State of the Franchise: Drew Lock, Denver Broncos playoff-bound

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Denver Broncos organization, Broncos fans around the world and those of you who feel like the Broncos should really rock their Color Rush uniforms and throwback helmets all the time:

Super Bowl 50 feels like a distant memory after the last four seasons. An organization that had enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at quarterback for years -- all-time greats like John Elway and Jay Cutler (I guess Peyton Manning wasn't bad, either) -- has struggled to address that position since claiming the Lombardi Trophy back in February 2016. But there's hope on the horizon. Denver looks like it has its QB of the future. And not a moment too soon, as the division rival Chiefs -- and their phenom, Patrick Mahomes -- enter the 2020 season as the reigning champs.

How the Broncos got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The lows (Yeah, we're switching things up and talking about the lows to start here.):

  • Joe Flacco.
  • Rough start to the season. The Broncos opened the campaign by taking a punch to the gut, losing their first four games. The walk-off loss to the Bears in Week 2? I mean, imagine being poor Vic Fangio, who was coming off a playoff exit in Chicago that was caused by a bad kick, only to be undone by Eddy Pineiro's winner at Mile High in controversial fashion. Then there was the 2-point Week 4 loss at home to Gardner Minshew and Co., despite sacking the rookie five times.

The highs:

  • Drew Lock.
  • Momentum-building finish. The Broncos won four of their last five games, including one on the road against the eventual AFC South-champion Texans. They created optimism heading into this season. Let's jump into that.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Vic Fangio. The longtime defensive coordinator finally got a chance to be a head coach last season, and after stumbling out of the gate, the Broncos closed strong, going 4-1 down the stretch (their best record in the final five games of a season since 2014). And Denver's overall record (7-9) was its best since 2016. But if I'm going to give Fangio credit for the team's late season success, I also have to recognize how hurtful and misguided he was when he reecently commented that he didn't think the NFL had a discrimination problem, saying "I don't see racism at all in the NFL. I don't see discrimination in the NFL." Fangio later apologized for his remarks, adding, "After reflecting on my comments yesterday and listening to the players this morning, I realize what I said regarding racism and discrimination in the NFL was wrong."

The Broncos have a team brimming with talent that could make a legit run to the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl-winning season in 2015. How he manages this situation, and the actions he takes to back up his apology (he's already participated with players in a protest march), might be more important than any decision he makes on the field in 2020. In addition to handling that fallout, he'll need to work with new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to elevate the Broncos' offense, which finished 28th in total scoring and passing last year and were terrible on third down. There is a lot the Broncos need to improve upon on the offensive side of the ball. But there is a lot to look forward to because of this guy right here ...

Quarterback: Drew Lock. I know I shouldn't go overboard on the final five games of the season, but there was a lot to like. Lock has the look of a young Matthew Stafford out there. And, as noted above, if Elway has indeed fixed this one part of the team, it would be huge for the franchise and for him personally. The Broncos' poor QB play during the past several seasons really has to weigh on him heavily. Here's Elway, one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever known, who's missed repeatedly at stabilizing the position. It's like if every time Gordan Ramsey tried to open a restaurant, it was quickly shut down. And not only shut down, but in embarrassing fashion due to terribly cooked food. I don't know who the chef equivalent of Paxton Lynch would be, but that person is certainly someone I would never want preparing me dinner.

The one game that really sticks out to me from Lock's rookie season was the road win against the Texans in Week 14. I mean, it would be one thing if he was winning home games against a weak team like the Lions down the stretch. (Checks notes, sees they did beat the Lions at home.) But Lock went down to Houston and put up a 136.0 passer rating (22 of 27 for 309 yards and 3 TDs) and 38 points on the playoff-bound Texans. It was a pretty impressive showing.

Of course, it's that type of performance that has led to so much hype around the second-year passer. Well, and the fact that the Broncos invested a ton to make sure he has enough talent around him this season. Last year's late run of success is both a blessing and a curse for Lock. While it's given Broncos faithful hope, it also has raised their expectations. I believe he's up to that challenge.

Projected 2020 MVP: Von Miller, edge. Picking Miller seems a little easy. But he is the right choice. Miller had single-digit sacks (8) for the first time since his injury-shortened 2013 campaign. And coming into his age-31 season, it's reasonable to think we've seen the best of Miller already. But even the current version of the three-time All-Pro is still pretty damn good. He's still in PFF's list of the Top 50 players in the game right now. I could see him starting to take on that older statesmen role for the Broncos defense. The guy who still commands the attention of opposing defensive coordinators even if he's not the primary concern. Like when you were younger and you were trying to sneak a flask into a concert. You'd send a buddy ahead of you to cause a scene, while you just sort of skirted by security. Miller is now that guy causing the raucous while some of the young bucks, like Bradley Chubb, can get after the quarterback.

2020 breakout star: Noah Fant, tight end. Many thought Fant was a player to watch last year because Joe Flacco loved his tight ends. And even though Fant was a rookie, many people expected big things from the 6-foot-4 pass catcher. He was good at times. but really didn't start coming along until after Flacco was out of the lineup. Fant had his first 100-yard game of the season against the Browns with Brandon Allen at quarterback. And then 10 targets ... with Brandon Allen at quarterback. But we like him a lot this year. Obviously he will be competing for passes with a bunch of receivers the Broncos brought in this offseason (we'll get to that more in a moment). But having viable targets on the perimeter should open things up for Fant over the middle.

New face to know: Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle. The Broncos acquired the five-time Pro Bowler for a seventh-round draft choice in March. I guess I missed the memo from the Titans stating they were just giving away their best defenders. Tennessee made the move for salary cap purposes, because sometimes you just have to pay huge money to a quarterback who had one great season and a running back who's had like 1,000 carries the past two years. With Casey set to team with Miller, Chubb and Shelby Harris, the Broncos now boast one of the league's most formidable front sevens to go along with a solid secondary. Casey is the perfect guy to slide into the 5-technique in Ed Donatell's unit.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. There's certainly enough talent on this team for the Broncos to snap their three-season losing streak. For a franchise that's comes to expect sustained success, hard to imagine another campaign ending without a playoff berth -- especially now that there's an extra spot -- sitting well in the Mile High City.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Tennessee Titans. The Broncos have a pretty tough opener, with this Monday night test against the Titans -- a team they shut out last year. And then they follow that up with a trip to Pittsburgh before returning home to see old nemesis Tom Brady in a new uniform. The Broncos need to secure a win to start the season.
  • Week 5 at New England Patriots. Speaking of Brady ... this matchup against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium is still a big one even without No. 12 in the mix. I'm sure Broncos fans will especially want to see Drew Lock light up Belichick's bunch. Or maybe not. I won't want speak for them (more than I already am).
  • Week 7 vs. Kansas City Chiefs. The first chance to face the defending champions (the Broncos are in K.C. in Week 13). I mean, do I need to state the obvious here? You didn't need to say that out loud, I can't hear you.

Will the Broncos be able to ...

Slow down the Chiefs' passing game? Not to be overdramatic, because the Chiefs get to everyone, but Denver needs to have everything buttoned up on the back end before that Week 7 clash. The Broncos finished 11th in passing defense last year but allowed Matt Moore and Patrick Mahomes to combine for a 73.4 completion percentage, 533 yards, 4 TDs and a 112.3 passer rating. Oh, and they were outscore 53-9 in those two games. I mean, it's the Chiefs, so not totally terrible. But there will undoubtedly be some changes for the Broncos when they see each other this season.

Chris Harris Jr. is now a member of the Los Angeles Chargers. And that is going to be weird to see. But he was replaced with A.J. Bouye, a slightly younger, slightly better-valued version of Harris. It's like replacing an older Toyota Camry with a newer Corolla, and all it cost was the spare change in your cupholder (the fourth-rounder gained from the Emmanuel Sanders trade).

Make it work with Melvin Gordon and Philip Lindsay? Sometimes it's tough to distinguish between a real-life football problem and a fantasy football problem. Like, are you mad that Lindsay will be sharing carries with Gordon because you think Lindsay is that much better or because you have Lindsay in your dynasty league and you were banking on him getting 300 carries this season? The first thing we have to recognize is that there is a new offensive coordinator in Denver: Pat Shurmur, a guy who is probably going to be more-aggressive this year. Shurmur has been an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator in each of the past 11 seasons (interim stints included). His teams ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts three times. The latest coming in 2017 when the Vikings were second. That stint in Minnesota could prove to be telling because Shurmur was dialing up plays for an old-school former defensive coordinator turned head coach.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see where the split comes. You could reason Gordon didn't sign a two-year deal just to play the Chargers twice per and then take a seat on the bench for the other 28 games. (Or maybe he did. I can certainly respect that level of pettiness.) As we all know, Lindsay has been counted out before, entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. But he's had more than 400 carries in his first-two seasons combined. Betting against him is like betting against the Undertaker at WrestleMania. You just don't do that.

Juggle all of this great talent on offense? It goes beyond the situation with Lindsay and Gordon. The Broncos are loaded at the receiver position. Denver drafted two studs to go along with Courtland Sutton. First-rounder Jerry Jeudy was considered by some NFL draft insiders to be the best receiver of a very deep class. Everyone remembers his 200-plus receiving yards against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. But people also low-key loved the KJ Hamler pick (No. 46 overall). And like Jeudy, Hamler roasted Michigan last year (108 yards and two touchdowns). You look at all of that and you have to remember my guy DaeSean Hamilton is still there even though nobody remembers him anymore. I mean, they were calling him Bae-Sean last year. The Broncos have all of this talent, and I already told you how much I love Noah. With Mel Gordon factoring into the passing game more this year, too ... Good luck spreading the ball around to make sure everyone eats, Drew.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The offensive line was addressed in the offseason, too. The Broncos' offensive line wasn't bad last season. Free-agent signing Ja'Wuan James was limited to just three games because of injury, but he should be back at right tackle this season. The team also added dependable Graham Glasgow (who sounds more like an NXT superstar, who would eventually just go by the name Glasgow). He has the ability to play multiple positions on the line, but figures to be at right guard with rookie third-round pick Lloyd Cushenberry playing center. And does it need to be pointed out just how many 2019 LSU Tigers are going to be NFL starters this season?

... another storyline people are overlooking: How great this roster looks top to bottom. I know I'm as big a part of the problem as anybody, considering I spent so much energy earlier talking about the quarterback. But Elway has done an excellent job addressing the team's other needs, as well. Just look at the skill players. The line. And some subtle adjustments on defense. I was really impressed with the Broncos GM on draft night. He did a great job of reading the room. He didn't panic or make any knee-jerk decisions. And all of a sudden, Jeudy fell to him at No. 15 overall. He added the Broncos' center for the next decade in the third round. He really does a great job in the draft. But jerks like me always point out the failures at quarterback. Elway is the Leonardo DiCaprio of GMs. But instead of celebrating him for all of his great movies, you just want to talk about "The Beach."

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Broncos MUST:

See progression from Drew Lock. I'm not saying that Broncos fans will be happy to miss the playoffs as long as Lock plays well. But having the quarterback position firmly settled would go a long way. But then again, going to the playoffs is important, too. Lock was not a first-round pick, which means the Broncos won't have the benefit of a team friendly fifth-year option. Thus, for the Broncos to take advantage of the rookie QB model (build a talented roster around a promising young, inexpensive QB), they need to make the playoffs this season. And yes, I realize I just talked myself into a circle.

In closing

I made some predictions on the Broncos last year, and it was about even. I said Joe Flacco wouldn't work out and they wouldn't make the playoffs. I was right on both. But the Broncos did finish second in the division and weren't that far from the playoffs. If I might make a bold call for this season (and I will, because this is my series) the Broncos are going to make the playoffs in 2020. They've been building toward this, and it's time to get back to their winning ways.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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