable of more than 424 yards and three touchdowns on the year. I advise patience, as he’s oft asked to serve as a chip and release target in order to help the Broncos’ tackles against better edge rushers, which doesn’t play to his strengths.
  • Okwuegbunam offers a little more play strength and a little less fluidity than Fant. He’s a promising blocker who has the athleticism and bully ball game to become a redzone menace. Potential remains a big question with him after just 13 games played.
  • Saubert is the Broncos’ best blocking tight end and a capable tertiary receiving option. With a contract set to expire after the season, his role bears monitoring down the home stretch. His 19 snaps in Kansas City were a season low.
  • Versatility is Beck’s calling card. Tall for a true fullback and short for an inline tight end, he’s capable of pitching in at both spots and is a regular on special teams. So far he’s logged 51 offensive snaps this season.
  • There’s a chance rookie Shaun Beyer is elevated off the practice squad down the final stretch.

Running Backs

Javonte “Pookie” Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone, Damarea Crockett

  • So far Williams is everything I dared hope for when the Broncos traded up for him last April. The rookie runner’s all around game helps him play on any down where his combination of elite contact balance and very good athleticism makes him a nightmare to bring down in the open field.
  • After missing week 13 with hip and shoulder injuries, it looks like Gordon will play against the Lions. The 28-year-old doesn’t offer the same explosiveness as the younger Williams, but he’s a reliable pass protector with the vision and contact balance to maximize the personnel on the offensive line. It remains to be seen what the workload looks like upon his return. The former Charger started every game until his injury, will that change after Pookie’s 178-yard performance?
  • Boone received his first five touches as a Bronco in Kansas City and finished with 54 total yards. Currently in Covid-19 protocols, he looks like a longshot for the Lions’ game. His offensive role over the remainder of the year probably depends on Gordon’s health. Failing that he’ll be a core member of the special teams and return in 2022 as he is under contract.
  • Crockett’s spot on the roster appears tenuous. He was signed to the active roster the day before the Chiefs game because of Gordon’s hip and shoulder injuries.

Quarterback

Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock, Brett Rypien

  • Rypien’s on the active roster because there was concern he’d be poached off the practice squad. He won’t play barring injury to Lock and Bridgewater.
  • In his two relief efforts this year, Lock looks as if he’s regressed from his 2020 form, which doesn’t bode well for his NFL future. There remains a chance the third year pro could see playing time if Denver’s mathematically eliminated from the postseason as he does have one year remaining on his rookie contract.
  • Bridgewater’s performance this season warrants perspective. It’s obvious he is not a franchise quarterback, but there’s been no evidence any member of the Broncos or media has treated him as such. He was acquired for a sixth round pick from the Carolina Panthers to provide this roster exactly what he’s provided: a competent starting quarterback who provides a sober evaluation of every other part.

The Shurmur-Bridgewater marriage was intriguing once Teddy won the starting job out of training camp. Would the Broncos’ offensive coordinator take bits and pieces of the Sean Payton and Joe Brady offense to play to the strengths of his quarterback? Bridgewater was at his best working the quick game and taking advantage of crossers in the intermediate area of the field with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. Surely the Broncos could add in more rubs and YAC plays into the offense, right?

Instead we’ve seen Bridgewater try to shed the “Teddy checkdown” label as he adjusted to life in the Shurmur system. With five games to go, he’s already attempted 41 deep passes on the year, or just seven less than his previous career high. Bridgewater’s seemingly paying for these deep shots with life and limb. By Pro Football Reference charting Bridgewater’s under duress on 29.7% of his dropbacks which is a four year high, and he’s taking sacks at the highest rate since his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings.

It’s not a debate that Bridgewater limits the Shurmur offense, as one of his biggest strengths and greatest flaws is how selective he is with his throws. Teddy knows he can’t consistently beat defenses with his velocity and so he typically strays away from passes where he can get got trying. This approach brings a certain floor to an offense and makes Bridgewater a solid option as a potential mentor type because he works through progressions and allows his supporting cast to carry him. At the same time, it makes the Broncos easier to defend because teams have to respect less space. This issue shows up most in the redzone, where the Broncos are currently the 23rd ranked offense by DVOA.

Perhaps no play is a better microcosm of the offensive limitations than Shurmur’s 3rd down fail that led to a fruitless 20-play drive in the second quarter of the 22-9 loss to the Chiefs. Despite my noted critique of the process that led to a pass play in the first place, Shurmur did dial up an ideal concept for his quarterback. Bridgewater quickly bailed on two open concepts because he either felt pressure or doubted he could make the throw. The mistake led to the 4th down failure that could define the 2021 season.

Your Broncos’ News

Broncos great Demaryius Thomas dead at 33 - Mile High Report

Former Denver Broncos wide receiver and one of its all-time greats, Demaryius Thomas, has passed away at age 33.

Broncos Country heartbroken over news of DT’s death - Mile High Report

RIP No. 88.

Demaryius Thomas’ cause of death: Cousin says he had seizure

“Demaryius was a great guy,” Bonseigneur said. “He came from humble beginnings. He knew God. He was raised in the church and by a close-knit family. Even though he rose to stardom, to us he was just a kid from Montrose. We never fathomed he would go on to do all these amazing things. He was just a kid who loved playing football.”

Demaryius Thomas: Former NFL star wide receiver dies at age 33 - CNN

Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who played four seasons with Thomas in Denver, said the wide receiver was a better person than he was a player. “He treated my kids like they were his own,” he said in a statement released by the Broncos. “He was there for every teammate’s charity event. I texted with D.T. on Tuesday. He was talking about a TD audible we called vs. Arizona in 2014. Absolutely devasted.”

Former Denver Broncos coaches remember late Demaryius Thomas | 9news.com

“I’m telling you his story is unbelievable,’’ McDaniels said. “Growing up the way that he did and to go to college at Georgia Tech and make it and become so successful in the NFL says a lot about his character and who he is. This guy is one of the all-time special people. God must have needed another angel because this doesn’t make sense.”

How do the Broncos match up with the Lions? - Mile High Report

I spoke with Pro Football Focus and Michigan Football Analytics’ Tej Seth to find out on this week’s Cover 2 Broncos.

Could the Detroit Lions upset the Denver Broncos? - Mile High Report

I spoke with Pride of Detroit’s Mike Payton to find out.

Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and the Right Path to a Franchise QB - The Ringer

There’s currently very little in the way of a middle class of starting quarterbacks. This season, 14 teams have starters who are under contract at $25 million or more in average annual salary, according to Spotrac. Another 14 have quarterbacks on rookie contracts. (Spotrac currently counts Andy Dalton as the Bears’ starter but, for the purposes of this conversation, I am counting Chicago among the teams with starters on rookie contracts, as Justin Fields is their starter when healthy and is expected to start Sunday against Green Bay.) The remaining four teams—the Steelers, Broncos, Saints, and Texans—are all in periods of transition.

Breaking Down the Future of Five NFL Coaches on the Hot Seat - The Ringer

Fangio is a good coach. His mind is a clear asset for any defense. But it’s worth asking what he brings to the table as a head coach that he doesn’t offer as a defensive coordinator. Whatever that may be is just not showing up in the win column. The Broncos have won 40.9 percent of their games under Fangio, which isn’t a significant improvement over the 34.4 percent of games they won under Vance Joseph. That mark got Joseph fired.

Considering what Fangio has had to work with at quarterback, it’s hard to say he’s gotten a fair shake in Denver. Save for a few exceptions, though, his defense has taken a major step back this season, and the offense has remained mediocre. This team is trending in the wrong direction, so a split is probably best for both parties.

NFL Week 14 injury report roundup: Joe Mixon questionable for the Bengals - ProFootballTalk

The Lions will be without running backs D’Andre Swift (shoulder) and Jamaal Williams (COVID) in Denver. LB Julian Okwara (ankle) and LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) are also out and TE T.J. Hockenson (hand) is set to miss the game after drawing a doutbtful tag. DE Michael Brockers (knee, illness), LB Austin Bryant (shoulder), LB Charles Harris (illness), G Jonah Jackson (illness), DT Alim McNeill (illness), T Matt Nelson (ankle), DE Levi Onwuzurike (illness), K Riley Patterson (illness), DT John Penisini (illness), T Penei Sewell (illness, shoulder), G Halapoulivaati Vaitai (illness), and DE Nicholas Williams (illness) make up a sizable group of questionable players. RB Melvin Gordon (hip), LB Bradley Chubb (ankle, shoulder), and DL Shelby Harris (ankle) are listed as questionable for the Broncos.

NFL News

Lions down top two running backs with D’Andre Swift injured, Jamaal Williams on COVID-19 reserve - ProFootballTalk

Running backs Jermar Jefferson and Godwin Igwebuike will carry the load against the Broncos. The Lions also listed their leader in catches and receiving yards, tight end T.J. Hockenson, as doubtful with a hand injury.

D’Andre Swift unlikely to play Sunday - ProFootballTalk

The Lions got their first win of the season without leading rusher D’Andre Swift in the lineup and it looks like they’ll be trying for two in a row without him this weekend. Lions head coach Dan Campbell told reporters on Friday that Swift is unlikely to play against the Broncos on Sunday. Swift has been sidelined by a shoulder injury he suffered on Thanksgiving and has not practiced at all this week.

Red bird redemption: Why time is the secret ingredient to Vance Joseph’s dominant Cardinals defense – The Athletic

PAYWALL: On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Broncos fired Joseph as head coach after just two seasons. A 12-year NFL defensive assistant, Joseph had orchestrated a unit that finished sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA during a 6-10 season, yet despite tangible signs of progress, his time in Colorado was over.

How the Chiefs Turned Around Their Defense - The Ringer

Through the first few weeks of the season, Kansas City had the worst defense in the league—by a lot. But a few smart adjustments and a return to health for some key playmakers have made that unit one of the best in the league in recent weeks.