Preseason - 2021 Denver Broncos Outlook
Denver Broncos Outlook
Vic Fangio returns for his third season as the head coach after running the 49ers and the Bears defenses from 2011 to 2018. He also has 11 other seasons of experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. His success in Chicago in 2018 led to his promotion in Denver. Fangio went 5-11 in 2019 and 7-9 in 2020, so this year will be a make or break season.
The Broncos brought in Pat Shurmur to run their offense in 2020 after struggling to win as the Giants' head coach in 2018 (5-11) and 2019 (4-12). He worked as the offensive coordinator over six other seasons for the Rams, Eagles, and Vikings. Shurmur has 23 seasons of experience coaching in the NFL while compiling a 19-46 record as NFL head coach.
Their offense repeated its 28th ranking in points scored (323) while moving up five spots to 23rd offensive yards.
Fangio promoted Ed Donatell to defensive coordinator in 2019. He worked over the eight previous seasons as the defensive backs coach for the Broncos and 49ers. Donatell has 30 years of experience coaching in the NFL, with nine coming as a defensive coordinator.
Denver regressed to 25th in points allowed (446), which was 130 more points scored on their defense than in 2019 (316). They finished 21st in yards allowed compared to 12th the previous year.
The only two starting players added in free agency were CB Kyle Fuller and CB Ronald Darby.
Fuller played under Vic Fangio with the Bears. His game was active in all areas from 2017 to 2019, leading to 206 tackles, 55 defended passes, and 12 interceptions. Last year, he missed many tackles with fade in big plays in the passing game (65 tackles, one interception, and eight defended passes).
Darby had an entire season of starts for Washington for the first time in his career. He continues to have risk in big plays and touchdowns allowed, but his play did improve in completion rate against. Darby should add value to the run defense.
The Broncos signed Mike Boone for depth at running back. They also acquired Teddy Bridgewater to compete for the starting quarterback job.
The cornerback position concern for the Broncos carried over to the draft, leading to Denver picking up Pat Surtain with the ninth overall selection. His foundation skill set puts him in the elite category at cornerback. He brings a physical presence to coverage with the talent to dominate receivers over all areas of the field.
Denver shifted back to the running back position in the second round when they added RB Javonte Williams.
Williams has a chain-mover feel while relying on his power and fight to finish off carries. He runs with a smooth rhythm while waiting for a hole to open. Once Williams sees daylight, his acceleration pushes into the second level of the defense. He won't hit on many long touchdowns, but his short-area quickness plays well. Williams shows plenty of grit, and his style should wear defenses down. Despite a limited role as a receiver, he projects well in the passing game while having the smarts to pick up an NFL offense on all downs.
In the third round, the Broncos invested in C Quinn Meinerz and LB Baron Browning.
Meinerz comes to the NFL via playing at a small school (Wisconsin-Whitewater), helping him slip through the draft cracks. His game is on the rise with a developing ceiling in both run and pass blocking once he proves he can handle the step up in competition. Meinerz needs to show that he can block faster players with more strength while also improving footwork.
Browning has the physical tools to excel at linebacker, but he lacks the vision and feel to put himself in the best position to deliver difference-maker plays. To have growth, Browning needs to lose the looker mentality while also developing more fire in his attacks. The pretty boys get the girls, but production earns paydays.
Denver turned to the safety position with their two choices in the fifth round – Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson.
Sterns is a second player who trails in his development due to questionable instincts. He'll be at his best attacking the line of scrimmage while having concerns with his ability to read offense and cover vs. speed.
Johnson works hard in his pregame prep while showing the ability to perform well in coverage and read developing plays. He brings a cornerback feel to the safety position with some questions with his tackling and technique in mirroring pass routes.
WR Seth Williams came via the 35th selection in the sixth round. His route running and separation skills fall well short of NFL expectations. Williams owns an edge in size, which plays well in top balls in the red zone. His build-up speed is better than expected over the long field. Williams is more of a project than a prospect.
With three picks in the seventh round, the Broncos selected CB Kary Vincent, DE Jonathan Cooper, and DE Marquiss Spencer.
Vincent projects to work out of the slot with plus speed and athletic ability. His foundation in coverage looks advanced while willing to put in the time to get better. He needs to get better when in chase mode and trust his recovery speed. Vincent isn't where he needs to be in reading pattern development.
Cooper projects as only a power pass rusher with a below-average first step. His freelance attacking style works against him when matchup up with top offenses and blocking schemes. Other than strength, Cooper offers no defining skills.
Spencer is trending toward an interior defensive line role due to his rising weight. His first step plays well while owning a solid foundation in strength. Spencer does show up on every play while being the runner-up in his one-on-one battles too many times. His shortfalls are coachable if he's willing to do the work.
The Broncos jumped to 13th in rushing yards (1,918) with 13 touchdowns. Their ball carriers gained 4.3 yards per carry with 13 runs over 20 yards.
Denver remained 28th in passing yards (3,673) with 21 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Their offensive line allowed 32 sacks while gaining only 6.6 yards per pass attempt.
LT Garett Bolles
Bolles was the Broncos first-round selection in 2017. He's a talented player with plus speed and quickness for his position. Bolles boasts excellent vision while playing with an edge, but he needs to add bulk and power to his game. His style works for a quick-hitting rushing offense. In his first fourth season in the league, Bolles turned into one of the best players at his position in the game. He didn't allow a sack with minimal pressure on the quarterback. His run blocking moved into an elite area.
LG Dalton Risner
Risner projects well as a run blocker with value on the move, but he has underperformed expectations in this area over his first two years. His hands create an edge while owning strength in his technique. He lacks range and foot speed in pass protection while showing league average value early in his career. Risner needs to improve his square footage in his blocking area.
C Lloyd Cushenberry
After getting drafted in the third round in his rookie season, Cushenberry made 16 starts despite being a liability in all areas. He plays with power and fight, but his range is limited to a small box. When attacked in the pass rush, Cushenberry holds his ground as long as he isn't asked to move his feet to hit his target. His play in the run requires a quick-hitting attack. Quinn Meinerz should push him for snaps while looking like the player with a higher ceiling.
RG Graham Glasgow
Denver bought stability at the right guard position in 2020 by signing Glasgow to a $44 million contract over four seasons. He's been a steady asset in all areas over the last four seasons while allowing minimal sacks.
RT Bobbie Massie
The right tackle position for Denver in 2021 will be fluid until someone seizes the starting job. Massie missed the final eight games last year for the Bears with a knee injury. When healthy, he tends to come up short in run blocking while grading closer to the league average in pass protection.
This offensive line has two edge players with questions at center and right tackle. If Meinerz comes quicker than expected, Denver has the talent to push toward a top 10 offensive line. I expect better play in pass protection than run blocking.
Denver wants to improve their defense while developing a better run game. Last year they ran the ball 44.3 percent of the time while failing to make an impact with their passing game. Their quarterbacks need to clean up the damage in turnovers.
QB Teddy Bridgewater, DEN - Low Potential
In his two chances to start for the Vikings and Panthers in 2015 and 2020, Bridgewater went 15-16 while passing for 224 yards per game with a combined 29 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He set a career-high in his yards per pass attempt (7.6) and completion rate (69.1) last year while averaging 32.8 passes per game.
Bridgewater helps his fantasy value in the running game (53/279/5). He finished with no games with more than two passing touchdowns and only two combined passing scores over his final five starts. His most production combined came in two contests (316/2 and 329/3).Fantasy Outlook: Denver wants to play better defense and run an upside ball-control offense. Bridgewater seems to be the better fit at quarterback, but his ceiling appears lower than Drew Lock. Either way, he won't offer enough fantasy value to be drafted or started in many weeks in 2021.
QB Drew Lock, DEN - Low Potential
The Broncos are losing confidence in Lock after regressing in his second season. In his defense, he lost his top WR Courtland Sutton before the season, plus a right shoulder injury cost him two games early in the year. Lock also battled a rib issue later the year, and he missed Week 12 with Covid concerns.
His completion rate (57.3) came in below his rookie season (64.1) while making too many mistakes (15 interceptions). Lock was willing to test defense deep (38 plays gained over 20 yards and eight completions of 40 yards or more). Both of his impact games (360/3 and 284/4) came on the road.
Fantasy Outlook: For Lock to win the starting job, he needs to clean up his turnovers and regain his ball control ways that he showcased in 2019. Denver has talent at running back with potentially two dynamic wide receivers and a developing tight end. His offensive line should be a plus as well. There is enough firepower at receiver to average over 250 passing yards per game with league-average production in touchdowns. His possible failure priced Lock as the 34th quarterback drafted. For now, Lock looks undraftable in 12-team leagues.
Other Options: Brett Rypien
RB Javonte Williams, DEN - Sleeper (undervalued)
The Broncos' running backs regained some lost yards per carry (4.49 – 4.15 in 2019) with only a slight bump in chances in the run game (16 more than last year). Their most significant area of regression came in the passing game (52/272/1), highlighted by only 5.2 yards per catch.
The Tarheels used Williams in a split role over the last two seasons, leading to 2,554 combined yards with 28 touchdowns and 42 catches. He played at the highest level in 2020 (1,445 combined yards with 22 touchdowns and 25 catches).
I sense some of Frank Gore's traits in his game. Williams has a winning feel, and I expect him to do the dirty work in the run game. He'll bring punch after punch on his runs, which in turn leads to productive showings on most days.
Fantasy Outlook: The Broncos will give Williams plenty of chance on early downs, and I envision him rotate on series with Melvin Gordon. Most of his chances on early downs will come on scripted plays. Fantasy owners almost have him in a dead heat with Gordon in the draft season in May. His lack of experience in the passing game lowers his ceiling in his rookie season. Possible 200-plus touches for 900 yards with five to seven touchdowns and about 20 catches.
UPDATE: Williams got the starting nod in Denver's first preseason tilt. The rookie had five carries for 29 yards on the opening drive but also had a touchdown negated due to a penalty. As solid as Melvin Gordon has been, Williams has more speed and looks like he's going to be a factor right away. Expect the Broncos to utilize both players, but Williams offers a higher ceiling.
RB Melvin Gordon, DEN - Quality Backup
Other than three empty games (8/26, 8/26, and 6/18) and one missed start, Gordon played well in the run game (195/916/9). He finished with three 20-plus fantasy point games (25.80, 24.10, and 21.00), leading to the 14th ranking in PPR leagues (202.40 fantasy points).
Gordon had the lowest output of his career in catches (32) and receiving yards (158). Over a five-game stretch midseason, the Broncos gave him only five combined targets with two catches for 20 yards. Gordon failed to gain over 25 yards receiving in any contest.
Fantasy Outlook: Denver moved on from Phillip Lindsay in the offseason, but they invested in a young running back in this year's draft. I expect Gordon to receive 50 to 55 percent of the rushing attempts and close to 75 percent of the running back targets. My starting point is 250 touches for 1,110 combined yards with about seven touchdowns and 40-plus catches. His early ADP (51) ranks him as the 25th inning back drafted.
WR Courtland Sutton, DEN - Solid/Safe Pick
Heading into last year, Denver appeared to have the foundation of a developing young wide receiving corps. Between the loss of Courtland Sutton and a disappointing rookie season by Jerry Jeudy, the Broncos' wideouts improved by only 14 catches for 381 yards and five touchdowns on 50 targets. For the second straight year, their wide receivers improved, gaining more yards per catch (14.45).
Sutton struggled with his catch rate (50.0) in his rookie season, partly due to nine drops. He did flash big-play ability (16.8 yards per catch), but Sutton failed to gain over 100 yards receiving.
In 2019, he blossomed into a second-tier wide receiver (222.80 fantasy points – 19th) while setting career-highs in catches (72), receiving yards (1,112), touchdowns (6), and targets (125). Sutton had a floor of four catches in 14 games, leading to double-digit fantasy points in PPR leagues in 11 weeks.
Last year he missed Week 1 with a shoulder issue. Two games later, his season ended with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Fantasy Outlook: I'm never a fan of investing in offensive players coming off significant injuries in football. Denver expects him to be ready for training camp. His floor should be 65/1,000/5, but I need to hear positive reports this summer before taking Sutton to my fantasy dance.
WR Jerry Jeudy, DEN - Sleeper (undervalued)
In his rookie season, Jeudy offered more frustration than satisfaction. Over the first four games (4/56, 4/62, 5/55, and 2/61/1), he averaged 11.1 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues that worked for a back-end WR3. Unfortunately, his game only offered playable value in two more starts (Week 9 – 7/125/1 and Week 17 – 5/140/1) while ranking 45th in WR scoring (157.60). His catch rate (46.0) was a disaster while finishing with 13 drops.
Over his last two seasons at Alabama, Jeudy caught 145 passes for 2,479 yards and 24 touchdowns over 28 games. The Tide used him as a big-play wide receiver in 2018 (68/1,315/14). The following season, Jeudy worked more as a traditional receiver (77/1,163/10), where he relied on his route running to get open. Many of his catches were in the flat or coming back to the quarterback, which led to less explosiveness after the catch. When able to secure passes going forward, his speed and acceleration become more disruptive. Jeudy doesn't have the same explosiveness when caught flat-footed with the ball trying to make defenders miss.
His release projects well while having the speed (4.45 forty) to test a defender deep. Jeudy needs to add some bulk (6'1" and 195 lbs.) to help combat physical corners. He also grades lower than expected with his short-area quickness.Fantasy Outlook: Based on his path last year, the Broncos want to use Jeudy downfield early in his career. His plays should improve this year, along with his catch rate. On a path for 75 catches with 1,100 yards and a handful of touchdowns.