There Is No Rebuild, Only Churn

Friends of the community Bob Morris and Doc Bear say it’s time for the Broncos to rebuild, and they’re likely not the only ones to use that word today. With the place the Broncos are at now, this provides an opportunity for me to explore why I’m not fond of the term “rebuild”, at least how it’s used. At best, I feel that it’s overused, and at worst I feel it’s used as a pejorative to mask what happens to every NFL team, good or bad, throughout their existence. Instead of rosters dramatically being erected and torn down at once, I feel it’s more accurate to say that rosters regularly “churn”, in small but steadier spurts of rise or decline. This churn is an inevitable part of NFL rosters, due to the brutal injury nature of the sport creating shorter careers than other sports, and also due to the rules of free agency and the salary cap.

The Broncos have experienced this churning just like any other team else has, and it’s worthwhile to look further into how it has done so.

What if I told you that John Elway has already “rebuilt” the Broncos by:  a) successfully handing over running back duties from veterans to younger players (including an undrafted free agent); b) replaced a fan favorite starter at wide receiver with someone with more future potential; c) made a major upgrade at edge rusher; d) found a potential solid and young inside linebacker; e) got a reinforcement at safety, and; f) shipped out a stalwart starting cornerback in favor of both a free agent acquisition and increasing opportunities for Bradley Roby?

You’re probably thinking that I’m referring to the changes the Broncos made this year, with a) referring to Royce Freeman and (the parenthetical referring to) Phillip Lindsay replacing CJ Anderson, b) to Courtland Sutton replacing Demaryius Thomas, c) to drafting Bradley Chubb, d) to drafting Josey Jewell, e) to trading for Su’a Cravens, and f) to trading Aqib Talib, signing Tramaine Brock, and moving Roby up to the #2 CB position.

But I’m not referring to 2018. I’m referring to 2014, well known as one of Elway’s finest years at general manager.

a) refers to Ronnie Hillman and (the parenthetical referring to) Anderson replacing Knowshon Moreno, b) to Emmanuel Sanders replacing Eric Decker, c) to signing DeMarcus Ware, d) to signing Brandon Marshall as a low level street free agent, e) to signing TJ Ward, and f) to letting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie walk in free agency in favor of signing Talib and drafting Roby.

The churn of the roster was equally at work in scale in both 2014 and 2018. But also note that those churns came off two dramatically different prior seasons. In 2013, the Broncos were AFC Champions; in 2017 they earned the 5th overall pick. But common observation would likely classify 2014 something more like a “reload”, and 2018 more as a “rebuild”–and perhaps an incomplete one at that.

But here’s the deal: due to the very nature of the NFL, both churns were going to happen, whether the Broncos wanted to do them or not. By 2014, Moreno likely reached his career peak, players like Decker and Rodgers-Cromartie (as well as Zane Beadles) were going to get paid more than their talent merited, and Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers were not going to be long term answers at edge rusher. Similarly, by 2018 Anderson likely reached his career peak, Thomas may be paid more than his current talent merited, and Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett were not going to be long term answers at edge rusher.

There are of course differences between the two years, and we certainly shouldn’t yet place 2018’s roster churning on equal footing with the established success of 2014. Nor should we exculpate Elway for mistakes made in the past. Poor roster decisions in 2016 and 2017 in particular show the churn pushing the Broncos toward decline than rise in those years, of which he now must work better to make up for. Nor does this exculpate Vance Joseph, who may not be the head coach of the team much longer if he can’t string together enough wins soon enough.

But it’s important to recognize that Elway does have a good track record, and the Broncos are far from helpless. Yes, the Broncos need improvement at some positions in order to regularly contend, and at the time being I’d mark those, at varying levels, at quarterback, tight end, offensive line, and cornerback. Elway and company need to do a better job to make those improvements.

But before we declare mass hysteria and begin player sacrifice, note that they should also be set at running back and edge rusher for years to come, and should have good depth at wide receiver, defensive line, inside linebacker, and safety for the short to medium term.  Proof of that may come in advanced metrics showing positive change for Denver, plus the simpler observation that if you just added one touchdown in three of their games, they’re 6-3 instead of 3-6.

There will be roster churning in 2019, and there will be plenty of time to talk about that in more detail. But I anticipate that it will not be different in scale from other past offseasons. Keep that in mind if we as the football observing collective are tempted to throw out the dreaded R-word for whatever changes lie ahead in Denver. It could instead be more of what is banal operations in the NFL for any team.

I’ll close this by saying that if you really want to see instances of over the top changes to a roster that go beyond natural roster churning, point that arrow at the Oakland Raiders. Reggie McKenzie did it in 2012 taking over for the mess Al Davis left, and Jon Gruden in 2018 is doing it now for…reasons.