I understand the focus on the quarterback situation for the Broncos, it is the most important position on a team that struggled and a quarterback who struggled. And while many fans feel this roster is a quarterback away from being a playoff team, I want to examine my top 3 positions of need outside of quarterback and possible solutions for those problems.
Now I expect some may disagree with my choices and others may feel I'm overlooking other key needs but here are my top 3 needs the Broncos should address this off-season:
I think Bronco fans were spoiled for over a decade from the 2000's to the mid-2010's with solid, every down linebackers in Al Wilson, DJ Williams, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. Guys you could trust to cover well, stop the run and occasionally rush the passer. But since then I think the standard has been lowered. Players like Nate Irving, Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis and Corey Nelson have rotated in and out with some praise from fans but rarely accomplishing much on the field. Recently there has been glimmers of hope from linebackers like Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson but neither has shown any consistency. Both are young but neither has shown all the attributes you want from a quality linebacker, though I think both deserve spots in rotation going forward.
Now I consider a true every down linebacker a key to a great defense and Fangio in the past has put a premium on have a great linebacker at the center of his defense. The Broncos defense is mostly a shell of what it was under Wade Phillips and even a year removed from a solid outing from Fangio in 2019. But finding an every down linebacker who can command the defense and be a linchpin in the middle of that field could cover up many woes. If you look at what the great linebackers of the past decade, think Lee, Kuechly, Wagner, have brought to their teams is both mental (the difference on the Cowboys defense when Sean Lee is on the field compared to when he's not is massive) and physical (Kuechly is obviously brilliant but the thump he brought in all three phases of the defense was unmatched). Even young linebackers can struggle but still buoy up a defense. The addition to an already talented Cowboys defense of a healthy Leighton Vander Esch put them over the top. Roquan Smith teaming up with Danny Trevathan helped anchor that Fangio defense in Chicago. Fred Warner and Tremaine Edmunds were a big part of the turnarounds for the defenses in San Fransisco and Buffalo. So I put a lot of emphasis on this position because to me it helps the defense do everything better. They pass rush better, they stop the run better, they cover better and are out of position less often.
Part of the problem is that it is a hard position to find a player that really excels, there are only about 20 to 25 or so players who fit the bill in the league at a time. So while there isn't an easy solution, no free agent or draftee who is a lock, it isn't an impossible problem. I'm not a draft expert so I can't speak to specific players but looking at most big boards there are quite a few linebackers who seem to fit the bill of do-it-all linebackers who will be there around when the Broncos draft. Names like Micah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Nick Bolton and Zaven Collins all seem to be considered top prospects who could fit that mold, so Fangio could have his pick of the position and choose the one he thinks is the best fit.
In free agency there are some options but the best ones, like Lavonte David and Matt Milano, seem destined to return to their teams while decent options like KJ Wright and Jayon Brown may stick around on their playoff caliber teams. The downside is there isn't much after that, Denzel Perryman should be available and he had a decent year but can't stay healthy and is limited as a pass rusher and in coverage. Beyond him is really the bottom of the barrel. There isn't an upgrade in free agency without prying away a top player with a huge contract but a player like David would be quite the upgrade.
Overall to me the best solution would be the draft where Fangio likely gets his pick of the litter, so to speak, of a solid linebacker class. With likely all the options on the table he can take the one he feels is the best fit, with the best skill set and can be the guy he wants to anchor the defense. There just aren't many options outside of taking one early in the draft or paying big money to convince a free agent to come here, both require a lot of commitment but should be worth it.
The No Fly Zone feels almost a lifetime ago and the current roster of corners doesn't inspire much hope. Elway has invested some solid draft capital at the position since 2017 with three 3rd round selections (Brendan Langley, Isaac Yiadom and Michael Ojemudia) but Langley is out of the league and Yiadom is now with the Giants while Ojemudia spent his rookie year struggling. Essang Bassey was in rotation this season after being an undrafted free agent the previous season but wasn't anything to write home about. The youth haven't been able to fill the gap left by older players leaving. While Bryce Callahan did very well in his first season in Denver, he has never played 16 games and has an inconsistent history but appears to be locked in as the #1 corner going forward. Opposite of him was the much hyped signing of AJ Bouye but on and off the field issues kept him from reaching his full potential and by the end of the season it was clear he was on the outs and that was finalized shortly after the season ended. That leaves a very bare cupboard for Fangio to build a secondary out of.
Now I'm not a huge fan of putting huge importance on corners since most offenses will just throw at the weakest link anyways but when the entire corner corp is a weak link, that is hard to overcome. Callahan is around for another year and he's really the only bright spot. There is potential for Ojemudia to improve but even if he does, there is still need for another starting corner immediately to try and short up a very shallow secondary. If this defense is to reach the form we expect from a Fangio coached team, getting help for Callahan should be a top priority.
As I said before, I'm not a big draft guy but at the top of this draft seems to feature some highly touted corners with some depth. Patrick Surtain put together three great years at Alabama with a well rounded resume while Caleb Farley seems more of a one hit wonder but his 2020 season is spoken of as an incredible one. After those two it seems there are some corners who are in the 2nd round range like Jaycee Horn, Asante Samuel Jr. Tyson Campbell and Jevon Holland who may be make it worth while using the 1st round pick on another position if Fangio feels he can get 1st round production from one of those late 1st round/early 2nd round guys.
Free agency is a mixed bag of players. Some aging players may be pickier with where they go, like Richard Sherman and Xavier Rhodes, while there are plenty of injury prone corners too such as Desmond King and Brian Poole. Even other decent options like William Jackson and Mike Hilton aren't exactly upgrades, but are good rotational or depth corners and heaven knows Denver needs that too. Even Patrick Peterson isn't the player he once was and will cost far more than other, comparable corners. Now a number of solid #2 and #3 corners could enter the market as cap casualties but relying on other teams potentially cutting players is risky.
The draft seems to best way to go in a weaker free agent class and with likely good options in both the 1st and 2nd rounds, I think Denver could find a new starter there are depth in free agency.
Offensive Line Competition
I'm not sold that the Broncos offensive line is mostly set outside of right tackle. Risner had a great rookie year but regressed in 2020 and while Lloyd Cushenberry may have started all 16 games, he didn't play well at all. Right guard was a rotation but hopefully will settle down in 2021. Right tackle is clearly the biggest need along the line but it isn't the only one. I think Risner and Cushenberry have earned the starting spots in 2021 and I hope Risner regains his 2019 bulldozer form but Cushenberry is a big question mark and I firmly believe competition needs to be brought in at all three positions to push the weaker starters or to win the jobs outright.
While I am happy for Garrett Bolles as well, I do have a small knot in my stomach that he might regress to his norm and while I don't think he needs a replacement, I do think keeping an eye on him might be important. Having said that I feel competition and depth are key this off-season for the offensive line because right now I'm only confident in Bolles and Risner. Bringing in competition at the other positions seems vital to me as the offensive line was inconsistent and couldn't stay healthy last year.
The AFC West features some of the premier pass rushers and run stoppers in the league and solidifying and incrementally upgrading the offensive line will be key and nullifying the beasts of the division.
While I consider this a top need, it shouldn't be an expensive one in terms of cap space or draft capital, unless Paton wants to go after a top tier starter that is, which I am not against. I feel using two or three mid and late round picks on this problem, along with looking at a decent free agent class could give this unit the depth it needs to survive another year. Elway has struggled to find quality offensive lineman in free agency and while most of the scouting staff remains in place under Paton, it will be interesting to see how he addresses, or does not address, this issue. If he feels the offensive line is a big enough issue there are Sewell, Slater and Darrisaw at the top of the draft and most teams find there inside lineman in the mid rounds.
Free agency features a number of potential starters at all three positions but with the Broncos cap space potentially limited due to signing their own players, looking at rotational, backups may be the way to go.
There are other positions I think are needs for the Broncos. Running back is incredibly thin, I'm not sure how much faith I have in the tight end group and pass rusher is probably my 4th biggest need, even if Von returns. But I feel these three, if solved, give the Broncos the biggest lift outside of quarterback. Now I'm now draft and free agency expert but my napkin plan would be to draft the best linebacker or corner at #9, whichever Fangio and Paton feels fits best and can make an impact immediately. If Fangio feels he can get a starting corner in the late 1st or early 2nd, take the best linebacker and then move to grab the corner he wants. For offensive line depth I'd draft at least two offensive lineman in the mid and late rounds and bring in some mid-tier free agents and let there be competition in camp. So basically: 1st round: LB, 2nd round: CB, mid rounds: OL, free agency: CB's and OL.
So what are your thoughts? Maybe one of the problems I see is actually fine in your eyes? Maybe my possible solutions overlook a very obvious option? Should this article have been about quarterbacks instead? Let me know down in the comments section.