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17 things to watch for if the 2021 Broncos are serious about a playoff push.

Can the Broncos chase a Lombardi in 2021?

Lost amidst the unrelenting drama that is the quarterback battle that will end is the stakes hanging over this Broncos’ roster. 2021 is a year that will be defined by “playoffs or bust.” If Vic Fangio find a way to right the ship and make it to the dance, George Paton will find a new coach to implement whatever his vision is.

Like it or loathe it, those are the stakes.

The good news is Denver’s got a chance. Football Outsiders’ preseason projections gave them the second best odds of any AFC West team at making the dance, and sports books seem to agree. The schedule plays a huge factor, and given the way it’s laid out we should have a clear idea where 2021 is headed before September ends.

September slate

Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002 there has been one team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs. So it’s absolutely critical for Fangio to find a way to notch the first September win of his career as a head coach. One or two more dubs would be even better, obviously.

Giants

Jaguars

  • There’s a few ways to look at the Broncos’ luck when it comes to the Jags. On one hand, the defense is facing Trevor Lawrence early in the season before Jacksonville’s offense has time to really find their groove around him. On the other hand, there will still be very limited tape of the Urban Meyer offense and Fangio’s gameplan will probably rely on what they know about Lawrence from his Clemson days.
  • The C.J. Henderson situation bears monitoring. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported Jacksonville is willing to trade the ninth overall pick of the 2020 draft, which would leave Shaquill Griffin, Tre Herndon, and a couple of rookies leading the way at corner.

Jets

AFC West

It’d be pretty hard for the Broncos to make the playoffs without showing up for their divisional matchups. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Eric Jensen on his Endzone Podcast for the AFC West preview. If you get a chance, go check it out.

Raiders

  • The ongoing situation with Darren Waller is something I’m keeping a close eye on. He’s been missing practices with an undisclosed injury and there’s ongoing speculation it could be a “hold-in” related to his contract.
  • Waller’s absence means more reps Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier, which could be a sneaky huge boon for a Raider offense that targeted tight ends at the highest rate in football a season ago. Moreau is a freakishly athletic 250 lb. third year player who simply needs an opportunity to break out.

Chiefs

  • With Sammy Watkins a Raven, the Chiefs receiving corps. is hoping Mecole Hardman’s ready to serve as a reliable tertiary option. With Travis Kelce on a Hall of Fame track and Tyreek Hill the scariest vertical threat in football, it’s a really favorable situation for the third year pro. If he falters, Andy Reid will probably rotate Demarcus Robinson into the lineup more frequently.
  • Beyond the receiving corps. Kansas City has the pieces to become a very good offensive line that can mix in more gap concepts than they utilized a season ago. This is something to keep an eye on as one of the best ways to attack Fangio’s defense on the ground is with GT counters, pin-and-pulls, and one-back power as they create situations where a pulling lineman has a chance to tee off on a linebacker or safety.
  • Willie Gay’s a player I’ve got my eye on this preseason. I loved him coming out of Mississippi State and Kansas City’s defense badly needs a three down playmaker to clean up the mess their shaky defensive line will spill into the second level.

Chargers

  • If the LA is going to live up to their annual preseason hype, they need a big dose of health luck sprinkled over the DB room. Derwin James has played five games since he made the All Pro team as a rookie, and Chris Harris Jr. missed seven games last year because of a foot injury. Brandon Staley’s defense is built around the coverage shells first and foremost, and the pass rush after Joey Bosa is pretty shaky.
  • On the other side of the ball, the Bolts offensive line is the big question mark, especially the right side with Bryan Bulaga and Oday Aboushi. First round pick Rashawn Slater looks like the real deal and Corey Linsey should be a stabilizing force at center. Matt Feiler’s an underrated addition after splitting time between left guard and right tackle for the Steelers.

X-Factor QBs

Outside the divisional matchups, the Broncos have three huge contests that probably determine their playoff fate. Each opponent has a quarterback who is at a bit of a crossroads in 2021. I talked about each player at length on Eric Jensen’s Endzone pod.

Lamar Jackson

Is he a good enough passer to test the Fangio defense?

Since Jackson entered the league there’s been a ton of questions about his ability to throw the football, specifically his ability to connect with receivers on the boundary. The narratives about this dog him most after the Ravens lose a game where he fails to bring them back from a deficit in the second half.

While I personally believe it’s an overblown concern because Jackson brings so much to the table with his legs, it could matter a great deal for a Broncos’ defense that may need to “pick a poison” to slow Baltimore down in week four.

Baker Mayfield

Will he fold in must-pass situations?

On paper, the Browns are the best team the Broncos will face that doesn’t reside in Missouri. They have one of the best offensive lines in football opening holes for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a deep tight end room that will present matchup issues, a rebuilt defense the perfect sort of pass rush to torment Lloyd Cushenberry, and Denzel Ward.

Seemingly the weakness holding them back against teams like the Chiefs is their starting quarterback. The number one overall pick of the 2018 draft turned it on late last year in a run-heavy attack that utilized play action and motion at one of the highest rates in the league. So Fangio’s plan of attack looks like it should be as clear as the water in Lake Erie: make Mayfield “play quarterback.” There’s only one issue:

Dak Prescott

Can he stay healthy?

There’s no question Prescott’s been an a top tier quarterback for years, and he’s got the kind of versatile skillset that will present a myriad of issues for the Broncos’ defense. He combines deadly accuracy with good arm talent as well as the ability to protect himself from pressure. Beyond his ability to throw the ball, Prescott’s been good for about 20 rushing first downs every season he’s been in the NFL.

What I’m keeping an eye on in the run up to Denver’s trip to Dallas in week nine is Dak’s health. He missed 11 games with a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in 2020, and the rehab surely bled into his preparations for this season. He threw for the first time Tuesday after missing most of camp with a shoulder strain suffered on July 28th, and will now undergo another MRI. Dak’s backups are Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush.

Your Broncos’ News

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NFL News

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