The Denver Broncos are closing in on their third consecutive losing season to mark undoubtedly the worst stretch of football in franchise history. They are known for producing consistent winning seasons and haven’t experienced this much losing since the early 1970’s.
While general manager John Elway was able to engineer a Super Bowl title after signing Peyton Manning, he is now on his third head coach and sixth starting quarterback since 2015. Elway needs to right the ship in Denver and with a projected $66 million in cap space and five top-100 picks in the coming draft, the Broncos are in excellent position to take a major step forward.
Every team deals with injuries and this one certainly cannot claim being the most banged up team in football, but the Broncos sorely missed several key players for most or all of 2019.
They have been highly inconsistent at right tackle for several years and inking Ja’Wuan James to a four-year, $51-million contract to solidify the spot last offseason. James has been limited to just 32 snaps across two games this season, and backup Elijah Wilkinson has served as a turnstile for pass rushers.
Bradley Chubb produced 12 sacks as a rookie but his sophomore season was limited to just four games after an ACL tear. Denver missed his presence as a pass rusher and it has also negatively impacted Von Miller, who is experiencing his least productive season since 2013.
Cornerback Bryce Callahan, who followed head coach Vic Fangio from Chicago to Denver, was supposed to play a big role as the Broncos’ slot corner. His ability to win in man coverage against receivers, defend the run and blitz reduced the effectiveness of Denver’s defensive scheme. Callahan is still working his way back from a foot injury he suffered with the Bears.
As a Kyle Shanahan disciple, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello’s scheme actually requires a fullback but Andy Janovich has also been limited in 2019. He suffered a pectoral injury in the preseason and missed Denver’s first three regular-season games. In Week 11, Janovich suffered a gruesome elbow injury that ended his year.
Getting healthy will be an important step in Denver putting an end to its losing ways.
Develop Drew Lock
A thumb injury in the preseason led to Drew Lock being placed on injured reserve with a return designation. Lock was brought along slowly but finally earned the opportunity to start in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers and was part of the Broncos’ winning effort. While Lock did not light up the box score, he did toss two touchdown passes while completing 64 percent of his throws.
Lock, who was Denver’s second-round pick in 2019, is a promising young quarterback with a live arm. While the Broncos aren’t married to Lock as their QB long-term, he’s an intriguing possibility for a roster that needs help in a lot of areas. Nothing should be handed to Lock, but the opportunity for him to attack the offseason with a real chance of being the starter entering 2020 should set the stage for Lock to showcase his upside. The remaining schedule will provide him some game experience entering the offseason and enable Scangarello to mold the offense around Lock’s strengths.
Part of Lock’s development and offering him the best opportunity to succeed means adding more weapons at wide receiver and fixing the holes along the offensive line.
Contracts To Renew
With a projected $66 million in salary cap space, Denver does have several of its own free agents to consider for extensions. These three will need to come back.
Justin Simmons is exactly the type of player an organization should want to reward. The third-round pick has developed into one of the NFL’s best safeties and is enjoying the best season of his career in Fangio’s scheme. Simmons is an All-Pro candidate with his consistency in coverage, rock solid tackling and overall versatility. Denver should make him one of the highest paid players at his position in the very near future.
Shelby Harris is a late-bloomer who bounced around early in his career but has found a home in Denver. A key part of the defensive line rotation, Harris is a rock solid run defender who is becoming an impactful interior pass rusher. Rewarding his development with an extension sends the right message to the locker room.
Chris Harris is on the wrong side of 30, but he is still an effective cornerback that draws tough assignments every week. While I would be careful not to lock him in for too long, bringing Harris back avoids the Broncos having a big hole on the depth chart at a premium position. This will buy Denver some time to improve the roster and build up the depth chart to eventually be ready for life without Harris.
One to let go: Ronald Leary
Ronald Leary signed a four-year, $36-million contract prior to the 2017 season and unfortunately suffered season-ending injuries in his first two years in Denver. In 2017, Leary started 11 games before a back injury ended his season in Week 12. He only started six games last year before suffering a torn Achilles. Now healthy in 2019, Leary hasn’t impacted the run game as expected. Denver has a club option for the final year of his deal that must be exercised within five days of the new year. It is time for Denver to move on and save $8.5 million in cap space.
Three Key Free Agents
While extensions will eat into the projected cap space, Denver should be able to bring in a few outside free agents, especially considering the savings created by moving on from Leary and Joe Flacco.
Jordan Phillips, Buffalo Bills (TDN Analyst Kyle Crabbs)
With Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe, Adam Gostis and Mike Purcell (RFA), nearly the entire interior defensive line rotation in Denver is on expiring contracts. With the opportunity to get younger and reload the position, Jordan Phillips makes a lot of sense. Phillips is powerful, explosive and enjoying the best season of his career having already racked up 7 1/2 sacks.
Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins (TDN Analyst Ben Solak)
Offensive line inconsistency has been an issue for the Broncos so adding one of the league’s best blockers also makes a lot of sense. While the Redskins may not let him out of the building, Washington has had issues retaining its own free agents in recent years. Brandon Scherff, the fifth overall pick in 2015, is a dynamic run and pass blocker with no restrictions. He will likely earn Pro Bowl honor this season, making it the third time in the last four seasons.
Rashard Higgins, Cleveland Browns (TDN Analyst Joe Marino)
Courtland Sutton is one of the most exciting young receivers in football, but the Denver receiving corps is otherwise lacking. With the arrival of Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland, Rashard Higgins' role has diminished after breaking out for 572 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. Higgins has untapped potential and a return to the state where he played his college ball should provide the opportunity for him to flourish.
Draft Good Players
While there have been signs of improvement lately, poor drafting is at the center of why Denver has struggled in recent years. Now loaded with meaningful draft capital, Elway has the opportunity in front of him to assemble a franchise-altering draft haul.