For the boys from Mile High Stadium, the road toward becoming the NFL’s next upstart superteam appears to have gotten a little steeper. Though the Broncos, coming off a 7-9 finish, are not expected to be much better in 2020 than they were in 2019 (Vegas odds projected Denver’s win total this season at 7.5), that didn’t stop Denver from being many prognosticators’ “I Really Think This Team Could Be Good If Everything Breaks for Them” nominee. With a second-year quarterback in Drew Lock, an emerging no. 1 receiver in Courtland Sutton, a highly touted rookie in Jerry Jeudy, and a solid defense led by pass rusher Von Miller, this team had all the pieces necessary for some offseason hype. But before their season’s even started, things already have started to break the wrong way.
The Broncos’ hype train was first impeded Tuesday, when Miller, a two-time All-Pro, dislocated a peroneal tendon in his ankle. The 31-year-old sustained the injury on Denver’s final play of practice, and it will likely shelve him for the season. The Broncos nearly suffered a second blow Thursday, when Sutton left practice with a right shoulder injury. Sutton, who’s coming off his first 1,000-yard season, was ruled day to day with an AC joint sprain and labeled questionable to face Tennessee, though NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport said he was a “long shot” to play.
These setbacks dampen some of the optimism the Broncos carried from the end of the 2019 season into the offseason. The reason for Denver’s hype centered on last season’s 4-1 finish after the team turned to Lock as its starter. General manager John Elway showed how confident he is in Lock’s potential by choosing receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler with his first two picks in the 2020 draft, bolstering a pass-catching group led by Sutton and tight end Noah Fant. The Broncos also signed veteran tailback Melvin Gordon III to complement Phillip Lindsay, forming one of the NFL’s more intriguing backfield pairs. After hiring Pat Shurmur as their new offensive coordinator in January, the shiny, exciting skill players the Broncos surrounded Lock with were bright enough to make the team an AFC sleeper choice. But, as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark noted in a recent piece about how we often hype up the wrong teams, a common profile for overrated squads features weak offensive lines and good skill players. After starting right tackle Ja’Waun James opted out of the season, Denver is set to start two new players—rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry III and right tackle Elijah Wilkinson—along the line after its unit graded 11th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and 25th in pass protection rankings last year.
Furthermore, the Broncos’ success this season isn’t only reliant on their offense figuring things out. They’ll need their defense to bounce back to the ranks of the dominant. Denver’s path to doing so appears to start up front. Edge rusher Bradley Chubb was due to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks opposite of Miller this year after the 2018 no. 5 pick missed 12 games last season after partially tearing his ACL. But Miller is now out, and it’s not even clear whether Chubb is healthy, either. Chubb exited a Broncos practice on August 29 and has not practiced since. It’s unclear whether he will be fully ready for Monday’s contest and there’s a chance that he is limited early in the season.
The Broncos also lost long-tenured cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive lineman Derek Wolfe to free agency this offseason. They traded for cornerback A.J. Bouye and signed cornerback Bryce Callahan, plus traded for defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, adequately replacing key members of the defensive unit. Denver has potential on that side of the ball after finishing 13th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metric last season. But without Miller in the fold, the possibility of making a leap into the top 10—or even top 5—has dwindled. Coach Vic Fangio will need to get creative with how he deploys his defense this season.
“It’s the whole team that has to fill the void,” Fangio told reporters this week. “It’s not [the] player that ends up playing for him. It’s not the defense, it’s not the offense, it’s not the special teams. It’s everybody.”
The Broncos are a team that needed everything to break right to have a real chance of making the playoffs this season. Miller’s setback is a blow to those hopes and Sutton’s ailment only further highlights how fragile the difference between a breakthrough season and another spent in the cellar can be for a team with high hopes but low external expectations. The Broncos entered the year with the 12th-toughest schedule based on opponents’ combined 2019 win percentage, so beating projections was already going to be an uphill battle.
There’s a possibility that the Broncos can work around these complications—that the rushing attack proves dominant; that the defense proves sturdy without Miller; that Lock takes a massive leap in his development; that Jeudy, who’s claimed a starting spot opposite Sutton, quickly becomes a dominant wideout. But it’s no longer the type of offseason hype that’s the result of several key pieces falling into place—it’s wishful thinking. The Broncos now need some big and unexpected developments to overachieve. That’s not likely. Simply put, it might be one year too soon for the Broncos’ hype train to officially get going.