It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next is the Denver Broncos, who were eliminated from playoff contention with their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
What Went Right
If Denver’s season has any saving grace, it’s second-year receiver Courtland Sutton emerging as the team’s no. 1 receiver. Sutton, the no. 40 pick in the 2018 draft, expanded on a solid rookie year to become one of the game’s best receivers. He delivered highlights all season that suggest he’s ready to join the game’s elite sooner rather than later. Take this one-handed, diving 26-yard touchdown against the Chargers earlier this month.
Sutton’s numbers match what anyone could see. His 72.8 yards per game is tied for no. 19 among all receivers, just behind Robert Woods and Allen Robinson. He’s done this despite catching passes from Joe Flacco, former sixth-rounder Brandon Allen, and rookie Drew Lock. Sutton’s 63 catches for 1,019 yards this year may not look gaudy, but those numbers are massive considering Denver’s anemic passing game. Denver throws 31 times per game, the sixth fewest of any team. When the Broncos do throw, the team looks to Sutton. This season he has 42 percent of Denver’s air yards (the total length of all passes thrown minus any yards after the catch) and is virtually tied with Stefon Diggs for the highest percentage for any receiver, according to Next Gen Stats. Sutton’s emergence was so rapid the team felt comfortable trading receiver Emmanuel Sanders midseason. The team’s options behind Sutton are a mixed bag, but he is a star in the making. With Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman at running back and a couple of quality tight ends in Noah Fant and Jeff Heuerman, the Broncos have a solid young skill group.
On defense, Denver had one more bright spot: the emergence of safety Justin Simmons. The 26-year-old was drafted in the third round in 2016 and is having a career year in head coach Vic Fangio’s defense. Simmons is the second-highest-graded safety by Pro Football Focus. Fangio’s defense does wonders for safeties—it’s the third year in a row a Fangio safety is in the top three by PFF grading—but Simmons has rejuvenated a defense that started the year off terribly. That unit’s first month was bad, but Denver has rebounded. Since Week 5, the Broncos are 4-5 and have allowed the seventh-fewest points and nearly a full yard-per-play less. Their defense is ranked as one of the 10 most efficient by Football Outsiders weighted DVOA, which assigns more importance to recent performances. The Broncos are in a strong position to field an excellent defense in 2020.
What Went Wrong
A lot. September was brutal for the Broncos, who started 0-4 and allowed the 15th-most points and the 13th-most yards per play in the month, which was awful for what was expected to be a defensive-oriented team. Defensive end Bradley Chubb tore his ACL in Week 4. Defensive end Von Miller, who turned 30 in March, is on pace for the worst season of his career and is dealing with an MCL injury. Meanwhile, defensive end Shaq Barrett, who Denver let leave in free agency this offseason and signed a one-year, $4 million deal with Tampa Bay, leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks.
Denver’s defensive struggles pale in comparison to their offensive issues. Broncos president of football operations John Elway traded for Joe Flacco this winter, but Flacco was every bit as bad as everyone expected and was shut down for the year with a neck injury the same week he criticized head coach Vic Fangio’s lack of aggressiveness. Brandon Allen, bless his heart, completed 46.4 percent of his passes in three starts. Rookie second-rounder Drew Lock was solid in his first two starts and then had an ugly performance against the Chiefs in the snow at Arrowhead on Sunday. Lock is the only Bronco worthy of being in a quarterback battle in 2020, but Denver’s QB question is still not resolved.
The Broncos have some hard decisions to make on defense. Pass rusher Von Miller has a team option that carries a $25.6 million cap hit next season. Letting Miller leave is seemingly unthinkable, but so is paying quarterback money to someone who has seven sacks so far in 2019. They’ll have to renegotiate that number. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is a free agent, and after his holdout over the summer, it would be surprising if he doesn’t test the market to maximize his value. Harris will turn 31 this summer, but he’s still a key contributor who would be hard to replace. Simmons, who is a free agent after this season, would arguably be a bigger loss. Given Fangio’s history of turning safeties into stars, whether the Broncos retain Simmons or not will say a lot about how much they feel about his performance. How the Broncos decide to handle Miller, Harris, and Simmons will have a major impact on their 2020 season.
The Broncos will also likely face some important changes on offense. Right guard Ron Leary (who the team has an option on) and center Connor McGovern are both free agents and playing well enough that they could earn decent money in free agency, especially given how thirsty NFL teams are for competent offensive linemen. Lastly, Brandon Allen is a free agent. He can stay or he can go, but if the move impacts the Broncos’ future, something has gone wrong.
The Broncos have their own pick in each of the first three rounds plus a third-rounder from the Steelers (from a draft-day trade) and third- and fourth-rounders from the 49ers (from the Emmanuel Sanders trade). They could use some hits from those picks, especially along the offensive line and secondary if Simmons, Harris, Leary, and/or McGovern leave in free agency. Giving Fangio a versatile defender like Clemson safety turned linebacker Isaiah Simmons or a shutdown cornerback like LSU’s Kristian Fulton or Alabama’s Trevon Diggs (Stefon’s little brother) in the first round would provide a lot of creative freedom to one of the NFL’s best defensive schemers. It’s a running joke that Elway loves tall quarterbacks, so it may seem like a foregone conclusion that Oregon’s 6-foot-6 quarterback Justin Herbert is destined for Denver, but he may be gone before the Broncos have a chance to get him. Drafting a defender in the first round followed by some offensive linemen to protect Lock may be a better plan.