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Are the Broncos a QB away from contending for Super Bowls?

Could the Broncos actually contend for championships in 2022?

When the Denver Broncos traded Von Miller, general manager George Paton explained the move as “win-win.”

In regard to our team, we’re going to get some great capital from the Rams. It allows us to build a foundation that we’ve already started to build, [and we can] just add to that foundation and build this thing the right way. That’s what we’re going to do. Moving forward with this team, I believe in the players here. I believe in the coaches here. We’re 4-4. It hasn’t been perfect. We’ve had some ebbs; we’ve had some flows. We have a long way to go, but I do believe in the players.

The Broncos followed the trade by going 3-6 to close their season. Paton fired Vic Fangio, while Miller played a critical role in the Los Angeles Rams’ run through the playoffs. The Rams’ success underscores the fact that for the Broncos to “win” their half of the trade, Paton needs to find a way to maximize the return from his deal with L.A.’s Les Snead: a second and third round pick at the end of each round because the Rams made it to Super Bowl 56.

The quickest way for the Miller trade to work in the Broncos’ favor is if the picks serve as ammunition to acquire a veteran quarterback who can immediately open a Super Bowl window for the franchise. Paton’s decision to hire Nathaniel Hackett to replace Fangio seemingly helps to increase the odds that such a move could come to fruition, as Hackett was extremely close with Aaron Rodgers during his tenure as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator. The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman described the two as something akin to friends in a conversation with the Broncos’ own Aric DiLalla.

“Nathaniel Hackett is 42 years old, Aaron Rodgers is 38. They’re not that far apart. It’s more of a—I don’t want to say a Friend 1 and Friend 2—but it doesn’t really seem like a coach and player.”

None of this is probably news, of course. The Broncos have been linked to Rodgers since ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that he wanted out of Green Bay shortly before the 2021 NFL Draft. Rather than beat hearsay and hope to death, the obvious interest by Paton and the Broncos has left me wondering about the ramifications of such a move. After years of speculation that Denver is simply “a quarterback away,” a Rodgers trade would give them an elite 38-year-old quarterback and the immediate pressure to capitalize with a championship.

Is the roster truly good enough?

Safety

Justin Simmons was a picture perfect scheme fit under Fangio and made the second team All Pro two of the last three seasons with a trip to the Pro Bowl between them. He’s the face of the franchise and should make life easier for whoever becomes the Broncos’ next defensive coordinator. With Kareem Jackson a free agent, that hire could dramatically impact the spot beside him.

Caden Sterns earned rave reviews out of training camp last August and found his way onto the defense when Denver used its dime personnel in week two. When Jackson missed time last year, it was Paton’s first fifth round safety who earned the start. He finished the season with two picks, five passes defensed, two sacks, and 28 tackles. I fully expect him to have the first crack at the starting job with the promise he showed last year.

The second safety Paton took in the fifth round almost has to find more success under the new regime than the last. He missed time during his first training camp after landing on the Covid-19 list. After a tough preseason, he was a healthy scratch during the regular season until the Broncos’ week 15 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. In a new defense, there remains a possibility Johnson becomes a candidate for nickel snaps, as he found a great deal of success in the role at Indiana.

Cornerback

Patrick Surtain II quickly rewarded the Broncos for taking him with the ninth pick of the 2021 draft. Throughout training camp he received praise from coaches and teammates for how advanced he was. He found his way into a starting role in week two and looked like the kind of high volume shutdown corner his next DC should drool over. His ability to match and mirror already ranks among the best in the league. So long as the hamstring issue that ended his season a week early is an isolated incident, he’s got the length, hands, and technique to become a Pro Bowl fixture for years to come.

Ronald Darby was Paton’s first big ticket free agent signing after playing a full 16+ game season for the first time in his career in 2020. He was the starting right boundary corner following the Kyle Fuller signing and kept that spot after Patrick Surtain became a starter. He missed six games due to hamstring and shoulder issues and finished with zero interceptions for the second consecutive season. By Sports Info Solutions’ charting opposing quarterbacks completed 59.4% of their passes against him in 2021.

Michael Ojemudia has to hope his third NFL season goes better than his second. After starting 11 games as a rookie, he found himself fighting for backup snaps during training camp last year before a hamstring injury in the Broncos’ second preseason game caused him to miss the first 15 games of the season. He played 85 defensive snaps across the last two games and allowed Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes to complete four of their nine passes in his direction. He broke up three passes.

The Broncos also claimed Essang Bassey off the Los Angeles Chargers’ waivers on January 10th. The 2020 undrafted free agent played a significant role in the Fangio defense as a rookie and may compete for defensive snaps in the slot under the new regime.

Off Ball Linebacker

Justin Strnad is among the Broncos’ defensive players who are probably grateful for a new coaching staff. He lost his starting job after Denver’s Thursday Night loss to the Cleveland Browns in week seven and played 25 defensive snaps the rest of the way.

An injury during OTAs dogged Baron Browning through the preseason, which left the rookie linebacker playing catch up in the Fangio defense. When he finally found his way to defensive snaps following the Broncos’ week nine debacle against the Cleveland Browns, he displayed elite athleticism. Following his first game against Washington, he also improved by leaps and bounds as far as his processing was concerned. So long as he can put the injury bug behind him, the tools are there for him to blossom into a Pro Bowl caliber player over the next couple of seasons.

The Broncos retained Barrington Wade on a futures deal after 2021 came to an end. It’s far too soon to count him out, but it does seem noteworthy that he never found playing time as the Denver sorted through seven other off ball linebackers. He played 52 special teams snaps across four games.

Edge Rusher

Bradley Chubb’s health is going to be a critical question hanging over him as he plays on the last year of his rookie contract. He’s landed on Injured Reserve each of the last three seasons with lower body ailments, and when he returned following the surgery for bone spurs last year, he never really returned to Pro Bowl form. If he can rediscover the form he showed in 2020, he’s easily the best edge rusher on the roster with good play strength, explosiveness, and hands.

Right now the Broncos’ second edge rusher is probably Jonathan Cooper. Paton’s second seventh round pick from a year ago saw a big increase in playing time following the Von Miller trade and became a solid rotational piece. He combines very good effort with good athleticism and brings advanced technique after learning under Ohio State’s Larry Johnson throughout his years with the Buckeyes. However, his short arms look like they’ll always cause him some issues against longer tackles.

There’s three other edge rushers under contract at the moment, and none played more than 64 defensive snaps last season. Andre Mintze showed promise in the preseason and has a game reminiscent of Malik Reed, which makes his fit with the Broncos’ new defense an open question. Aaron Patrick joined the Broncos from the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad and logged 208 snaps on special teams. Jonathan Kongbo was signed in January after spending two of the last three seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.

Defensive Line

Dre’Mont Jones quietly emerged as the Broncos’ most consistent pass rusher following the Von Miller trade and returns for the last season of his rookie contract. Though undersized at 6’3 and 281 lbs., his very good burst and quick hands help him to get the best of overmatched guards. He’s someone who could really benefit from a move away from Vic Fangio’s gap-and-a-half philosophy up front.

Shelby Harris could also find success in a scheme predicated on gap shooting with his savvy hands and ability to create havoc on stunts as both a looper and penetrator. His knack for disrupting passing lanes with his mitts should translate to any defense, and he’s shown throughout his time in Denver that he can contribute as far out as a five technique to a zero. The 30-year-old did have a bit of a down 2021 as he played through a couple of lower body injuries.

Mike Purcell counts for $4,347,695 against the 2022 cap under his restructured deal and the Broncos can save $2,799,361 by moving on, so it’s no guarantee he returns in 2022. Like Harris, the 30-year-old nose tackle had a down year due in part to injuries. Unlike Harris, he offers little as a pass rusher and doesn’t have the same versatility. He’s at his best logging the vast majority of his snaps at one or zero tech.

McTelvin Agim is a player who could really benefit from the coaching change. Since John Elway drafted him in the third round of the 2020 draft, the former five star recruit has played a grand total of 231 defensive snaps in the last two years despite being healthy. The hope here is that the lightbulb turns on and he dramatically improves as a run defender over this offseason, because there is flashes of promise against the pass.

Marquiss Spencer was retained on a futures deal after his rookie season came to a close. A practice squad player all season, he saw playing time in week 17 after Covid-19 decimated Denver’s defensive line depth.

Offensive Line

Butch Barry replacing Mike Munchak could just be the first major change along the offensive line. With Hackett guiding the Broncos away from gap blocking, there’s some question as to scheme fit moving forward. Dalton Risner, Netane Muti, and Quinn Meinerz were all drafted for the previous regime and will no longer be asked to pull and lead block with any regularity.

Graham Glasgow renegotiated his contract at the beginning of January and will count $6,200,000 against the 2022 cap. Since it would cost the Broncos at least $6 million to move him this year, he looks like a certainty for the 2022 roster. What is going to be interesting is how he factors into the battles along the interior offensive line with the guards and Lloyd Cushenberry. Glasgow played center and guard with the Detroit Lions before he joined the Broncos in 2020.

Garett Bolles is the only tackle on the Broncos’ current roster with any NFL experience. While he’ll need to improve his hands to make another All Pro team, the shift to Hackett’s system could be beneficial for him. He looks like a strong fit for a blocking scheme that emphasizes zone blocking with his athleticism and footwork.

The Broncos signed Casey Tucker, Zack Johnson, and Drew Himmelman to futures deals after the 2021 season came to a close. Himmelman spent the entirety of his rookie season on the practice squad, while Johnson joined in November. Tucker rejoined the Broncos in January after spending a month on the practice squad in November. He’s worn five different jerseys since joining the NFL in 2019.

Wide Receiver

If we assume the Broncos have a better quarterback room in 2022, Hackett’s offense should be a monumental improvement for the wide receiver corps. The Packers made a concentrated effort to create good looks for Davante Adams the last three years, and they did it in a variety of ways. Adams would move around the formation to take advantage of favorable matchups, receive manufactured touches on RPOs and screens, and was routinely the first read in progressions. Green Bay also worked to create picks with concepts.

Assuming K.J. Hamler can return to health after a torn ACL landed him on Injured Reserve in September, the Broncos’ wide receiver room looks to quietly have one of the better lineups in the NFL. Jerry Jeudy is a very good route runner with the finite movement skills to create separation against most defensive backs, while Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick are strong jump ball threats.

There’s also promising depth in the receiver room. Seth Williams was a sixth round pick who has the kind of athleticism and build to turn into a bully ball threat if he can improve his route running and concentration. Kendall Hinton is the kind of try-hard depth receiver who contributes on special teams, blocks, and serves as an adequate tertiary target. Tyrie Cleveland is a size/speed prospect who could make the ‘22 roster for his special teams play.

The Broncos also signed Travis Fulgham to a futures deal after the season. A sixth round pick out of the 2019 draft who caught 38 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns with Doug Pederson’s Philadelphia Eagles, he joined the practice squad in December.

Tight end

Purely on potential, Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam rank among the most intriguing tight end duos in the NFL if only Denver can find a reliable passer. Both stand 6’4” or taller and weigh in at right around 250 lbs. with legitimate 4.5 speed. They have the athletic ability to present as a mismatch against most defenders, with the ability to run away from most linebackers and the frame to go up and outrebound most defensive backs.

Looking past potential, and there’s some questions about how Hackett’s offense utilizes the tight ends in 2022. As a group, the Packers’ tight ends averaged 94 targets a season during Hackett’s time in Green Bay, while Fant alone averaged 91.5 the last two years under Pat Shurmur. The new offense will count on more blocking from the 2019 first round pick, which isn’t the strength of his game.

One player who could emerge in the new system is Shaun Beyer, who the Broncos signed to a futures deal after the 2021 campaign. A priority free agent signing after he went undrafted out of Iowa following last year’s draft, Beyer spent the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad. He profiles as a prototypical Y tight end and could carve out a role on offense as an inline blocker in heavier personnel groupings.

Running Back

The Broncos are moving away from the gap concepts they’ve utilized the last three years and towards a zone/duo running scheme. More zone could be great news for Mike Boone, who looked like a clean scheme fit during his days in a similar system with the Minnesota Vikings. Signed to serve as a backup back and special teams ace, the 26-year-old had an injury-plagued debut season with the Broncos, but he combines good explosiveness, lateral mobility, and vision to punish defenders for overpursuit on outside zone.

The new offensive philosophy could lead to some growing pains for Javonte Williams, as he continued to show the same issues with vision and decision-making in 2021 that he showed during his time with the Tarheels. While he routinely displayed elite contact balance, very good explosiveness, and a well-rounded game that should make him a three down back, he left yards on the field too often due to issues with decision-making and vision. Assuming he can return to peak form after a knee injury dogged him late in the year, it’s the biggest question hanging over his sophomore season.

Damarea Crockett was signed to a futures deal in January and looks set to return for training camp. He joined the Broncos in 2020 after a stint with Hackett’s Packers, so he should be familiar with the new offense. He served as Denver’s fourth running back last year and played 182 special teams snaps.

Quarterback

In theory, a move back towards a Shanahan/McVay type of offense should be a godsend for Drew Lock. The 2019 second round pick was drafted for a Rich Scangarello offense, but struggled with pre-snap reads and working through his progressions in the Pat Shurmur system. However, if the Broncos obtain a quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers, Lock’s value to the Broncos is what he provides as a backup. Therein lies the problem for Lock: he was an abysmal backup in 2021.

After losing a quarterback competition with Teddy Bridgewater in training camp, Drew Lock entered three different games because of injury during last season. He looked like he didn’t understand the concepts he was being called to run and regressed from his ‘20 form. Across 81 snaps, Lock’s yards per attempt, completion %, on target %, and catchable ball % all reached career lows. His inability to make the correct decisions on a simple read option and a run pass option led to two of the worst plays of the 2021 season.

Final Thoughts

At least on paper, there’s no question last year’s roster looked better than the current iteration at this time. With that in mind, it’s important to note that this is simply looking at the Broncos roster on this side of free agency and the draft. The Broncos appear primed to undergo a serious overhaul in Paton’s second offseason as he tailors the roster to his handpicked coaching staff. With more than $40 million in cap space and five draft picks in the top 100 of the upcoming NFL draft, he has plenty of ammunition to shape the Broncos to his vision.

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