The Denver Broncos’ most glaring roster holes have been filled. After adding players to amplify the offense and defense via free agency and the trade market, GM John Elway can now go into the NFL Draft with better clarity at the depth chart.
While the 2020 Broncos are not likely to be a Super Bowl-caliber team, barring an incredible step forward from second-year QB Drew Lock, this team is in a position to compete for a playoff spot for the first time since 2015. Elway still could add some players in free agency or trade, but far more likely, any new talent the Broncos add from this point on will come from the draft.
Entering the official draft season, what are the Broncos’ remaining weaknesses on their current roster? While everyone has an opinion on where the Broncos still need to improve, ESPN’s Mike Clay may offer some of the more keen insight on where the team’s current roster still lacks.
Before free agency, the draft, and the regular season each year, Clay tabulates each NFL team’s positional groups to score and rank each roster. Clay puts each positional group to a 4.0 grading scale with 0.0 being horrific and 4.0 being exceptional and weighing each position’s value to score and rank a team’s total unit. F
or example a quarterback makes up 24% of a team’s value score compared to running back, the least valuable position according to Clay, only weighing 4% of a team’s final score.
Let’s dig in and see just where the Broncos rank compared to their NFL counterparts heading into the draft according to Clay.
An Offense More Built on Potential than Proven Production
The Broncos are a team that since 2015 have relied on a defensive identity. While this approach led to a Lombardi Trophy four years ago, it has since kept the Broncos out of the playoffs entirely. If defenses win championships, offenses get you a ticket into the playoffs in the first place.
Quarterback: An Unknown Quantity with Limitless Ceiling
The one area in Clay’s analysis I have the most contention with is QB. Grading the Broncos’ QB situation with Lock as a 1.0, which ranks 22nd in the NFL, paints a grim picture on the surface. However, that is a rookie QB with just a five-game sample size.
The fact is, there is just too much unknown about Lock right now. Painting the Broncos’ QB situation as 22nd in the NFL means there is massive room for growth and improvement.
Again, the biggest variable in the Broncos climbing back into Super Bowl contention is the question of how good of a quarterback Lock can become. We will need the 2020 season to truly answer that question.
Given that Clay’s QB grade makes up 24% of the team’s final grade, Lock improving at all can have a massive impact and improvement on the Broncos’ overall talent. It’s a QB league.
Running back: Leading the 2020 Offense
The Broncos’ RB situation was surprisingly ranked just 10th in the NFL by Clay, earning a 2.9 grade. This is likely due to the fact that Melvin Gordon is coming off a poor season and that NFL teams really play just one running back at a time on the field.
While most teams use a running back-by-committee approach, having one incredible back and filler behind him brings more value than having two good backs. The Broncos are behind such teams as the Panthers with Christian McCaffrey, the Brown with Nick Chubb, the Giants with Saquon Barkley, the Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliot, the Saints with Alvin Kamara, and the Vikings with Dalvin Cook, which should receive no push-back.
However, Denver could have easily been above the Bengals with Joe Mixon, the Titans with Derrick Henry, or the Packers with Aaron Jones. It shouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Broncos’ duo of Gordon and Phillip Lindsay be the team’s offensive identity in 2020 as the duo make up the strongest offensive personnel group.
Wide Receiver: The Current Picture is Dim
The Broncos currently have one of the best young wide receivers in the entire NFL in Courtland Sutton. Despite the struggles in moving the ball through the air in 2019, Sutton tied for the highest percentage of any WRs’ team air yards last year, accumulating 41% of the Broncos’ air yards (tied with Terry McLaurin and Stefon Diggs).
However, even with Sutton, Clay views the Broncos’ receiving room as abysmal. Earning a grade of 0.4 and the 30th-ranked receiving positional group in the NFL, the options outside of Sutton are perceived as depth at best.
Luckily for the Broncos, this is a draft that is deep at wide receiver, but as it currently stands, this is the Broncos’ worst positional group on the team.
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Tight End: Solid with Upside
Clay grades the Broncos’ tight end room as 2.1 or ‘average’, ranking 16th in the NFL. This is to be expected. Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are examples of ‘average’ tight ends in the NFL. However, the Broncos also have height weight speed phenom in second-year player Noah Fant.
Fant, like many great tight ends before him, could take a massive step forward this year and emerge as a legit pass weapon in the NFL in his sophomore season. Also, don’t sleep on Andrew Beck who flashed last season, will play some fullback, tight end, and H-back snaps in this offense.
Given the lack of TE talent in the 2020 draft class, Denver looks wise to have swung on one last season in one of the better TE classes in years.
Offensive Line: Despite Fan Angst, a League-Average Unit
Clay graded the Broncos’ offensive line as a 2.6 going into the draft. This would make the O-line the 12th-highest-graded unit in the NFL and the second-highest graded positional unit on the Denver offense.
While many fans will scream foul of such grades, it might be as much of an indictment on O-line play across the NFL landscape as it is a glowing review of the Broncos’ current collection of talent upfront.
Despite the cries out again him on social media, Garett Bolles has been a league-average starting tackle in the NFL. His poor play to start last season made it so that his improvements down the stretch were ignored by the masses. Bolles isn’t great, but on his rookie contract, his play is actually a value on the dollars invested in him.
Ja’Wuan James is scary because of durability, but he should play this season. Denver also possesses one of the better guard duos in the NFL in Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow. Center is a complete unknown, but there are rumors that the team loves Patrick Morris. Still, center seems like a position the Broncos may look to draft early if value presents itself.
The Broncos’ O-line is league-average. Improving it would obviously help the team but it isn’t this doom or gloom unit that many make it out to be. Under the direction of O-line Coach Mike Munchak, the Broncos could just be scratching the surface of what they will become in the near future.
What it Means
In the end, of Clay’s grades, the Broncos’ offense ranked as the 24th-best unit in the NFL heading into the draft. If Lock plays at a league-average level in 2020, the Broncos’ overall grade would shoot up to closer to a top-half offense overall.
It is sink-or-swim for Lock in 2020. The Broncos must give him the means to succeed and put the onus on him to best evaluate whether he truly can be the franchise quarterback.
In order to best do that, it appears the Broncos must address the wide receiver position. Furthermore, looking at these grades, it is easy to assume the Broncos are building a more smashmouth team for 2020.
With the two highest-graded units being the running backs and the O-line, Denver can play a ball-control, physical style of football while nurturing their young quarterback. Even though this goes against analytical findings that the passing attack eclipses the running game in terms of value in today’s NFL, teams still should try to win by doing what they are best built to do.
In order to win with a more run-centric approach and protect Lock, the Broncos must also have a strong defense. Do the Broncos have the talent to roster a top-five defense in 2020? We will break that down soon.