The Denver Broncos have been very busy this offseason. Coming off a 5-11 record last season, in which the offense looked hapless, John Elway knew he needed to make some serious changes.
The Broncos haven’t had two consecutive losing seasons since the 1971-1972 seasons, by far the longest streak in the NFL. The standards in Denver are as high as they get. So how could the Broncos turn things around in one offseason and get back atop the AFC West?
Since Elway took over as GM of the Broncos, the team has changed its formula several times. With the addition of Peyton Manning in 2012, Denver immediately became an offensive force. The high powered-offense led them to the Super Bowl, only to get crushed by the shutdown defense of the Seattle Seahawks.
So Elway flipped the script. He loaded up on defensive talent in the offseason, and transformed the team into a defensive machine. Led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware getting to the quarterback, and a stout secondary that included Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, the Broncos once again made it to the Super Bowl a couple years later. But this time, they were the ones with the ferocious defense that came out and shut down Cam Newton and the number one offense in the league. Elway had successfully led the team to its first Championship since 1998, when the quarterback of the team was… Elway himself.
Fast forward to 2018, when the Broncos selected Bradley Chubb with the fifth pick in the NFL draft. Chubb is still a rookie, but a talented one at that. The combination of him with Von Miller, Shane Ray, and Shaquil Barrett will create what likely is the best pass rush in the NFL on paper. In the secondary, the Broncos still have one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Chris Harris. Bradley Roby has also become a big time playmaker. This team has many other strong contributors in Brandon Marshall and Derrek Wolfe, which many other teams would love to have.
So if the defense can regain their championship form, this team can go places. A great defense can make any team a contender. Last season, the suddenly vaunted Jacksonville Jaguars defense led the team to the AFC Championship game. Despite its record last season, the Broncos defense was third in the league in opponents yards per game at 290.0, behind only the Vikings and Jaguars.
The question for Denver will not be about the defense. But did the Broncos do enough on offense, to get the team to the next level?
The most glaring need on this team last season was competent quarterback play. There was no consistency at QB for Denver, with Trevor Siemian struggling to perform at a high level. As he has done in the past (pursuing Peyton Manning in 2012), Elway was aggressive in free agency. While Kirk Cousins was the prized asset on the market, the Broncos looked to Case Keenum as the consolation prize. And if he plays like he did last season for the Vikings, the Broncos would feel like the real winners here.
If Keenum is able to play well in Denver, the team will stand a strong chance to make great strides in the win column. He theoretically comes in to a good situation, with two proven receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Each of them (or both) is capable of putting up a 1,000 yard season.
The Broncos likely won’t ask Keenum to do too much. In all likelihood, Denver will try to establish the run most games. That would explain the team using its third round draft pick on running back Royce Freeman from Oregon. Freeman is a bruising runner, who fits the mold of what the Broncos want to do on offense – run over their opponents. While CJ Anderson left the team in free agency, the Broncos still have Devontae Booker on the team. The two will compete for playing time, and I expect both to contribute throughout the season.
The AFC West will be highly competitive once again. The Chiefs are the team to beat, after having captured two division titles in succession. With Alex Smith gone, they will turn to second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes to lead them. Mahomes sure looks promising, but don’t be surprised if he struggles in his first full year at the position. He will also have to deal with perhaps the most pass-rusher heavy division in football. Aside from Denver, the Chargers have the pass rush tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The Raiders have Khalil Mack. I expect the Chiefs to take a step back in 2018.
On paper, the Chargers appear most ready to make a push at the division. Phillip Rivers is the best quarterback of the group, and he finally has the supporting cast to help him. But he failed to deliver last season, despite being in a similar position. Meanwhile, he won’t find the sledding as easy this time around, with Denver making strides across the board.
Finally, the Raiders have undergone many changes in the past few months. They could see some improvement as well, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. But this team appears a year or two away from being a true contender, as there could be some growing pains to deal with, as they adjust to a new philosophy under new Head Coach Jon Gruden.
In the end, this will be the Broncos’ year. The defense has the potential to be great. If they play up to their potential, the sky is the limit for this team.