The Broncos are fresh off of their worst season since before Peyton Manning came to Denver in 2012. After going 5-11, it’s easy to think that the Broncos need a huge overhaul and a perfect draft to have any shot at making the playoffs.
While Denver has several positions that leave fans wanting more, these holes are actually not team-breaking. The foundation of a likely playoff team already exists and General Manager John Elway’s roster is in good shape going into the draft.
Elway’s Roster In Good Shape Going Into Draft
What The Broncos Have On Defense
The best thing that Denver has going for them is their defense. Cornerback Aqib Talib will be missed but the newly improved offense should offset this loss. Last year, the Broncos were 31st in turnover differential which means that the defense was on the field much more than other defenses in the league.
Even with this disadvantage, they still ranked third overall. In the end, Denver’s defense will be just as good in 2018 as it was in 2017 if not 2016.
What The Broncos Have At Wide Receiver
It has been hidden over the last few years due to a lack of great quarterbacking but Wide Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are still one of the best duos in the league. In 2015, the last time that the quarterback position was semi-stable, Thomas and Sanders combined for 2,400 yards.
What The Broncos Have At Running Back
Denver’s rushing attack ranked 12th overall in 2017. Running Back C.J. Anderson earned his first 1,000-yard season in the NFL while backup Devontae Booker showed potential when he created the first “Wow” play that Denver’s offense had seen in quite some time when he lept over a Colts defender and sprinted into the end zone untouched. The play was erased due to a penalty but it still showed Booker’s potential for a very bright future.
The Broncos are not expected to re-sign Jamaal Charles as he was very frustrated at the end of 2017 due to the fact that he was not used as much as he had been in years past. At 31, with the number of injuries mounting, it is very likely that he will not return to his former self. As such, his exit would not cause much impact on the running game.
2017 6th round pick, De’Angelo Henderson, is the third running back in the stable that should see extended time in 2018. When he did touch the ball in 2017, he had an immediate impact, and many fans were very disappointed in his lack of usage. He is a very talented runner that could surprise a lot of people this season.
Considering there was a trade offer on the table involving C.J. Anderson and Miami Dolphins OT Ja’Wuan James (it was recently nixed by the Dolphins) it’s safe to say that Elway is very confident in Booker and Henderson, and may even grab another back in the draft.
What The Broncos Have At Quarterback
The biggest signing of free agency at this point for the Broncos, Quarterback Case Keenum, is also the biggest question mark for the team going into 2018. That being said, there is more than enough reason to be optimistic. First, he will have many of the same things in Denver that he had in Minnesota as both teams have a very good wide receiver duo, similarly effective running games, and strong defenses.
One common argument against Keenum’s chance for success is the thought that he will get eaten alive by opposing pass rushers just as Trevor Siemian was. However, according to Pro Football Focus, Keenum was ranked as the eighth-best quarterback under pressure in 2017 while Trevor Siemian was 39th and Brock Osweiler was 35th. Keenum should be just fine in 2018 and with newly acquired offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, Keenum should be able to make it work.
The Difference Between “Need” And “Want”
In the interest of clarity, it is necessary to take the time to explain the difference between a team’s needs and a team’s wants. When a team “needs” something, it means that the team absolutely must find a way to fill the need as soon as possible or it is obvious that the team will become severely compromised or broken.
Using the Broncos as a hypothetical example, if Cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Chris Harris Jr., as well as Linebacker Von Miller, were to leave the team during this offseason for whatever reason, Denver’s defense would be obviously severely compromised and without a solution, the consensus would be that any hopes of making the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl, would be rationally forfeited. Cornerback and linebacker would instantly become needs because, without decent replacements for each of those players, the team’s chances of a playoff season are just about zero.
On the other hand, a “want” is when a team might be fine without filling the spot immediately but it would be nice to have it filled. The New York Giants have a perfect example of a want. Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion, is getting close to the end of his career. At 37, it is reasonable to think that he could play well enough to win a third, assuming has he has a strong team around him. However, the Giants have the second overall pick in the 2018 Draft this year and can get Manning’s successor if they choose to go that route. If they decide to not get a quarterback this year, it’s not obvious that that decision will ruin the team. Therefore, the Giants want a quarterback. They do not need one.
Want Or Need: Quarterback
General Manager John Elway’s motivation to draft a quarterback is only to have an insurance policy in the event that Keenum does not perform up to snuff. Additionally, Head Coach Vance Joseph has been quoted as saying that Keenum is the starter which would make any drafted quarterback essentially a backup for at least one season, potentially two.
On the leadership side, the intention of drafting a player without the intention to start him as soon as possible means that it is not obvious whether the quarterback position is a true need at this point. On the fan side, there are some that have a great deal of confidence in Keenum and some that have a terrible feeling about Keenum. Since there are plenty that lean on both sides of the issue, it is not obvious that Keenum will fail. Meaning, the Broncos actually strongly want a quarterback in the Draft but they might not implode without one.
Want Or Need: Linemen
If the Broncos did not already have Case Keenum, who is proven to be a top-ten quarterback under pressure, this would likely be a true need. However, because the Broncos have the eighth-best quarterback under pressure, this need downgrades to a strong want and the addition Jared Veldheer certainly helps.
In other words, it would be nice for the Broncos to give Keenum some extra time in the pocket but it is not obvious that the Broncos would repeat a failed campaign if the line was not to be addressed and so the Broncos actually have a “want” on their hands.
Want Or Need: Cornerback
Similar to the quarterback situation, the Broncos already have two strong starters at Cornerback in Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. With the new addition of Su’a Cravens (who is listed at safety but can really play anywhere on the field), the need for a cornerback has become a need for an insurance policy in the event that Roby or Cravens disappoint. Similar to the quarterback situation, the need for a cornerback is really a want.
Want Or Need: Wide Receiver/ Tight End
The Broncos have been missing a true third target in the passing game for years. Whether it comes from the wide receiver position or the tight end position, Keenum will need an extra target other than Thomas or Sanders to throw to.
The Broncos could already have a solution for this hole on their roster. Denver drafted Tight End Jake Butt in the fifth round last year but he did not play a single down due to an injury he sustained in college.
When Denver won Super Bowl 50, their third target was Tight End Owen Daniels, who ended the season with 517 yards. 517 yards might be a big ask for an essential rookie but if he can even get halfway there, Devontae Booker should be able to make up the difference. In his two seasons, Booker has averaged 270 yards per season so if Booker can meet his average and Butt can even be halfway decent, it will make up for a lack of a true third target in the passing game next year.
Not to mention, 2017 third round pick Carlos Henderson, who had 19 touchdowns in his final season at Louisiana Tech, will be returning from a thumb injury that kept him out all of last year as well. He is another name to watch for come training camp.
So if Denver were to not get another pass catcher in the draft, it would not obviously spell doom for the Denver Broncos. Therefore, a third target in the passing game is a want, not a need.
If The 2018 Season Started Today…
Even if the 2018 regular season started today, pre-draft, the Broncos would already have a good shot to make a playoff run. 10 wins are usually enough to get a team into the playoffs and Denver is looking like a 10-win team.
Assuming injuries or other oddities do not derail the team, the only way that Denver does not make the playoffs in 2018, even with this unfinished roster, is if the division becomes so tough that two of the three opposing teams become juggernauts and take the AFC by storm.
If Denver finishes in the top two of the AFC West, they’ll be in the playoffs. Looking at each of the other teams in the division, it seems unlikely that more than one other team in the division will become a juggernaut.
For instance, look at the Chiefs who will be going with an almost entirely unproven de facto rookie quarterback in Patrick Mahomes II. The Chiefs are built to be very strong in 2018 but it will entirely depend on Mahomes’ performance. Rookie quarterbacks can go either way so flip a coin as to whether the Chiefs will be as good as last year, let alone a juggernaut.
The Oakland Raiders’ new coaching staff raises more than a few questions. Head Coach Jon Gruden has not coached in 10 years. It is hard to come back to any job after an extended absence, let alone a job in an industry as competitive as the NFL. Most coaches that return to the league after an extended absence end up with disappointing results so it would not be a huge surprise to see Gruden follow the pattern.
The Chargers could be the most clearly dangerous divisional opponent going into 2018 as things stand today. The Chargers took a huge step forward in 2017, going from 5-11 in 2016 to 9-7 in 2017. They played even better than their record showed, as five of their seven losses were one-possession games and four of those losses came down to a field goal or less. They also finished with the fourth-best offense in the NFL in 2017, a strong improvement over their 14th-ranked offense in 2016. If they can have a repeat season and win just a few of those close games, they’ll be in the playoffs.
As is, it appears that Denver will be in prime position to compete for first or second place in the division which means that Denver is in a prime position to make the playoffs.
In the end, Denver is already a potential playoff team with this roster before the draft. That being said, this draft will be the difference between a good team and a great team. This team is poised to take the AFC by storm in 2018, assuming John Elway effectively satisfies some wants.