Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Broncos are in a state of transition. It wasn't too long ago that they were the most celebrated team in the NFL. With a stunning, shutdown defense, the Broncos captured Super Bowl 50. Since that time, the team has been in steady decline. Some decisions were made. Not all of them worked out. But now is not the time to live in the past. The Broncos are at a crossroads, where optimism for a better future is met with the desire to win right now. Which one of these competing emotions is going to win out this year? We're about to find out.
How the Broncos got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
-- Bradley Chubb fell to them in the draft. There were people who felt Chubb might have been the top prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. But two quarterbacks went in the top three picks (as expected). Saquon Barkley went to the Giants at No. 2 overall, and then the Browns sort of shocked the world with the No. 4 overall pick when they went with cornerback Denzel Ward, who is very good. But most expected the Browns to go with Chubb. Denver scooped him up with the fifth overall pick, and his future looks very bright after a 12-sack rookie season.
-- Phillip Lindsay was a big find. The undrafted running back wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but he was a stud for the Broncos. Third-round RB Royce Freeman had all of the buzz (at least, from fantasy dorks like me) last summer, but Lindsay turned heads in the preseason and was given the blessing from another No. 30, Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. Lindsay racked up 1,037 yards rushing, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, before he injured his wrist late in the season. He's missed some OTAs but is expected to be ready for camp.
-- Case Keenum was another quarterback miss for John Elway. The Broncos signed Keenum to a two-year deal worth $36 million coming off his career year with the Vikings, but things didn't go according to plan in Denver. He threw almost as many TDs (18) as INTs (15) and was shipped -- along with a seventh-round pick -- to the Redskins for a sixth-rounder in March.
-- Firing Vance Joseph after two seasons. There was a lot of optimism around the hiring of Joseph as head coach before the 2017 season, particularly regarding his defensive acumen. While the D finished third in the league in his first year on the job, it sank to 22nd in 2018, and the team couldn't find an answer at QB in either year. He led the Broncos to records of 5-11 and 6-10 before Elway pulled the plug.
-- Bradley Roby and Shane Ray did not develop into the players the Broncos had hoped for. Denver's first-round picks in 2014 (Roby) and 2015 (Ray) were allowed to walk this offseason after fizzling out in Denver. In fact, none of the team's first-round selections from 2013 to '16 are still on the roster. That's not good.
Head coach: Vic Fangio. Long considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, Fangio got his first opportunity as a head coach at 60 years old. That's a remarkable development for a league that has started giving head-coaching opportunities to guys in their early 30s, but there is no disregard for Fangio's pedigree as an NFL head coach. Good luck finding a rookie who has had as much success in the NFL.
The one thing, though: Adding a rookie quarterback (Drew Lock) to the mix with a veteran quarterback (Joe Flacco) could get tricky for a guy learning on the job.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco. Since we mentioned the quarterback position, let's talk about Flacco. The guy who lost his job to Lamar Jackson in Baltimore last season is tasked with getting the Broncos back to the playoffs. Flacco has everything Elway was looking for in a quarterback, in that he's won a lot of games in this league. And he's tall (6-foot-6). Everything about this current Broncos situation looks like it's one last stand, considering the way the NFL is moving. As other head coaches get younger, Elway has hired a 60-year-old rookie for the position. As quarterbacks get more mobile and shorter (as evidenced by Kyler Murray and his height deniers), Elway went out and got this generation's Drew Bledsoe. A less mobile version, at that.
It's the kind of thing you would expect to see in a movie script. An aging Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-executive is given one last chance to do it his way. So he brings in an old-school coach and quarterback to get it done. I'd have Randy Quaid as Elway. De Niro as Fangio. And hell, let's go big and go with Hugh Jackman as Flacco. Honestly, I'd pay to see that movie. I'm not sure I'd pay to watch them play football. But I've been wrong before.
Projected 2019 MVP: Von Miller, outside linebacker. He's still one of the best players in the game. He registered 14.5 sacks last season, his highest total since he had 18.5 in 2012. Here is my question about Miller, though: Would you ever consider moving on from him? We know the heat the Raiders took for trading away Khalil Mack last year. But Miller is 30. You have Chubb ready to take over. If you could get Mack-level value for Miller, would you not flip him to a contender? Honestly, are you a Super Bowl-caliber team right now? Loading up on a bevy of draft choices could be worth it. I'm not advocating for such a move, but it is something to think about.
2019 breakout candidate: Courtland Sutton, wide receiver. The 2018 second-round pick had a solid rookie campaign with 42 receptions for 704 yards and four touchdowns. Sutton recently told the Denver Post that he believes he's going to be doing a lot more work in the red zone. Sutton had just eight targets in the red zone last year, according to Next Gen Stats, but his target share should increase with Flacco at quarterback. DaeSean Hamilton also played well after Demaryius Thomas was traded away, making him another second-year receiver to watch.
Another new face to know: Noah Fant, tight end. The Broncos landed Fant with the 20th overall selection in this year's draft. And because he came from Iowa, the comparisons to last year's breakthrough tight end, George Kittle (also from Iowa), are probably inevitable. Fant becomes the first big-time receiving threat at the position for the Broncos since Julius Thomas left Denver in 2015. And if you look at Flacco's history of putting tight ends over in Baltimore (guys like Dennis Pitta), Fant could actually follow in Kittle's footsteps.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGHER THAN IT SHOULD BE (with a first-year head coach). Elway is under increased scrutiny as general manager after failing to make the playoffs in each of the past three seasons while playing musical chairs at quarterback.
Keep Chris Harris Jr. long-term? The Broncos will face a decision on the future of one of the top corners in the league after the season. Harris did get a nice bump in pay to return for this season. So the good news is, nobody was traded. Nobody held out. The situation has been handled. At least, for right now. But will Harris be there beyond 2019? And should they want to keep him long-term? The Broncos did bring in a pair of quality defensive backs during free agency: safety/CB Kareem Jackson and CB Bryce Callahan. The latter is regarded as one of the best slot corners in the league and thrived under Fangio when Fangio was defensive coordinator in Chicago. This trio could be pretty good.
Have a cohesive offensive game plan? The Broncos hired former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello as their new offensive coordinator. He has the right pedigree, or at least the right connection to the right name, having worked for Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan. Is it weird that, when you see Scangarello's 47 years old, you think he's too old for the job? If you aren't an OC by age 22, then your career is basically over. Another good point for Scangarello is that he spent time coaching up guys like Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard in San Francisco, so maybe he's not lying when he said he's looking forward to working with Flacco this season.
Keep improving the offensive line? The offensive line was in shambles a few years back and ranked just 24th in the league last season, per Pro Football Focus. Big changes were made to the group this offseason, and improvement is expected after the hiring of well-respected O-line coach Mike Munchak. The Broncos made a big splash when they signed Ja'Waun James in March. The deal made him the second-highest-paid right tackle in the league (behind the Raiders' Trent Brown), but James is still a young guy who fills a position of need. I mean, you would have liked to have gone bargain-basement, but sometimes you have to pay a little more. Like when your Lyft driver has to charge surge pricing. What can you do? Walk home?
Three key dates:
-- Week 7 vs. the Chiefs. Those Thursday night games can be brutal for rookie coaches. I don't know why I'm using the Cardinals as the example (probably because it's fresh in my mind), but they were blown out by the Broncos on Thursday night last year. Birds OC Mike McCoy was fired the day after the game. And Steve Wilks was fired at the end of the season. I'm not predicting a similar outcome here. But that's the kind of gravity these games can hold.
One storyline that people are overlooking:Last year's draft was actually pretty great. Elway gets raked for not being able to find a franchise quarterback after lucking into Peyton Manning's last few good years. But the 2018 draft class was outstanding. We've already mentioned Chubb, Sutton, Hamilton and Lindsay (who wasn't drafted, but whatever). Linebacker Josey Jewell is a real good player who figures to benefit from having Fangio as his head coach. Freeman and CB Isaac Yiadom could still develop into solid players.
One storyline people are overthinking:Elway's quarterback misfortunes. Because it stinks like complaining about "Game of Thrones" at this point. We get it. Give Lock a chance to prove himself, and then let's see where we're at.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Broncos MUST ...
-- Have Joe Flacco start at least 15 games. Here's what this means. If the Broncos are going to have a winning season, it's going to come with Flacco at the helm. There is an outside chance Lock could come in and have some rookie magic, like Lamar Jackson last year with the Ravens. It's probably best, however, if Lock takes some time to learn from the veteran from the sidelines. You want Lock to be in a position like Patrick Mahomes was during his rookie season with the Chiefs. He sat behind Alex Smith in 2017, started in Week 17 and then came out like a house on fire the following year. If the Broncos can get through a whole season with their veteran starter, then they can shake his hand and let him go heading into 2020. Keeping Lock off the field also buys you another year of something to look forward to down the road.
I came into this thinking that I wasn't excited about this Broncos team at all. But there are some really good things going on. This is going to be a year to develop talent, and it seems like 2020 is when they are really going to be able to make a jump. This is the NFL, though. It's not like we haven't seen a quarterback resurrect his career, and I'm a big Flacco fan. So this team could be in for a surprise run. But at the very least, the future is looking pretty good for the Broncos. For the first time in a while.