As we know, the Denver Broncos are coming off one of their worst defeats in years, a 51-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In some circles, panic has now set in, with people wanting to throw anybody and everybody under the bus for the Broncos’ struggles.
There were a couple of pieces written earlier this week that made me think about what’s really going on with the Broncos. Mike Tanier, in his Monday Morning Digest this week, called the Broncos an overrated team with bad quarterbacks. Chad Jensen of Mile High Huddle says the Broncos’ window of opportunity to reach a Super Bowl has been closed, mainly because the Broncos don’t have a good quarterback.
I do want to touch upon a few things each writer brought up, along with examining where things have really gone wrong for the Broncos in the past couple of seasons.
The Broncos Defense Can’t Carry The Team Any Longer
First, I believe Tanier’s remark about the Broncos being overrated depends on who you talk to. Some sites pegged the Broncos to be a six-win team, while others believed the Broncos might slip into the playoffs with improved play on offense. Now it appears those who have called the Broncos a six-win team were correct. Though the Broncos dominated against the Cowboys in Week Two, they haven’t come close to a dominant performance since.
The first part we need to look at is what’s going on with the defense. As we recall, the defense dominated in 2015 and was the biggest reason why the Broncos won the Super Bowl. But as history has shown, when a team has a dominant defense in one season, it’s hard to keep that up in ensuing seasons.
Just look at the Seattle Seahawks, who not only had the top-ranked defense in 2013, but were a dominant defense. Not only was Seattle ranked first in Football Outsiders DVOA defensive rankings, the DVOA was -25.9 percent (keep in mind, DVOA numbers for defense are better when they are negative, while for offense, better numbers are positive). That DVOA ranking made it clear that the Seahawks were dominant defensively. In 2014, the defense remained great, ranked first with -16.8 percent DVOA – though not a dominant season, still a great showing.
But in the next couple of years, that started to change. In 2015, Seattle was at -15.2% DVOA – still great, but below the level in 2014. And in 2016, Seattle’s D went down to -10.6% DVOA – a good defense but not a great one. Now, this year, through Week 9, the Seahawks are at -10.6% DVOA again. Though the Seahawks have played good defense the past two seasons, it’s far from the dominant unit it was in 2013 and not good enough on its own to get the Seahawks to the playoffs.
What allowed the Seahawks to remain a playoff contender in past years was not only did they play in a division in which their opponents have struggled in recent years (barring a couple of seasons in which the Cardinals and/or Niners were contending), but that the offense rose up the ranks to complement the defense. The DVOA metrics for the Seattle offense were 9.4% in 2013, 16.8% in 2014 and 18.7% in 2015 (and ranked first overall, too). So in that three-year stretch, the offense played well, and were even better after that dominant defensive year, so the Seahawks remained a playoff contender.
In 2016, however, the Seahawks offense dropped dramatically from 2015, going all the way down to -2.6% DVOA. Though Seattle made the playoffs, the team benefitted from a weak division. This year, the offense is at 3.1% DVOA, but the Seahawks are no longer the favorite to win the AFC West because the Los Angeles Rams have greatly improved. A wild-card spot isn’t out of the question, but it’s not guaranteed.
But a few things are clear with the Seahawks. First, the defense is no longer in the position to carry the team – and truth be told, it wasn’t doing that in those three years when the Seahawks were a bona fide Super Bowl contender, because the offense was doing its part. Second, the offense is faltering for various reasons, ranging from a bad offensive line that can’t run block or pass protect, to not having a running back who can change the dynamic of the offense, to not having a quality wide receiver beyond Doug Baldwin. Though Jimmy Graham has played well in the past, some might argue the Seahawks need better tight end play now. One thing Seattle doesn’t lack, though, is a quarterback. Were it not for Russell Wilson, the Seahawks would be talking about rebuilding more than they are talking about playoffs.
And that brings us back to the Broncos. Once again, let’s look at the DVOA for defense. We’ll start with 2013, in which the Broncos had a dominant offense at 33.5% DVOA, while the defense was at -0.2% DVOA. Thought the defense was merely average, it was good enough to complement the offense. We know the Broncos made the Super Bowl that year. In 2014, the Broncos were at -13.2% DVOA – a sign of a great defense. The offense was at 20% DVOA, so the Broncos remained a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and it’s understandable why John Elway was unhappy that the Broncos didn’t make it that far.
Then came 2015, when the Broncos had their dominant defense at -25.8%, which was more than enough to pick up the slack for a Broncos offense that fell to -8.7% DVOA. In 2016, the Broncos defense remained a great unit at -18.3% DVOA, but needed the offense to pick up some slack. That didn’t happen as the Broncos fell to -12.3% in offensive DVOA. This year, Denver is at -12.3% defensive DVOA through Week 9, so the defense is good, bordering on great, but can’t carry the team into the playoffs. So the offense needs to be at a level to complement the defense so the Broncos can get to the playoffs and that isn’t happening. But there’s the offense at -13.8% DVOA through Week 9. That’s nowhere near enough to make the Broncos a playoff contender.
Last year, the Broncos offense was closer to what the Seahawks offense is like this year, with an offensive line that couldn’t run block or pass protect well, no running back who is a game changer and a lack of receiver depth (though they were fine at No. 2 WR with Emmanuel Sanders). The two key differences, though, were that it lacked a tight end and a quality starting quarterback. This year, the run blocking by the O-line is better, but that’s the only improvement from last year. No tight end, poor pass protection, no running back who can change the game, wide receiver depth isn’t there and, once again, no quality starting quarterback. The improved run blocking wasn’t enough to make the offense better.
And when a weak offense is paired with a defense that’s good but not necessarily great, it is clear the Broncos are not a playoff contender this year and nobody should pretend otherwise.
The QB Approach After Peyton Manning Has Been Flawed
A competent quarterback, by himself, won’t turn the Broncos offense from a mediocre unit into a dominant unit. But it might get the offense closer to the Seahawks’ level this year, in which they at least are somewhat positive. That alone, though, doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, given that the Chiefs look very much like a playoff contender and the Raiders and Chargers, while not without their issues, are settled at quarterback for the time being. But it’s clear that the Broncos need to figure out whether or not their quarterback of the future is on the roster now. And because neither Trevor Siemian nor Brock Osweiler looks the part, that leaves us with Paxton Lynch.
Chad Jensen wrote that the Broncos should have rolled with Lynch last year as the starter and have been done with it. I don’t agree with that because the bulk of scouts indicated that Lynch was going to need development before he could start – though many indicated he’d be worth a late first-round pick. With that said, there is enough evidence to show that the Broncos haven’t done the best job of handling the quarterback position since Peyton Manning retired.
To begin with, John Elway was wrong to even think about offering the reported $15M APY salary to Brock Osweiler, even under a three-year deal. But it wasn’t a bad idea to obtatin Mark Sanchez and make the seventh-round pick for him conditional on him making the team. He wasn’t wrong to inquire about Colin Kaepernick, either, nor wrong to move up to draft Lynch and just surrender a third-round pick (along with that year’s first rounder, which everyone knew would have to be sent to move up) when he had a surplus of picks. Nor was it wrong to then go with Gary Kubiak’s plan of having a quarterback competition (Kaepernick was out of the picture once the Broncos drafted Lynch) but lean toward letting Lynch develop on the bench if possible. That approach was similar to what the Bengals did when they drafted Carson Palmer – the Bengals rolled with Jon Kitna as the starter and would keep going with him as long as he played well, even though they knew Kitna wasn’t the long-term guy.
But where the Broncos and Bengals differed was what happened after the first season with that QB as the starter. After the Bengals finished that 2003 season with an 8-8 record and a season in which they had a chance to win the AFC North with three games left, head coach Marvin Lewis announced that Palmer would be the starter next year, no questions asked. It’s true the Bengals were rebuilding at that point, but that they came close to winning the division did not change Lewis’ plans.
Regarding the Broncos, it’s true they had a chance to make the playoffs and were in the running for the division down the stretch, but they still should have remembered that they spent a first-round pick on Lynch for a reason and needed to commit to him. Instead, Kubiak resigned and the story differs as to why he did, but there were suggestions that Kubiak was too loyal to Siemian while Elway wanted to see what Lynch could do in the season finale.
I don’t know how much truth there is to those suggestions. But if it was true Elway wanted to see more of Lynch, he should have indicated to his new coaching staff that Lynch was to be named the starter and they were to do what they could to get him ready. But that is not what happened. Instead, Elway appeared to be chasing after Tony Romo in hopes of another quick fix. When Romo decided to retire, Elway then fell into the same trap that the coaches appeared to have, in believing a QB competition was best for everyone, while approaching things as if the offense just need a few players to get back into the playoffs.
Manning’s departure left a void that was going to be hard to replace, no matter what they did. But when they spent the first-round pick on Lynch, they needed to roll with him as the starter by his second year. Had they done that, they could have traded Siemian if he wanted to play elsewhere – at least in a draft-day move similar to what they did with the Niners when they sent Kapri Bibbs in an exchange of draft picks. They could have signed a veteran QB to be the backup and, assuming they still drafted Chad Kelly and signed Kyle Sloter as an undrafted rookie free agent, would have two options for the third stringer.
Instead, not only did Lynch get dealt a blow when Siemian beat him for the job, but he got injured and was set back with his development. As we know, Siemian failed to show he could be the long-term starter. Then the Broncos fell into the trap of wanting a veteran backup when Lynch got hurt. It cost them Sloter who, while there’s no guarantee he would have been the long-term guy, might have at least been a capable backup or, if the Broncos had just named Lynch the starter before the draft, stuck around as the third-string guy.
So what if you went down that road with making Lynch the unquestioned starter going into 2017 and he faltered? Answer: You go back to the draft and try again. I know that’s frustrating, but better to figure out if that high pick you spent will work out rather than waste time on a player who, while he did a few things well, wasn’t drafted with the intent of being the long-term guy. It was one thing when Osweiler sat on the bench while Peyton Manning played well. It’s another when Lynch is on the bench when Siemian, while not entirely at fault, isn’t playing well. It’s easy to blame other factors, but Siemian’s full sample size makes it clear he’s not the long-term guy.
And it certainly would have been better than just chasing after the latest aging quarterback who wants, or thinks he wants, one more great run. At some point, you have to roll with a draft pick you develop and don’t turn yourself into a team that gives every potential Hall of Fame QB their last shot at a Super Bowl ring.
Bad Personnel Decisions Have Further Hurt The Offense
Of course, QB issues aren’t the only problem the Broncos have had when it comes to building an offense post-Peyton Manning. Much of this goes back to first- to third-round picks that have been used on offensive players that haven’t worked out. I stick with those three rounds because those are the rounds in which you want to find starters for at least the short term. Think of it this way: First-round picks are players you want to play well beyond their rookie contracts and, the higher the pick, the more you want them to be elite players. Second-round picks are players you want to start for at least three years of their rookie deal and get strong consideration for extensions, though you may not do so if other players you’ve developed prove more worthy of them. Third-round picks should be starters for at least the final two seasons of their rookie deals, but you may not extend them because the salary cap may prevent you from doing so or the aforementioned factor of other players developing and becoming better options to retain.
So how has that worked out for the Broncos? Not so well. Sticking with offense only, 2011 draft pick Orlando Franklin was a quality starter but wasn’t extended because Chris Harris, a defensive player who was an undrafted rookie free agent, came along. In 2012, Osweiler was taken in the second round and time has proved he’s not a long-term starting QB. Third-round pick Ronnie Hillman didn’t show enough to be a running back worth featuring in the rotation. 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball was a draft bust. In 2014, Michael Schofield was the third-round pick and he was waived earlier this year, while the Broncos traded up in the second round for Cody Latimer and, while he is a good special teams player, that’s not what you want from a second-round pick. Ty Sambrailo, a 2015 second-round pick, didn’t develop as expected and 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman remains buried on the depth chart. People can say what they want about how these players were developed, but the bottom line is nearly all of these picks didn’t prove to be worthy of at least extending beyond their rookie deals, barring Franklin and maybe Latimer, but with the latter, that’s as a special teams player, not as a starting receiver.
Elway has had a couple of instances where late-round offensive picks worked out, such as center Matt Paradis, but he’s still had to explore free agency to fill other holes on offense. In the past, he did reasonably well with Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. More recently, he had a good find in guard Ronald Leary. But his free agency adventures with the right tackle position have been terrible. Both Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson were given multi-year deals for top starter money simply because they fit what the coaching staffs at the time wanted in offensive linemen. They each had a small sample size of starts and looked like nothing more than depth players. Signing these players to one-year deals, or at the very least, to two-year deals that pay a small sum the first year with the promise of a bigger salary the next year but allowed the Broncos to cut them without much dead money, would have been better. But the way Elway structured the deals, he was effectively stuck with Stephenson for another year and is likely stuck with Watson for another year, now that he’s ended his season on injured reserve and his 2018 salary becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of that league year. If they attempt to cut Watson before the guarantee kicks in, they may have to pay an injury settlement.
All of this has led to the Broncos’ current predicament, in which it is clear they don’t have an offense that is going to get them back into the playoffs – and certainly not the Super Bowl – until they recognize that they need to do more rebuilding than reloading. That doesn’t mean you blow up the entire offense, alongside the entire defense, as Jensen seemed to imply. But it does mean you need to accept that you are starting closer to square one with the offense, while examining the defense to figure out who it may be time to part ways with so you are in a better cap position to address the offense.
What The Broncos Need To Do At QB
So where do the Broncos start? First thing is if the Broncos lose to the Patriots this week, they need to start Paxton Lynch against the Bengals and be done with it. Enough with believing you can make the playoffs – if you lose to the Patriots, the playoff talk needs to end. And enough with the talk about Lynch’s mental readiness – the only way to settle the argument about Lynch, once and for all, is to play him, just like the Broncos needed to play Tim Tebow to settle that argument. Elway didn’t draft Tebow, but John Fox still went with him rather than Brady Quinn, the veteran who had a few starts under his belt but clearly wasn’t the future of the franchise. While Elway may not have wanted to play Tebow, I believe he knew that Tebow had to play so that matter could be settled. And even though the Broncos made the playoffs with Tebow at quarterback, his overall play proved he wasn’t going to be the long-term solution. The playoff win against the Steelers was not justification when he struggled in other games.
But back to Lynch, because Elway spent the first-round pick on him, he needs to see what Lynch has on the football field, not just in practice, so Elway can make a final decision. If Lynch looks competent enough – say, like he could be at Alex Smith’s level – you keep him next year, sign a cheap veteran to be the backup and consider drafting a QB in round three or four, in case Lynch should regress. If Lynch doesn’t look competent, even if the Broncos manage to slip into the playoffs, you switch to drafting a QB in the first or second round with the plan to make him the long-term guy. And regarding Lynch in that case, you can keep him to see if he could at least be the backup, but part ways if you’d rather go with the veteran and have Chad Kelly as the third-stringer. As for Siemian, you can still try to deal him in an exchange of picks like the aforementioned move with Kapri Bibbs.
As far as free agency goes, signing a QB in free agency is a risky proposition given the other issues on offense. The only QB I might consider at this point is Kirk Cousins, and even then, I’m not willing to break the bank for him. He would certainly be an upgrade over any Broncos’ quarterback, but is he worth up to $30M per year when he has just one playoff trip so far? QBs who appeared in Super Bowls, such as Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, signed for less than $22M APY. Even Joe Flacco, who has a Super Bowl appearance, got $22.1M APY when he restructured his deal (though we all know his play has sharply declined in recent seasons). Andrew Luck got $24.5M APY, though you could justify it based on his level of play – but as we saw, the Colts failed to build the rest of the team around him and, thanks largely to injuries, his future with the team is in doubt. And since Luck’s contract, you have Derek Carr getting $25M APY after having just one playoff trip (though he didn’t play because of an injury, so you can’t pin the playoff loss on him) and Matthew Stafford getting $27M APY despite never winning a playoff game.
If the Broncos were to chase after Cousins and pay him close to $30M APY, that’s taking up a lot of cap space in 2018 and years beyond when they have some younger players who may be worth keeping. If Bradley Roby proves worth extending, you need cap space for that. Same with either Shaquil Barrett or Shane Ray, depending on who you keep (more on that later). Matt Paradis will get a restricted free agent tender next year, but he may be due for an extension after that. And you can’t just draft everybody else and expect your problems are solved – you want your picks on the first two days to work out, but you need more than that and those taken in later rounds are more likely to take time to develop than contribute right away. And based on basic calculations I did at Over the Cap, there still may not be enough cap space to give big money to a quarterback, plus add other free agents, plus extend other players on your roster who are worth retaining.
Given those factors, the Broncos can’t afford to jump into the free agent frenzy for quarterbacks, and they especially can’t do it when they would have to hope that QB reaches at least Wilson’s level to overcome those other issues. And that still doesn’t guarantee a playoff trip when the Broncos are clearly not in a weak division.
So they shouldn’t chase after Cousins if the asking price gets too high. They cannot, under any circumstance, go after Drew Brees when there’s no guarantee how much longer he’ll play (all while maybe having to throw $30M APY his way). The time has come to stop chasing QBs looking for that final moment of glory. And they can’t toss $15M or more at Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater or whatever current Vikings QB is looking to collect a big payday. I know I talked about some of those QBs a few weeks back, but I’ll say it right now: I was wrong to consider it. The Broncos can’t chase a big name QB in free agency unless Cousins will take less money than Carr or Stafford. They need to be realistic and focus instead on building a team around a draft pick, whether that’s Lynch or somebody else they draft early in 2018.
Approaching The Rest Of The Offense
The real approach in free agency needs to go like this: Focus on the other offensive positions at which you either need a replacement or an upgrade. The definite areas of replacement on offense are right tackle, offensive guard (either left or right, because Ronald Leary has shown he can handle either side) and tight end. For upgrades, they can consider a running back if they’d rather have a player who can carry the load. They also need to take a hard look at wide receiver to figure out what to do there.
The Broncos need to pick one position to spend the most money and ensure that’s a proven, quality starter with a large sample size of starts. I would personally go with offensive guard because that’s where the best players are likely to be available, but if you can’t land a guard, I would consider a running back who can change the dynamic of the offense or perhaps a wide receiver (though in both instances, I would be careful how much you pay). The right tackle options will be thin, so that’s where they should only consider one-year deals. There will be a few notable names at tight end, but better to stick with a one-year “prove it” deal for somebody who is in the prime of his career but who is either coming off an injury or may not be a top option, with the idea that you could extend him if he proves worthy of sticking around.
There are going to be some players whose future with the Broncos will be in doubt. Donald Stephenson is an obvious call. With Menelik Watson, though, it’s not that simple. Because he ended his season on IR, the Broncos may have to keep him on the roster. I don’t think it’s possible to cut him with an injury settlement given the way his contract is structured, in which his salary becomes guaranteed when he’s on the roster on the fifth day of the 2018 league year. You could try to trade him, but who knows if the Broncos could get anything for him.
But others could be let go. CJ Anderson is due $4.5M in salary next season and, while he’s played well at times, he’s clearly not a back who can change the dynamic of the offense. He should at least be approached about converting some of his salary into incentives. Because his salary isn’t guaranteed and there’s no dead money if he’s cut, the Broncos can take their time in finding a replacement if he won’t accept a pay cut. Given that Devontae Booker has made progress this season, I’d keep him around, at least to be a rotational back. He was a fourth-round pick and, as I’ve said other times before, it’s OK for a fourth-round pick to be a rotational player. The Broncos still have DeAngelo Henderson, who again looks like he can be a rotational player, which is fine for a sixth-round pick.
At wide receiver, I believe the Broncos need to exercise the option on Demaryius Thomas’ deal because he is a proven No. 1 wide receiver who can be a part of a rebuilt offense and, even if his numbers don’t suggest it this year, keeps playing at a high level. Emmanuel Sanders is trickier – he’s done good things but I’m not sure if he’s worth keeping. He’s due an $8.1M salary with at least $6.9M of that an injury-only guarantee, so getting him to convert salary into incentives may not be possible. Perhaps the Broncos can trade him, given that his full salary is reasonable for a team who wants to try him out for a year. I don’t see the Broncos retaining Bennie Fowler on the right-of-first-refusal restricted free agent tender, though it remains to be seen how much that tender will cost. Cody Latimer would be fine to bring back on a cheap deal for his special teams play, but as a wide receiver, it’s clear he’s depth at best. If they decide to move on from Sanders, they will definitely need to consider free agent WRs, but they can’t overspend.
When the draft comes, along with whatever decision is made at quarterback, they will need to draft an offensive lineman who can play right tackle, find running back and wide receiver depth and, if they don’t add a tight end in free agency, draft one. The Broncos will have nine draft picks for sure and might gain a comp pick for Russell Okung. That should give them enough picks to address the offense – all they need to do is a good job of scouting and finding the players who will fit well around whoever they go with as quarterback, be it Lynch or another draft pick. That Garett Bolles looks like he will be a good player may be a sign that the Broncos are doing a better job scouting for what they need on offense.
Some Tough Decisions Coming On Defense
Switching to the defense, I don’t think the Broncos need to cut ties with every single player, but there are still tough choices to make. Jensen suggested parting ways with Brandon Marshall, but they’d only free up $1M in cap space with a $6M dead money charge whether they cut or trade him (barring a post-June 1 cut). Marshall will be 29 years old next year, so he’ll still be in his prime. Thus, it makes no sense to part ways with him after this season. Darian Stewart is another player who the Broncos won’t gain much cap space by cutting or trading – he’ll leave a $4.2M dead money charge with just $1.7M in cap space freed. Stewart will be 30 years old next year, though, so 2018 might be his last year with the team.
Aqib Talib, another player Jensen suggested moving on from, is in a different situation. Talib will be 32 next year and due $11M in non-guaranteed salary. While he hasn’t been terrible this year, he’s not playing as well as he did last year. His salary makes him difficult to trade, so it’s for the best for the Broncos to cut him before free agency starts, unless he’s willing to take a pay cut. He’ll only account for a $1M dead money charge if cut, so there’s no cap issue with doing that. I know Bradley Roby has been inconsistent, but better to roll with him as the No. 2 cornerback next year and see what he can do.
Also, the Broncos will need to make decisions regarding Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. Ray will enter the final year of his rookie deal unless the Broncos exercise the fifth-year option, while Barrett will be a restricted free agent. Simply put, given the issues the Broncos have on offense, they cannot afford to keep both. So they need to figure out who they wish to keep for the long term, then trade the other while his value is still high. Either one should be able to fetch at least a second-round pick in 2018 and might yield a 2019 pick alongside it.
As for the rest of defense, I agree with Jensen that the Broncos need to get younger, which means they should avoid free agents who are 30 years or older for the most part. That means people need to accept that it’s better to sign Todd Davis to a second-tier deal (assuming he will accept such a deal) than paying money to an aging free agent. Notable names such as Paul Posluszny, NaVorro Bowman and Karlos Dansby are all going to be at least 30 years old next year and you want the Broncos to focus on players who are young or in their primes, not those closer to exiting their primes. Players such as Zach Brown and Kevin Minter, who are younger, can be considered, but they need to get second-tier money just as you would pay Davis because they aren’t that much better than him.
There will be a few defensive areas to address – inside linebacker regardless of whether or not they keep Davis (because the Broncos still need depth), outside linebacker depth and a cornerback if they cut Talib. In no case, though, should they overspend in free agency on those positions. There will still be enough draft picks to fill those needs along with the offense.
It’s clear the Broncos need to stop acting like that a tweak here and there is going to get them back to the playoffs because the defense can carry them there. Fans need to stop pretending that a playoff trip is just around the corner, too. It’s time for everyone to step back, accept that the Broncos need to figure out if Lynch is the answer or not, and if not, go back to the draft and don’t get crazy with signing free agents. Be patient with building that offense, do a better job with drafting and they’ll set themselves up better to be not only a playoff contender again, but be in better position to contend for a Super Bowl.
In the coming weeks, I’ll do a more detailed examination of what the Broncos could do at positions other than quarterback that will need to be addressed in some form, which will lead to putting together a 2018 offseason checklist.