With draft success sparse in Denver between 2013-17, the Broncos finally appear to have formed a young core capable of supplementing their handful of Super Bowl 50 holdovers. The Broncos’ projected starting lineup is probably the franchise’s most talented since its 2015 championship campaign.
The 2018 draft class and undrafted free-agent RB Phillip Lindsay give the four Super Bowl-era starters left –- Von Miller, Chris Harris, Emmanuel Sanders and Derek Wolfe –- reason for optimism after the past two seasons shoved the Broncos off the national radar. Rookie head coach Vic Fangio’s credentials dwarf Vance Joseph’s, new offensive line coach Mike Munchak is one of the NFL’s premier assistants and additions Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan help form one of the league’s better-looking secondaries.
Potential enhancements notwithstanding, the Broncos’ years-long headliner issue remains. As such, it is difficult to see them escaping the lower rungs of the NFL’s middle class. The absolute best-case scenario? A Joe Flacco-fronted wild-card season. The more realistic outcome? Something closer to the Broncos’ post-Peyton Manning slates, when the Broncos went 9-7, 5-11 and 6-10.
Denver’s 2019 operation looks to feature a low ceiling for a few key reasons, the most visible being Flacco’s track record. And the Broncos’ longer-term route back to relevance involves notable impediments.
In nine years running the team, general manager John Elway has invested in four veteran quarterbacks and four rookies, with the intentions of one day starting them or reluctantly having to do so. Brock Osweiler (a 2012 second-round pick and 2017 free-agency addition) counts twice. This era’s non-Manning QBs -– Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum and Paxton Lynch -– and several non-quarterback draft misfires threw the Broncos off course, with the decision to take Lynch at No. 26 overall in 2016 doubling as one of the bigger turning points in franchise history.
Elway’s Flacco-Drew Lock combination approach, in theory, stabilizes the Broncos in the short term while providing future upside. This formula obviously could work. But it has a better chance to fall short of helping the Broncos capitalize on their somewhat promising roster.
The Broncos are, with straight faces, counting on Flacco to recapture his age-29 form . He is now 34. In 2014, under then-Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco started two playoff games after compiling a career-best 68.2 QBR figure (ninth that season) in the future Broncos head coach’s system. New Denver OC Rich Scangarello’s offense is derived from Kubiak’s. This plan’s rather notable caveats? Flacco, since recording his quarterback-record seventh road playoff win in 2014, has suffered a torn ACL (2015), dealt with back (2017) and hip (2018) problems, has not cleared seven yards per attempt in a season or posted a QBR figure higher than 19th.
This latest Elway swing connecting would represent an incredible comeback and make Scangarello (two years as an NFL position coach, three seasons of Division I-FBS work) an unusual head coaching candidate. Elway attributed some of Flacco’s recent woes to the Ravens’ lack of offensive weaponry. That is not a flawed theory, but the Broncos’ skill-position group may limit Elway’s latest stopgap passer.
Emmanuel Sanders, eight months post-Achilles tear, is now 32. The former Pro Bowler likely will not return completely to his pre-injury version. Denver’s 2018 offense cratered (13.3 points per game) without Sanders in its final four games (all losses). This one is counting on a bevy of second-year cogs –- running backs Lindsay and Royce Freeman and wideouts Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton — elevating Flacco. The Broncos selected Noah Fant in the first round, but tight ends are notoriously slow developers. Just one (Evan Engram) exceeded 575 receiving yards as a rookie this decade. Elway’s assessment of his own skill corps may be off. Envisioning Flacco success without prolific chain-moving help is difficult.
Another troublesome component of Denver’s potential road back: the timeline issue Lock creates. Fangio’s early Lock analysis underscores how committed the team is to Flacco. Lock sitting throughout 2019, as the Broncos hope he will, would be atypical. Of the 36 quarterbacks selected in the first or second rounds from 2010-18, only seven have failed to start at least two games as rookies. Given Flacco’s trajectory, Lock probably joins the majority of his 2010s predecessors.
Barring a Johnny Manziel- or Christian Hackenberg-esque rookie year, Lock will also likely deter the Broncos from drafting one of the highly touted QBs expected to be available in 2020. The Broncos, then, stand to be tethered to an injury-prone passer on the way out and a No. 42 overall pick. For a franchise that saw the Lynch mistake accelerate this descent and prevent Elway from making a play for Patrick Mahomes a year later, bypassing a higher-touted QB class because of Lock (56.9 completion percentage at Missouri) is a gamble.
Since 2000, 21 quarterbacks have been chosen in Round 2 . Drew Brees became an all-time great. The rest of the viable-starter list includes Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo. Based on the Broncos’ run of miscalculations at this position, would you bet on Lock joining this group or the larger one that includes Osweiler, Brian Brohm, Quincy Carter and Co.?
Elway’s attempts to prop up his long-productive defense with passable QBs failed, and that unit’s cornerstones (Miller and Harris) are now north of 30. The Broncos’ past three-plus years look a lot like the pre-Deshaun Watson Texans, who trotted out four below-average starting QBs from 2013-16. It took a first-round quarterback investment to (sort of) revitalize the Texans. But Houston’s Osweiler- and Brian Hoyer-piloted playoff teams benefited from poor AFC South competition. The Chiefs and Chargers give the Broncos a vicious divisional docket — a primary reason this latest reboot could be inconsequential.
Elway earned the job security he has enjoyed, but he should be about out of chances to fix this. If the Flacco-to-Lock baton pass unfolds like Elway’s other attempts to install a Manning successor, the Hall of Fame quarterback’s eye for QB talent should raise concerns. History shows the odds being against this latest solution reviving the Broncos.
By Sam Robinson