It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Broncos, who were eliminated from the postseason in Week 15.
What Went Right
Denver’s defense has quietly been its typically awesome self, and that’s started with the team’s pass rush. Star linebacker Von Miller has 14.5 sacks in 14 games, and rookie Bradley Chubb has added another 12.0. Those two have been dominant, and they form the backbone of a unit that came into this week ranked fourth in defensive DVOA.
On offense, rookie running back Phillip Lindsay has been a revelation. Though he’s been less productive the last couple weeks, Lindsay has 1,221 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns on the season, averaging 5.4 rushing yards per carry. It’s a bit bizarre for an undrafted free agent to be so successful after the team used a third-round pick on fellow running back Royce Freeman, but Lindsay has simply won that job and looks like he’ll be a long-term contributor for Denver’s offense.
What Went Wrong
With one more loss, the Broncos will have posted back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 46 years. That makes this the worst stretch of football in Pat Bowlen’s 35 years owning the team:
With one more Broncos loss, one of Pat Bowlen’s most incredible feats as owner — more Super Bowl appearances (seven) than losing seasons (six currently) — will be erased. Ugh.— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 16, 2018
That could be enough to cost Vance Joseph his job. There have been rumblings for a while that Joseph is on the hot seat, and Denver’s failure to compete for a playoff spot could be the final nail in his coffin, especially when Joseph has made a number of questionable in-game decisions this season, including his call on Saturday night to kick a field goal rather than try to convert a fourth-and-1 when his team was down four points with under five minutes remaining. The Broncos went on to lose to the Browns by one point.
If the Broncos move on from their head coach, they could move on from their quarterback, too. Case Keenum hasn’t exactly solidified the quarterback position the way the Broncos imagined when they signed him this offseason to a two-year deal with $25 million guaranteed. He’s thrown for just 15 touchdowns to go with 12 picks for just 242.6 yards per game and 5.49 adjusted net yards per attempt. The Broncos could cut him next season and save $11 million against the cap, or they could push him into a backup role—it’s not like that would be new for the career journeyman.
Altogether, it could be an offseason of massive upheaval for the Broncos.
The Broncos have $42.7 million in effective cap space, per Over The Cap, which is 14th in the league. That’s a decent amount of wiggle room, but Denver could create more if they choose. In addition to cutting Keenum, the Broncos could save $10.3 million in cap space if they cut wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders this offseason. The veteran was having a solid year before he ruptured his Achilles tendon after Week 13. He’ll be 32 years old next year, and Achilles injuries have long recovery times—it’s possible the Broncos cut him loose.
Team president John Elway will have plenty of decisions to make on the offensive line, with Matt Paradis, Jared Veldheer, Billy Turner, and Max Garcia set to hit free agency. Paradis in particular looms large. The 29-year-old center has been one of the most reliable interior linemen in the NFL over the last few years, but his 2018 season ended after nine weeks when he broke his fibula. If the injury doesn’t scare teams off, Paradis should be in line for a significant contract, either from the Broncos or someone else.
In a draft that appears to be stacked on the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos are one of the few teams that don’t need a pass rusher, or much defensive line help at all. If Denver wants to add to its defense, it could look at secondary players, like LSU’s Greedy Williams or Washington’s Byron Murphy. But the team may be more interested in the offensive side of the ball, which includes offensive tackles like Alabama’s Jonah Williams and Ole Miss’s Greg Little (if the Broncos need to repair their offensive line given the free-agency situation) or a skill-position player like Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry.
But the Broncos could also be in the market for a quarterback. Elway drafted Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler, who are both 6-foot-7, so he could fall in love with 6-foot-6 Justin Herbert, though no one knows whether Herbert will declare for the draft or stick around at Oregon. (Though to be fair to Elway, he did sign the 6-foot-1 Case Keenum, so it’s not like height is a sticking point for him.) There are plenty of other passers that could be available, including Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock, West Virginia’s Will Grier, and Duke’s Daniel Jones. Hell, there are rumors that Heisman-winner Kyler Murray could enter the draft. None of these passers have separated themselves from the others, but any of them could rise up draft boards by April. Denver will be one of the teams in the QB mix.