Denver Broncos 2021 Team Previewby Jack Gaffney August 2, 2021 1 comment
In 2020, the Denver Broncos, due to a variety of factors, fell short of what they ultimately could have been. Covid-19 being a major one, along with Courtland Sutton playing a half-game the entire season. But the play of then second-year signal-caller Drew Lock was arguably the biggest. Although an average offensive line did not help him, 16 touchdowns and 15 picks in 13 games were not the expectation for him.
Entering 2021 however, there is a reason for optimism with this squad. The front office has now put together a new generation of the dreaded no-fly zone. Went out and upgraded the offensive front through both the draft and free agency. In addition to bringing back one of the premier young groups of pass-catchers in the entire league. Although it is only his third year in the league, is this Lock’s final shot to prove he is a quality NFL starting quarterback? That is the question that will define this team’s season.
Make sure to check out all of our other 2021 NFL Team Previews.
Arguably the biggest move to happen for Denver happened in their front office. John Elway has stepped away as the general manager of the team. Replacing him is longtime Minnesota executive George Paton. Elway, however, remains the president of football operations. On the coaching side of things, save for a few minor moves, Vic Fangio‘s staff from 2020 is back for this year.
Paton’s first order of business was to reward superstar safety Justin Simmons with a major league contract extension, and he most certainly did. Simmons inked a four-year $61 million deal in mid-March, exactly two weeks after being franchise tagged. Paton was also able to bring back Von Miller, Shelby Harris, and Kareem Jackson in March as well. Those that did not return to the team for this season included Phillip Lindsay, A.J. Bouye, and the most publicized of the bunch being Ja’Wuan James. The tackle was released on May 14, 10 days off tearing his Achilles tendon practicing away from team facilities.
The two major free-agent additions were corner’s Kyle Fuller, formerly of Chicago, and Ronald Darby, formerly of Washington. Right before the draft, Denver also acquired Teddy Bridgewater from Carolina for just a sixth-round selection. Speaking of the draft, Paton did a solid job of bringing in some fresh faces. Highlights included picking up Patrick Surtain, Quinn Meinerz, and Javonte Williams.
Denver has put Lock in a great spot to succeed for this upcoming season. Garett Bolles, who made second-team all-pro last season after having his fifth-year option declined leads an improved offensive front. Sutton should be ready to go to team up with second-year wideouts Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to create a three-headed monster.
Meanwhile, third-year tight end Noah Fant looks to take another jump after a solid 2020. His 673 receiving yards last season ranked sixth in the league among tight ends. Melvin Gordon should once again lead the effort out of the backfield after a 986-yard season a year ago as well. All things considered, if Lock (or his failsafe Bridgewater) can get the best out of this unit, it could be one of the most fun groups to watch in the entire league.
In a division with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr as opposing quarterbacks, having some playmakers on the defensive side of the ball is not a bad idea. Fortunately for Denver, they have more than a few at their disposal. Miller and Bradley Chubb are once again reunited on the edge. a massive problem for the entire AFC, and league as a whole. In the only season, they played the full tilt together (2018), the duo combined for a whopping 26.5 sacks. Harris meanwhile is likely to anchor the trenches of the Denver defensive front.
With a slew of moves in the offseason, Denver also now has arguably one of the top secondaries in the entire league. Few if any teams can tout a better trio of corners than Surtain, Fuller, and Darby. Although there could be some growing pains with the rookie from Alabama. Simmons may outright be one of the best safeties in the entire league, while his running mate Jackson is still a quality player even at 33 years old.
Predicting the 53 Man Roster
The argument for Denver only sticking with two signal-callers is valid, however, let us roll the clock back to late November last year. Every quarterback that was on the roster leading into Week 12 was placed on the Covid-19 list a day before taking on New Orleans. This lead to Denver turning to undrafted receiver Kendall Hinton to start at quarterback that next day. The results in this emergency situation were as expected. Just three points on the day and next to no pass offense production for the Broncos.
With that in mind, having a good amount of quarterback depth without going overboard should be prioritized. Hence Rypien making the roster here. The battle for the starting spot between Lock and Bridgewater should be one of the top in the league this preseason. Bridgewater is here mainly to put Lock on notice but is a solid option to start if he wins out. He had a number of solid outings in Carolina last season. Despite it being a two-point loss, he threw for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns at Arrowhead Stadium against the Chiefs.
Gordon and Williams are all but 100 percent set to make this roster in the backfield. Williams in his final year at North Carolina exploded for over 1,000 yards rushing, averaging nearly 7.5 yards a carry, and scored 22 total touchdowns on the year. He should be an excellent running mate for the veteran Gordon.
As for fourth-year back Royce Freeman, his 2020 doesn’t bode confidence that he will make this year’s roster. He went from 132 carries in 2019 to just 35 a season ago. While the addition of Gordon did not help this matter, that is an alarming drop off from averaging 131 carries his first two seasons. Broncos would not take a big cap hit at all by letting Freeman go, plus the incoming Boone adds some special teams value. Beck meanwhile should handle fullback duties.
In the previous two seasons, the Broncos have opted to go with a half dozen receivers. Adding one more with your number one guy coming off an ACL tear is not a bad idea either. The aforementioned Sutton, Jeudy, and Hamler should give opposing defenses the blues all season long. The only concern is how quickly can Sutton round into form. If he is good to go, he should be a menace on the outside all season long. Jeudy and Hamler both look to take pressure off each other, as well as Sutton, coming off a pair of solid rookie years.
Looking behind this three-headed monster, however, Fangio and Paton have some options. Veteran wideout Patrick has been a serviceable pass-catcher for Denver for most of his career. He also comes off a career-best outing in 2020. Williams, the rookie from Auburn, is coming off a 47 grab, 760 yard junior season, along with four scores to boot. Then there is Cleveland, who saw minimal action in his rookie campaign, but his experience in the system can get him a roster spot once again. Finally, there is Spencer, who brings value as both a kickoff and punt returner.
With over a half dozen receivers in this version of the Broncos roster, the tight end room will only be a two-man unit. The good news however is they have about a solid duo as you could ask for in Fant and Okwuegbunam. While Fant looks to catapult himself into the same breath as guys like George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Darren Waller, Okwuegbunam is a solid number two option. In his rookie year, Albert O, in limited touches, picked up 10 plus yards per reception and got a lone score. If Denver opts for three tight ends on the roster, keep an eye out for Eric Saubert.
There is a lot to like with this unit, and it starts with the left side of the line with Bolles, and Risner. Massie is the new face on the right end of the line, with Glasgow in his second year with the team to his left. Cushenberry, Denver’s second of three third-round picks a year ago as of now seems tabled in as the starting center.
Despite friend of the program Meinerz getting drafted high this year, it feels like Cushenberry’s job to lose. Coach Fangio when asked about a center battle said “[Meinerz] first needs to show that it should be a competition first.” Meinerez does bring the versatility to play anywhere on the inside which is nice. Not being thrust into an immediate starting role could pav dividends down the line as well. Schlottmann will join him as a reserve interior lineman. While Fleming, who spent years as the reserve swing tackle in New England, will do so now for Denver.
Purcell, who just came off of foot surgery, is set to miss some additional time in camp due to a sprained ankle. Luckily it does not sound like he will miss much time. Jones comes into 2021 off a phenomenal late-season run, recording 3.5 sacks in his last four games. Then on Jones’ opposite side is Harris, who inked a new three-year extension earlier in the year. The former seventh-round pick of the Raiders has put together a stout career for himself.
Mack, who may be an outside-the-box pick here, is still a quality depth option. He spent time in 2020 on both the Tennessee Titans and Patriots and in 2019 made 13 appearances with the former, including one start. Stephen, a near decade-long veteran, was picked up by the team on a one-year pact earlier this year. He started in all but one of his last 46 appearances between Seattle and Minnesota. Finally, there is Williams, who last year with Denver started in 11 out of his 14 games. All things considered, this should be a quality unit for the Broncos this season.
Miller is back after missing all of last year with a freak foot injury in the preseason. On top of catching Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic as well. Chubb once again is his running mate on the other side as the starters. Cooper, a day three pick this year, had a heart issue taken care of months ago and is currently practicing. Former undrafted pickup Reed should once again be back, as will Tuszka, a seventh-rounder from a year ago.
On a roster with good overall depth, this is probably the weakest area for the Broncos in 2021. While they did go out and take Baron Browning in this year’s draft, he is currently on the PUP list. There was some optimism that he was close to taking the field for camp, but according to Paton, he is in recovery mode still.
Jewell and Johnson are once again the starters, with Strand, a fifth-round selection from last year as the key reserve. In the event that Browning is not ready to go for the beginning of the year, Denver has a pair of options to fill in his spot. Watson, and then Curtis Robinson. Watson due to more experience would almost certainly make the cut here until Browning is deemed fit to play.
This new iteration of the no-fly zone starts with the three gentlemen listed first. Denver did about as good as they could of retooling this unit with Fuller, Surtain, and Darby. They should be a nightmare for opposing offenses to deal with all year long. Behind them firstly are the returning Ojemudia and Dawson. While he is listed as a corner, he was drafted into the league by New England as a safety.
Callahan is another new face in the secondary, coming over from Chicago. While Johnson was Denver’s fifth-round pick just this year. He currently is on Covid reserve although hopefully, that is not a long-term issue. A likely practice squad candidate here is seventh-rounder Kary Vincent Jr. out of LSU.
Not anything to add on Simmons and Jackson that has not already been said. One of the top flight duos in the whole league. Joining them first is the rookie Sterns out of Texas. He made first-team all Big-12 back in 2018 when he was a true freshman. Thompson meanwhile, adds some special teams value to go along with his four years of league service time.
This is the same group as the Broncos rolled out a season ago. Denver did bring in UDFA punter Max Duffy from Kentucky but waived him in mid-June. That move pretty much set this trio in stone once again.
One Player to Add
Not too many trouble spots when you look at this Denver roster. With that being said, the linebacking core could possibly use a nice boost. Looking at what is currently out there on that front, Avery Williamson could be a nice cost-effective option. But let’s say Paton is interested in beefing up the trenches on the defense, Geno Atkins is still out there.
2021 Outlook & Odds
The win total for the Broncos is set at 8.5 for this year. The concern in the scheduling department is that five of their games vs AFC West opponents come after their Week 11 bye. Two against Kansas City and Los Angeles, and one against Las Vegas. Outside of that, they have a relatively nice stretch to begin this year. Opening up against both New York teams, with Jacksonville sandwiched in between.
With a new-look defense and some stout offensive weapons, Denver should certainly improve from their 5-11 campaign a year ago. How much they improve is the real question for this year, however. If Lock can make the necessary jump this can certainly be a playoff team, depending on how the AFC wildcard picture looks. If not, this team will almost certainly be taking another quarterback early in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Season Prediction: 9-8 and Miss the Playoffs
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