The 2021 Broncos are a big of a hodgepodge. On many fronts, they’re in “win now” mode. And on others, they seem to be on a rebuild path.
Their head coach is on the hot seat, boasting a 12-20 record during his first two seasons and a disastrous 0-7 mark in the month of September. But their general manager is in year one of a six-year deal, feeling no pressure as he gets his initial firsthand look at the roster.
Their defense is full of high-priced veterans, many of whom are on the final year of their current contracts. But their offense is made up mostly of young players, draftees who will be in Denver for years to come.
It’s part of what makes the Broncos such a tough team to gauge this season. They could compete for a playoff spot. They could finish in the cellar of the AFC West.
In order for the positive outcome to occur, however, there are a few things that have to happen. Heading into training camp, here are the five things that have to transpire between now and the season opener for Denver to end their run of sub-.500 seasons:
1. Someone has to win the QB battle
On Sept. 12, either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater will be behind center when the Broncos take on the Giants. Technically, someone has to emerge as the winner of the team’s quarterback battle once training camp and the preseason are in the rearview mirror.
But the way in which the victor is determined matters. It’s the most-important storyline of the next six weeks.
If neither quarterback shines, forcing the coaches to pick between the lesser of two evils, take the safe route or think about the future, the Broncos are in trouble. That would mean that neither Lock or Bridgewater proved that they can do the job, but someone had to be chosen.
That would be a disaster. It would mean that Denver is headed toward a sixth-straight season of subpar QB play.
But if either player goes out and clearly wins the job, outplaying the competition and establishing that they’re ready to lead the team, the tone of the whole season changes. If it’s Lock, the potential of a “quarterback of the future” could be reality. And if it’s Bridgewater, the notion of a veteran coming in to stabilize the long-trouble position would finally come to fruition.
To some extent, it doesn’t matter who wins the QB competition. What’s important is that one of them actually goes out and seizes the gig.
2. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb must be Von Miller and Bradley Chubb
There’s a lot of hype about the Broncos defense. Many are saying Vic Fangio’s group could be one of the five-best in the NFL on that side of the ball.
Those are lofty expectations. But given the money invested in the defense in 2021, they aren’t unreasonable.
In order for that to happen, however, the Broncos have to generate a pass rush. They have to force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, allowing their stacked secondary to make plays.
If they can’t, it won’t matter that Denver has four really good cornerbacks and one of the best safety tandems in the league. They can’t cover receivers for four, five or six seconds. No one can.
That pressure has to come from Miller and Chubb. The Broncos tandem of edge rushers have the potential to be a great duo, but their ability to reach that level remains a question mark.
The biggest issue is injuries. Chubb missed 12 games in 2019 with a torn ACL, as well as last season with an ankle injury. Miller was sidelined all of last year after suffering a foot injury before the opener.
There’s also reason to doubt that Fangio knows how to maximize the pairing. The only time they’ve played together under the head coach, Miller and Chubb were underwhelming. During the first three games of the 2019 season, when both were completely healthy, the Broncos failed to record a single sack as a team.
If that’s the kind of production Denver gets this season, it’ll be a long year. Generating a pass rush is a key to their defense, which is the key to the team.
3. Courtland Sutton has to be healthy
On paper, the Broncos have an intriguing collection of pass catchers. But it all starts to unravel a bit if their former Pro Bowl wide receiver doesn’t return to form.
If Sutton is able to bounce back from the ACL injury that cost him nearly all of the 2020 season, things map out well for Denver. Jerry Jeudy as their No. 2 wideout, able to avoid double teams and the opposition’s best cornerback, becomes a scary proposition. K.J. Hamler in the slot and Tim Patrick as the fourth wide receiver provide an embarrassment of riches.
But if Sutton can’t go, and everyone has to move up a notch, things don’t look quite as good. Jeudy showed last season that he wasn’t ready to be the No. 1 guy. Hamler isn’t a starter on the outside, so Patrick would have to move into that role. While a great story and a nice surprise, developing into a 1,000-yard receiver would be a stretch.
That’s why it all hinges on Sutton. What looks good on paper ends up looking great on the field if he’s able to play like he did in 2019.
4. A surprise must emerge on the interior of the defense
When people hype the Broncos defense, they tend to overlook some glaring concerns. Primarily, they don’t pay attention to the question marks in the middle of the defense.
Up front, Denver has Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones and Mike Purcell penciled in as starters. Those are nice players, but there isn’t a star in the bunch. Is one of them ready to turn into Malik Jackson or Derek Wolfe, two of the key players in the trenches the last time the Broncos had a dominant defense?
The most-notable skill from anyone in this group is that Harris is good at batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. That’s not good enough.
At middle linebacker, the same questions that have lingered for the past few seasons remain. Alexander Johnson is a fine player, but not quite the sideline-to-sideline linebacker that the Broncos need. And Josey Jewell is average at best, particularly in pass coverage.
As a result, something needs to change for Denver’s defense to be great. They can’t afford to be just so-so at five out of the 11 positions on that side of the ball, particularly when those holes are all along the front seven.
Does Jones make the leap? Does Johnson become an impact player on a weekly basis? Or does someone unexpected, like McTelvin Agim, Justin Strnad or Baron Browning emerge as a surprise starter come Week 1?
5. The injury bug can’t bite
There were a lot of things that derailed the Broncos season in 2020, but the news that came down just days before their opener was at the top of the list. Losing Miller to an injury put a damper on things before they ever got underway.
Injuries are going to happen. They’re a part of football. And sometimes, like in the Miller situation, they happen in controlled, non-contact environments.
Thus, the Broncos need to get a little lucky. They need to emerge from training camp and the preseason without losing any of their key players.
There’s nothing they can do to control this variable. So it’s time to cross fingers and hope that Denver enters Week 1 relatively injury-free.
If these things can happen, none of which are outside the realm of possibility, the Broncos can be pretty good in 2021. If they don’t, it’ll take something completely unexpected for Denver to be competitive this season.
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