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30 Big Questions ahead of the Broncos’ 2021 season

What is George Paton’s plan?

After a truly bizarre offseason, we’ve finally reached the eve of training camp. With months of discourse in the rearview mirror, it’s time for Fangio and the coaching staff to make the most of the roster George Paton built for them. If they don’t, the new general manager will probably look to hire his own head coach in 2022.

The following questions loom over the Broncos’ short- and long-term future.

Special Teams

1. Can Tom McMahon make the units special?

Special teams performance by Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric DVOA tends to be really volatile from year to year. Not in Denver, where McMahon’s kept the Broncos stuck at 24th in the league these past two seasons. There’s been two bright spots over this time:

  • By and large, Brandon McManus has been a very reliable field goal kicker over this time, even if his kickoffs are pretty disappointing.
  • The punt return was one of the five best in football last year after kick returns made the top 10 in 2019. It’s a big reason I expect Diontae Spencer to make the roster this season.

Defensive backs

2. Will a return to the Fangio defense help Kyle Fuller re-discover his All Pro form?

3. How long until Patrick Surtain II starts?

4. Can Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby stay healthy?

5. Do one of the rookie safeties become Kareem Jackson’s heir apparent?

6. What’s in store for Michael Ojemudia?

After the Chicago Bears cut him, it took 34 minutes for Fuller to choose the Broncos in free agency. The one-year deal made sense for both parties. The 2014 first round pick’s familiarity with the Fangio defense makes him an ideal solution on the boundary, while Fuller gets an opportunity to play in a system he knows to try to chase one last big payday in 2022.

George Paton’s decision to select Surtain at ninth overall placed enormous expectations on the rookie. The Broncos chose to select him over two prospective franchise quarterbacks despite huge long-term questions at the position and also decided to forgo a trade down that could have provided the flexibility to chase a rookie passer in 2022 if need be.

The good news is Surtain has all the makings of a very good cornerback. I considered him the best defensive player in the ‘21 class for a reason. When you consider how often Fangio used five or more defensive backs when he was juggling 10 corners in 2020, it’s easy to believe the rookie from Alabama will get every opportunity to see the field.

Another unsung bonus to the Surtain selection is how he can serve as insurance against Darby and Callahan. The veterans have combined to play one full season since they both entered the NFL in 2015, which makes them risky bets to start for the entirety of a 17+ game campaign.

Don’t forget about Ojemudia. John Elway’s last third round corner is not buried on the depth chart after logging 852 defensive snaps a season ago. After riding through a trial by fire, his future is completely uncertain. Does he serve what amounts to a redshirt year before finding a boundary spot across from Surtain in 2022? Will he serve as depth across the secondary this year? Is a move to safety in the cards?

Linebackers

7. Will Alexander Johnson and/or Josey Jewell play their way to a long-term extension?

8. Could Justin Strnad play on defense?

9. When does Baron Browning get right?

Johnson and Jewell quietly became one of the better linebacker duos in the NFL last season. Johnson has been one of the best run defenders in the league since he found his way to the starting lineup in 2019, and Jewell took notable steps forward in this regard last season. They’re also better pass defenders than they get credit for. Outside of the New Orleans Saints, they were the only pair to have a 60%+ success rate in coverage last year. Still, they’ll never look like Fred Warner or remind Broncos’ Country of Danny Trevathan.

In order to improve the athleticism on the second level, Elway and then Paton brought in rookie linebackers. How they fare this season could go a long way towards determining Johnson and Jewell’s futures, as both are unrestricted free agents.

Edge

10 Can Von Miller return to his 2019 form?

11. Will Bradley Chubb stay healthy?

12. What does Malik Reed’s role look like?

Since Fangio joined the Broncos in 2019 he’s had all of four games with both Miller and Chubb, and they came at the beginning of his tenure when the secondary was still a huge work in progress. The hope is both are back to a clean bill of health for the New York Giants in week one, and I for one am jazzed to see how the defense plays around the havoc they create.

Long-term, there’s a ton of uncertainty about this group. Paton and Miller played a game of chicken over Von’s team options this offseason before the Broncos brought him back, which means the 32-year-old could be playing the last year of his Hall of Fame career in the Mile High City. Chubb’s fifth-year option was picked up shortly after the draft, but his injury history could make an extension messy.

Reed’s role bears monitoring. A 2019 undrafted gem, he’s a clear backup behind the Broncos’ big two. How does that impact his role this season and will Paton bring him back on an RFA tag in 2022?

Defensive Line

13. Can Dre’Mont Jones blow up?

14. Will McTelvin Agim develop?

The Broncos’ defensive line is pretty certain for the short-term. If healthy, Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell should give them good players who could look even better surrounded by Miller and Chubb.

Long-term, there’s questions about the 2019 and 2020 third round picks. Jones has quietly developed into a promising pass rusher, so much so that I believe he could push for the Pro Bowl in the near future. At the same time, it’s a bit alarming that Agim only played 157 snaps last year with all the injuries around him up front.

Wide Receivers

15. Will Sutton and/or Patrick stick around?

16. Will Courtland Sutton return to his 2019 form?

17. How does Tim Patrick build on last season?

18. Can Jerry Jeudy build on his rookie year?

19. Does K.J. Hamler become a consistent contributor?

20. Is there developmental talent behind the big four?

The last time we saw Sutton play a full season he looked like a $20 million+ receiver. He made the Pro Bowl after serving as Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and rookie Drew Lock’s only consistently good option. In his absence a season ago, Patrick put on his best Sutton impression and looked like one of the better WR3s in the NFL. Both look set to enter unrestricted free agency in 2022.

Beyond the X-receiver spot, Jeudy and Hamler had up-and-down rookie campaigns. Drops and injuries dogged them both. The hope here is that both can put those issues behind them for the most part, as they each have the kind of separation quickness that can’t be taught.

With Patrick’s and Sutton’s long-term status an unknown, Paton made a point to cast a wide net over receiver prospects for camp. It’d be huge if someone (or two) emerges.

Offensive Line

21. What does Garett Bolles do for an encore?

22. Can Dalton Risner take the next step in his development in year three?

23. Does Graham Glasgow stay healthy?

24. Will Lloyd Cushenberry fend off Quinn Meinerz?

25. Who wins the right tackle job?

This will be the third season Mike Munchak has coached the Broncos’ offensive line and there continues to be huge questions hanging over the unit. After an All Pro season in 2020, Bolles enters training camp with a 4-year, $68 million contract to live up to. He, Risner, and Glasgow form the reliable parts of pass protection, and it would be huge for the offense as a whole if the guards can stay healthy to lead the way on the Broncos’ gap concepts.

Perhaps one of the bigger position battles to watch in camp is at the pivot. Meinerz joined the Broncos as a third round pick one year after Cushenberry did the same. A former left guard at Wisconsin-Whitewater, he could push for a starting job right out of the gate or serve as versatile depth along the interior.

As it has been since Peyton Manning wore orange and blue, right tackle is a huge question. Paton signed Cameron Fleming and Bobby Massie after the draft in hopes that a veteran presence can solve the perennial issue.

Tight Ends

26. Can Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam develop as hoped?

If Fant and Okwuegbunam stay healthy, I believe the Broncos will field one of the best 12 personnel groupings in football. Let’s hope it happens.

Running backs

27. How does Shurmur split the touches between Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, and Mike Boone?

After Paton traded away a fourth round pick to move up to acquire Williams, it became apparent Gordon will play out the string after Elway overpaid him a season ago. This isn’t the same as saying he’s a bad player, but the Broncos are preparing for life after their $16 million free agent acquisition.

Until his contract expires, Gordon is probably the back Shurmur defers to on passing downs. I expect Williams to have a bigger role than Phillip Lindsay did a season ago, but Boone is good enough to receive some carries.

Quarterback

28. Will a long-term starting QB1 emerge?

If Aaron Rodgers reports to the Packers training camp as reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Broncos will exit a long offseason where conflicting reports linked George Paton to just about every available 2020 starter with Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater.

As I write this, all signs suggest a legitimate competition between the two.

Given Lock’s age, contract status, overall arm talent, and the difficulty Denver will probably have in the ‘22 QB market, there’s definitely reason to hope that he can make a big enough jump to win a fair fight for the starting job. At the same time, there’s currently very little evidence Teddy Bridgewater won’t win the gig walking away.

I know I’d love to write a long piece about how I was wrong and Lock turned into a historical outlier a couple weeks into the season. Failing that, I’d love to write about Bridgewater having a career year. I’m just rooting for the best outcome for the Broncos and hope you all will do the same.

George Paton

29. What’s the long-term plan?

The Broncos’ first “aggressive, not reckless” offseason led them to passing on at least five different quarterbacks, signing three projected starters in free agency, as well as bringing back Von Miller, Kareem Jackson, Shelby Harris, and Justin Simmons.

With $29,589,122 in cap space, they’re set to enter training camp with a 4.9% chance at the Super Bowl by Football Outsiders’ preseason projections. When I spoke with FO’s Derrik Klassen, he considered the roster “a quarterback away.”

There’s little question the ongoing battle between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater looks like a glass ceiling for this roster, which could be damning when you consider how dependent this current iteration of the Broncos is on players with contracts set to expire in 2022:

  • Von Miller
  • Melvin Gordon
  • Bryce Callahan
  • Kyle Fuller
  • Courtland Sutton,
  • Alexander Johnson
  • Josey Jewell
  • Malik Reed
  • Kareem Jackson
  • Tim Patrick
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Bobby Massie
  • Cameron Fleming
  • Andrew Beck

This Broncos roster was always going to represent an apex for the current core pieces.

This could be the last best convergence of top tier veterans like Miller, Jackson, and Harris with Elway’s drafts from the last four seasons. Bradley Chubb, Justin Simmons, Garett Bolles, Shelby Harris, and Ronald Darby count for just ?????????? on their new extensions. The number will jump to $27,597,213 in 2022 when Denver is projected to have $46,961,931 in cap space.

George Paton called this Broncos’ roster a “sleeping giant” when he was hired. If Drew Lock fails to deliver on the faith placed in him, they may not wake for long.