The Broncos offense in 2016 continued to regress from a poor 2015 season. They made few roster changes but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to believe they may be improved in 2017
This breakdown of the offense, position by position, analytically examines the roster and what reasons there are to be optimistic or pessimistic. This approach accounts for the inherent uncertainty as the season approaches while acknowledging that everything will likely not break for or against the Broncos this season.
It doesn’t matter which quarterback it is, as long as whoever wins the job provides quality quarterback play. Hopefully, Siemian looks like the guy who threw for four touchdowns and 300 yards against Cincinnati before blowing out his shoulder the following week. Hopefully, he looks like a true leader who is going to elevate his game and seize the starting role, 1st round draft pick waiting be damned.
Alternatively, Paxton Lynch’s strong arm and athleticism really shine while his poor decision making and other weaknesses are kept in check.
Ideally, the competition pushes both quarterbacks to play at their best, yet a clear starter emerges due to their quality play.
The Broncos quarterback wins the starting job not because of what they do, but because of how bad the other looks during the preseason. Theoretically, the play should be no worse than last year since both guys will be a year older and wiser and Siemian will be healthier (at least to start the year). However, Kubiak’s ability to get the best from his quarterbacks should not be underestimated.
8. Running Back
CJ Anderson has a bounce back year and is the back the Broncos imagined he would be when he was signed to his large contract last offseason. Devontae Booker, Jamaal Charles, or De’Angelo Henderson can step up, providing a quality rotation that doesn’t miss a beat and keeps CJ fresh throughout the year.
CJ Anderson breaks down quickly just like he did in 2014, 2016, and to a lesser extent, 2015. Jamaal Charles is unable to bounce back from back to back season ending injuries and doesn’t make the Broncos roster. Devontae Booker struggles to improve from is 2016 campaign that saw him rank 36th out of 42 in yards per carry.
Realistically, the success of this position group will hinge largely on the offensive line. If the line improves, the backs should be good enough to take advantage. If they can’t open holes, this group will struggle to make something out of nothing.
7. Wide Receiver
Emmanuel Sanders continues his strong level of play. Demaryius Thomas (DT) is dominating, “all the time” as his coach expects. Additionally, a strong 3rd wide receiver emerges for the first time since Wes Welker’s departure in 2014
DT continues his mini-slide, struggling with drops and lending more credence to the theory that he is a product of Peyton Manning rather than a bona fide number one wide receiver. Despite the additions of Carlos Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie and the maturation of Bennie Fowler, Jordan Taylor, and Cody Latimer, a strong 3rd receiver fails to emerge for the third straight season.
6. Tight End
AJ Derby was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Patriots and showed some promise hauling in 9 catches for 92 yards over his last two games. Ideally, the 2015 graduate can break out after having an entire offseason to integrate into the offense.
Additionally, former 3rd round draft pick Jeff Heuerman looks to break out in 2017 after two injury-riddled seasons, á la Julius Thomas. Finally, Jake Butt was projected to be one of the top tight ends in the draft but slipped to due to his torn ACL. If he can rehab quicker than expected, he could be part of the mix as well.
If any of these three can break out, it would give the young Broncos quarterbacks a safety valve and provide another threat the defense must account for. Additionally, a dual threat blocking and receiving combo would be a huge asset to what could be a struggling offensive line.
It’s hard to imagine the tight end play being worse than it was last year, as the Broncos retained all but John Phillips from last year’s group. That said, if Green’s play does decline (or he is cut) and no one steps up, the Broncos could be seriously lacking Tight end production on a team that desperately needs it.
5. Offensive line
No position group (save the quarterback position) is more important or more complex than the offensive line, so I want to look a little more in depth at what the Broncos have.
There have been rumblings that much of last year’s struggles were due to poor coaching and that an experienced and accomplished offensive line coach like Jeff Davidson, should be able to turn things around. I am always dubious of such claims, especially when you look at the talent level the Broncos had on the offensive line. Last year, the Broncos did not field an offensive line made up of experienced, highly sought-after players.
Stephenson was ranked as the worst offensive tackle in 2015 by Pro Football Focus, yet Broncos fans were still optimistic about the pickup last year and were certain he’d be an upgrade over Schofield. Stephenson had no trouble proving Pro Football Focus right. Garcia was a 4th round draft pick, Paradis was a 6th round pick, and Schofield was found late in the 3rd round. A unit with that little interest from around the league and so little experience will face an uphill battle to be successful.
Like last year’s Stephenson signing, Menelik Watson was one of the worst graded tackles last year by Pro Football Focus (56/78), but Broncos fans believe he can be part of the solution.
The Broncos have only lost Russel Okung from last year’s line, while they have added Ronald Leary, Menelik Watson, and Garett Bolles. Additionally, youngsters Matt Paradis, Max Garcia, Connor McGovern, Michael Schofield, Ty Sambrailo, Billy Turner, and Dillon Day will all be a year older and more experienced.
The glimmer of hope at OT may be that the Broncos have so many options, all with at least a little upside. Hopefully at least a couple salvage projects can come to fruition. Davidson does bring a more impressive resume to the job than his predecessor, but again, I’m always skeptical of how much change that can prompt.
4. Offensive Tackle
Garett Bolles does his best Ryan Clady impression and comes in and absolutely dominates the LT position, despite the long odds he faces. Watson makes a giant leap forward compared to his days in Oakland. Alternatively, Donald Stephenson finds his second wind or former 2nd round pick Ty Sambrailo is finally able to flourish after two injury-riddled campaigns. Michael Schofield could also be in the mix here as well.
Garett Bolles proves the doubters right and is unable to be the Broncos solution at Left Tackle, showing he is either not cut out to play at a high level in the NFL or that he needs more time to develop. The carousel of misfits continues to be just that, a carousel of misfits.
Paradis returns from his offseason double hip surgery and picks up right where he left off. Paradis is again ranked highly by PFF, earning him national attention, and a pro-bowl honor in the process. Ronald Leary plays guard at a very high level and finds himself on lists of the best free agency signings. Max Garcia takes another big step forward in his development and doesn’t miss a beat moving from LG to RG.
Paradis either struggles to bounce back from his surgeries or shows that his PFF grade of number 1 center was a fluke. Leary struggles to fit into a new a much less talented unit. Garcia takes a step back in his development. The new offensive line coach, Jeff Davidson, is not able to dramatically improve the play of the unit.
The narrative that Gay Kubiak and Rick Dennison were old and out of touch proves to be correct. New Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy does have some highlights on his resume including maximizing the production from Kyle Orton, leading Phillip Rivers to a career year in 2013, and orchestrating the Tebow offense. His ability to tailor schemes to his players proves to be a better match for the Broncos, and the unit improves as a whole. Additionally, it’s common to see a lot of success for guys who transition from head coach back to the coordinator role.
McCoy is still young, with only 8 years of head coach or offensive coordinator experience. His resume as a whole pales in comparison to Kubiak’s resume. Additionally, Vance Joseph is a first-time head coach and he hasn’t coached on the offensive side of the ball in his entire career. The offense continues to struggle and it becomes evident that the problems are with the players rather than the coaching staff or scheme.
The Broncos made few personal changes for an offense that ranked 27th in yards and 22nd in points. Their only significant loss was Russel Okung, but their only significant additions were Garrett Bolles, Ronald Leary, Menelik Watson, and some depth at wide receiver and running back. The hope is that 1) the new coaching staff will be able to get more out of this group and 2) the multiple inexperienced players they have will be a year older, wiser, and more experienced.
As it typically does in this league, the success of the offense will come down to the Quarterback and offensive line play. If those units can play well, the Broncos should have plenty of talent among their backs and receivers to take advantage. If those units don’t play well, we are likely in for another disappointing season from the offense.