The Broncos have not made the postseason since winning Super Bowl 50. After four straight seasons without a playoff appearance, the 2020 campaign was supposed to hint at or confirm a long-awaited breakthrough for the Broncos—an encouraging finish to the 2019 season followed by an intriguing offseason set the table for it. But hope for this year was ultimately upended before the season even kicked off thanks to a barrage of untimely injuries, and even the healthy parts of the roster have failed to flash much potential. At 5-9 with two games remaining, the Broncos will enter the offseason with a losing record—and big questions about their future.
Last week’s 48-19 blowout loss to the Bills perhaps stung a bit more than usual, not because of the margin, but because it came at the hands—or arm—of Josh Allen, Buffalo’s star quarterback whom the Broncos were in position to draft a few years ago. Allen shredded Denver’s ailing secondary, completing 28 of 40 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for two more scores. “Josh Allen is a great quarterback,” Denver coach Vic Fangio said after the game. “He’s right up there with the best in the league.”
While Allen—who attended Wyoming, just 130 miles north of Denver—has established himself as Buffalo’s franchise quarterback, the Broncos don’t seem to have theirs. Drew Lock, the former Missouri passer whom Denver selected in the second round of the 2019 draft, has had an inconsistent 2020, his first year as a full-time starter. Lock led the Broncos to a 4-1 mark to finish last season, but he’s struggled this year, highlighted by a seven-game stretch in which he turned the ball over at least once in each game.
There’s been splashes of Lock’s ability—he boasts plus arm strength and has shown that off at times. He’s also a decent athlete for his position. But his lapses in judgment—between his decision-making, operating within the pocket, and timing on throws—have not improved enough to silence critics. He’s averaging just 212 yards per game, has thrown almost an equal number of touchdowns (14) as interceptions (13), and owns one of the worst passer ratings in the league (75.4, above only Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold). And despite ranking among passers with the highest average intended air yards per attempt (8.6) this season, he ranks among the lowest in air yards per completion (3.5). With the Broncos at 5-9 (4-7 in games Lock has started this year), not even the record can justify his underwhelming play.
“If you can’t put (winning) streaks together, that means you’re losing,” Lock said after Saturday’s loss. “It’s obviously frustrating.”
Lock has been one of the NFL’s least efficient passers this season, despite general manager John Elway using premium draft capital to bolster Denver’s passing game on receivers Jerry Jeudy (first round) and KJ Hamler (second round). Lock’s struggles this year have instigated a conversation over whether or not the Broncos should explore adding a new starter this offseason. The Broncos are currently on pace to pick 13th in the 2021 NFL draft; out of range to take Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, but potentially in position to select a promising player like Florida’s Kyle Trask. Other top QB’s, like BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, or Ohio State’s Justin Fields will likely be out of range for Denver—but if one of those players slips, it’ll be difficult for Elway to pass.
Lock still has two years remaining on his rookie deal, giving Denver time to continue its evaluation on a cheap contract. (Per Spotrac, Lock’s combined cap hit over the next two seasons will be $4.14 million.) There’s also the possibility of acquiring a veteran during the offseason, and considering the Broncos are projected to have the 14th-most cap space, it’s not a guarantee they push to do so. Allen, whose stunning development occurred in his third season, is a case suggesting to patiently await Lock’s growth. But Allen, despite his erraticism, has supreme talent that suggested he was worth holding out for. Lock doesn’t boast as incredible traits as Allen—and Allen’s jump in production has caught the entire league off guard. The Broncos shouldn’t expect for Lock to do the same.
Offensively, there are building blocks for the Broncos’ passing game to take a step. Denver’s passing attack ranks 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics, which could be higher than expected considering the Broncos have deployed backups Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and emergency starter Kendall Hinton at different points this season. The receiving corps features the young coupling of Jeudy and Hamler, tight end Noah Fant, and receiver Courtland Sutton, who was coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign prior to a torn ACL ending his season. Denver also locked down left tackle Garett Bolles—who ranks first in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grades—to a four-year extension in November. The Broncos could likely upgrade at right tackle in free agency, though they may lose tailback Phillip Lindsay with offseason acquisition Melvin Gordon III asserting himself as the Broncos’ no. 1 running back in recent weeks.
But most of that is also reason to believe the Broncos should be better than they are. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was hired this offseason to turn things around for the Broncos, who are on track to finish in the bottom third of offensive DVOA for the second straight year. Players are aware that they have pieces that suggest they should boast a better offense.
“Obviously, we don’t wanna be losing,” Fant told reporters Sunday. “I know guys aren’t going out into games to lose. We’ve gotta get wins on the board. That’s what it comes down to. It might not be pretty all the time, but we’ve gotta get wins. That’s definitely frustrating, me being a part of the first two losing seasons for me. None of us like to lose and I know we’ve got competitors on this team, a lot of young guys, a big group of young guys that are gonna fight and get this thing turned around.”
A Broncos turnaround next season will rely on their defense continuing to remain one of the NFL’s better units. Denver brought in Fangio last season, and the former Bears defensive coordinator has kept that side of the ball on track. The Broncos entered last week ranked 13th in defensive DVOA—despite the unit being significantly hampered by injuries throughout the year. Star players Jurrell Casey and Von Miller were lost before the season started. Veteran defensive end Shelby Harris has struggled to stay fully healthy throughout the season. Additionally, the Broncos have had their cornerbacks unit essentially ripped down to the studs as the year has progressed, with only three available last week against Buffalo. Safety Justin Simmons, a core young player within Denver’s secondary, said that it’s been a frustrating year for Broncos defenders following Saturday’s loss.
“It’s just tough,” Simmons told reporters Sunday. “There’s a lot of times we beat ourselves up, speaking defensively. We had our work cut out for us, and we just didn’t make nearly enough of the plays we should’ve.”
That’s been the case for much of the year. The Broncos face a major decision with Simmons, who’s established himself as one of the NFL’s top safeties over recent years, yet didn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension ahead of his upcoming free agency this offseason. Simmons said that re-signing with Denver would be “a no-brainer” and acknowledged that the team didn’t reach the standards typically set for the franchise this season.
“We all know the expectations here in Denver and the tradition—the winning tradition—that this organization has,” Simmons said. “To be here my whole career and not be a part of the playoffs and have four straight losing seasons is tough. It’s a tough pill to swallow. There’s a lot of things that go into that. I do believe there are a lot of the right pieces. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve hit the injury bug and I think this is weird for everyone with COVID and the pandemic. It’s finding ways to fight through that and not using it as an excuse, because ultimately no one cares. There’s no asterisk next to our record saying injury and COVID-19. It just says wins and losses, and that’s all anyone cares about.”
It’s been a half-decade of the same for the Broncos. Elway, who’s been Denver’s GM since 2011, has plenty of important decisions to make entering the offseason, and the pressure of five consecutive years without a playoff appearance has to be mounting. On Monday, Fangio told reporters that he and Elway “talk often” when asked about his plan for the team’s future. “I believe we’re on the same page there,” Fangio added, “and I see no issues there.” The Broncos are within reach of landing a top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and the temptation of adding a new passer will be great, regardless of what Lock displays over the final two games. There’s a matter of determining whether Simmons should be re-signed, and how Fangio’s defense will be reconfigured altogether with a handful of players due to hit free agency, including Harris and Simmons. Fangio is considered one of the NFL’s top defensive minds, but his front seven could feature some new faces, though the core of Miller, pass rusher Bradley Chubb and linebacker Josey Jewell will be back. “I see a bunch of young players improving each and every week,” Fangio said Monday. “I see a bunch of guys in the mid-parts of their career improving each and every week. And I think this team has a bright future.”
This wasn’t the Broncos’ season of breakthrough, but this upcoming offseason will be pivotal in determining the franchise’s trajectory.
“At the end of the day, I’m always gonna be hopeful, especially because I believe we really have a good team,” Simmons said, “especially when we’re healthy. It just stinks to kind of live in that, knowing that it’s another year where it’s a losing season. But I will say that just because it’s a losing season doesn’t mean that there (aren’t) things that are positive that you can grow off of. So that’s the mindset.”