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11 things to watch for during the Broncos’ 2021 season

The big storylines to look for all year.

DENVER BRONCOS, NFL
Will the Broncos make the playoffs?
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

With six days until the New York Giants host the Denver Broncos, the 2021 season is officially upon us and it’s going to be a doozy. For the first time in NFL history, every team will play 17 games in their pursuits of the postseason. Depth will be tested like never before, and in Denver it seems the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Here are the big picture things I’m keeping an eye out for this season.

Management

1. Are the Broncos for sale?

2. What are George Paton’s priorities?

There’s been a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Broncos since 2014 that has only gotten darker since Pat Bowlen’s death in 2019. At the center of the storm was the claim by two of Bowlen’s daughters that the trust Pat set up to lead the Broncos in lieu of an owner had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s disease. In July, a Colorado judge by the name of John E. Scipione dismissed the lawsuit. We didn’t learn much else, as neither side of the dispute can discuss the case.

Without that clarity, speculations run rampant. We do know that before the case was dismissed, Joe Ellis and the trust supported Brittany Bowlen to eventually succeed her father, but Ellis has made it clear that all seven Bowlen children need to back the decision or the trustees will sell the team. At the moment, it isn’t clear if there was a settlement reached between Bowlen’s heirs and the trust to sell the Broncos instead of choosing a controlling owner, or if there’s momentum building in Brittany’s favor.

Before training camp opened in July, Ellis met with the media. He did little to resolve questions beyond stating multiple times that there would be a resolution following the 2021 season. Ellis didn’t go so far as to confirm if Brittany Bowlen remained in position to take control of the Broncos.

“She’s working hard and adding a lot of value in a lot of different areas. I’m conversing with her all the time. We have weekly meetings. In some form, her being able to run the team is a consideration, for sure. It will require some conditions from beneficiaries and others, perhaps. If she is going to run it, that conclusion will be made sometime next year as well. That’s one of the options, for sure. As I said, there are certain conditions that come with that. I’m not going to comment too much on those because those involve discussions with other beneficiaries and those are private in my view.”

We do know that by this time next year the Broncos will have a single owner or the NFL will impose millions in fines. We don’t yet know who it will be.

The Broncos ownership dispute did not dissuade George Paton from leaving the Minnesota Vikings to take his first general manager job. It did factor into contract negotiations, as Paton took a six year contract to provide financial security in the event that a new owner wouldn’t share his vision for the franchise.

Since taking the general manager job, Paton has said all the right things. He believes the Broncos are a “sleeping giant” and described his approach as “aggressive, but not reckless.” He spent his first offseason bringing back foundational players like Von Miller, Justin Simmons, and Shelby Harris while showing interest in a number of potential starting quarterbacks such as Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Sam Darnold, Deshaun Watson, and Aaron Rodgers.

After Rodgers returned to the Green Bay Packers, training camp opened with Teddy Bridgewater set to compete with Drew Lock for the opportunity to quarterback what is easily the most talented Broncos’ roster since I began writing for Mile High Report. This appeared to happen in part because of a belief by Paton that he “felt a duty to the franchise” to give Lock another chance at the starting job, which seems to support KOA’s Benjamin Allbright’s belief that Paton approached his first year as general manager as a “redshirt year.” It also leaves questions about how much say Paton really had in everything that happened to this point.

What Paton does from here will be a lot more telling about his plans for the team, however. All signs suggest this year is the end of John Elway’s run atop the organizational hierarchy. While the Broncos’ former general manager hired Paton and stepped into a new role as President of Operations back in February, Paton mentioned how Elway had a say in the offseason immediately after the 2021 draft.

“John had a big role in all of it. He had a big voice and he was involved with the process. He has sat in all our meetings. He was a sounding board for me and Vic on all the players we discussed through our meetings. He was great.”

Coaching

3. Will Fangio survive the season?

4. How do Pat Shurmur and Tom McMahon make the most of the talent on hand?

With so much uncertainty in management and a disappointing start to his career as a head coach, it’s hardly news that Vic Fangio enters 2021 on perhaps the hottest seat in football. He’s currently the betting favorite to be the first NFL head coach fired this year. While I doubt Fangio is canned early because of the way it’d cast Paton in a negative light if nothing else, it’s impossible to completely rule out. Paton’s previous relationship with Pat Shurmur and Mike Munchak’s experience as an NFL head coach make them both stand out as viable replacements in the event Fangio is relieved of his duties this season. In June I took a very early look at who the Broncos could pursue if they’re back in the market for a head coach after the 2021 season.

If we assume the Broncos don’t steer into the sort of dysfunction an in-season firing creates, the other big questions hanging over the coaching staff pertain to the offense and special teams. Both units were disappointing in 2020. The offense finished 30th by Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric DVOA, and the special teams continued it’s McMahon-era run as one of the worst units in the NFL. Since he was hired in 2019, the Broncos have cycled through three punters and consistently ranked among the six worst punting units in the league. They also had the worst kickoff coverage in football last season.

I’ll admit it surprised me McMahon retained his post for this season. To keep his post, there has to be some sort of improvement. Paton built the roster with extra attention devoted to special teams, such as when he signed Mike Boone to take over for Royce Freeman as the third running back, and when he traded for Jonas Griffith from the San Francisco 49ers. Fangio has made it pretty obvious he has not been satisfied with the results throughout the preseason. If things get bad enough, we could see the Broncos’ assistant special teams coach Chris Gould take over for McMahon during the year.

Shurmur’s job security doesn’t seem nearly as perilous. He was hired by Fangio after the New York Giants relived him of his head coaching duties and took over a young offense that struggled in part because of the way Covid-19 impacted preparation for the 2020 season.

With Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock at quarterback, it seems unrealistic to expect a record-setting offense this year. What Paton and Fangio surely want is something resembling competence, which may have helped Bridgewater secure the job in camp as he brings an experienced set of hands to help the unit stay on schedule and avoid the devastating mistakes that plagued Lock last year.

Defense

5. Is Von Back?

6. Does Paton trade away a starting corner?

7. Can Patrick Surtain II live up to expectations?

Expectations are that the Broncos will go as far as their defense can carry them in 2021, and for good reason. The unit is one of the five most expensive defenses in the NFL and will eat up $94,061,614 of the available cap space.

There are two huge X factors that will play a role in how this Fangio defense is remembered. The first is the return of Von Miller, who lost all of 2020 to a freak injury suffered before opening day. If the 32-year-old can emerge as the same Von who notched 58 pressures to go with eight sacks in 2019, it would create opportunities for every other defender.

The other big unknown ahead of the Giants game is how Paton’s first draft pick truly fits into the equation. The Broncos passed on two potential franchise quarterbacks to select Patrick Surtain II out of Alabama. He joins a loaded secondary with three veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, so his playing time is an open question. Will George Paton weaken the defense to create an opportunity? There are reports teams are calling about Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan and it currently looks like the Broncos expect Michael Ojemudia back from Injured Reserve this season, which creates a potential numbers crunch. Or will the Broncos use more dime personnel (6 DB sets) so their talented rookie can see the field? Fangio has said Surtain is learning three positions late last week.

“I just think he’s gotten better each and every week. As we’ve talked about, we’ve put a lot on his plate. He’s learning three positions. It’s hurt his development at some of those positions. That’s just the way it’s going to be because you have to learn them. Comparing him to Ronald Darby or Fuller, they play corner—nothing else. Well, he’s playing two other ones on top of that. But he’s been good at it. He’s very capable, and he keeps growing in all three roles.”

After a rough four game stretch to open his tenure, Fangio’s defense has consistently served as the best part of the Broncos over the last two seasons, finishing 13th by DVOA in 2019 and 2020. If the secondary remains whole all season, they should be even better in 2021.

Offense

8. What does Shurmur do with his personnel?

9. How does Sutton fit back in?

10. Can the line do its part?

11. Can Teddy Bridgewater be “the guy” for now?

One of the more interesting decisions Paton made with the Broncos’ initial 53-man roster is when he traded Trinity Benson and a sixth round pick to the Detroit Lions for a fifth and seventh. It left the Broncos with just five receivers on their active roster, with one of them being a return specialist in Diontae Spencer.

The trade could point to Shurmur leaning on heavier personnel this season after he utilized three receiver (11P) sets on 66% of all offensive plays in 2020. Keep in mind we saw hints of more tight ends and a fullback in the preseason, and it’d make sense to play Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam together as often as possible since they’re both mismatch weapons for opposing linebackers and defensive backs.

Leaning on more 12, 21, and 22 personnel would also create more rest for the receiving corps. and give the Broncos a chance to ramp Courtland Sutton back up to speed at their pace. The 2019 Pro Bowler was limited to just 31 snaps last year before of an AC joint injury and ACL tear. Last Wednesday Fangio said there would be an effort to manage his snaps.

“We have four good receivers and they’re all capable of playing. The pitch count can be a little misleading at times. It’s more so how the drives are going. If we’re going three-and-out a bunch, he can play them all. If we can get some nice drives going, he’ll need some time off.”

While the pass catchers and quarterback will demand most of the attention, the offensive line can’t go completely overlooked. Garett Bolles is a steady blindside protector with the mobility to climb into the second level, while Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow are reliable veterans who the Broncos lean on to lead the way on their gap scheme runs. Questions remain about Lloyd Cushenberry’s improvement after a rookie season where he played every snap and looked like one of the worst centers in the NFL. Bobby Massie’s health also bears monitoring, as the veteran has played in one 16+ game season since 2014.

If everything goes as hoped with the supporting cast, Teddy Bridgewater will have a fantastic opportunity to prove he remains a starting caliber quarterback after the Carolina Panthers chose to eat $17 million in dead money to trade him away. If things go off the rails, Drew Lock could find one last chance to prove he’s the rightful heir to Peyton Manning. The possibility of a QB controversy lingers over this Broncos roster and could quickly overshadow every other question if Denver opens with a slow September start.

There are only six days until the Broncos travel to New York to face the Giants.