Can elite Broncos defense mask shaky offense?

By Ethan Sears

The 2016 Denver Broncos were as much a reversion to the mean as they were a disappointment. A 9-7 record and narrow playoff miss in the stacked AFC West was a weak follow-up to a Super Bowl championship. But when that championship was filled with close victories against every team from the Cleveland Browns to the New England Patriots, it was hard to expect another title run.

Denver’s coaching turnover stemmed from Gary Kubiak’s retirement, not anybody’s inflated expectations. However, given the strength of their division and the loss of Kubiak (not to mention defensive coordinator Wade Phillips), the Broncos’ path to the postseason looks rocky at best.

Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian warming up before a Broncos game

Quarterback Trevor Siemian won the job out of camp and rightly so. Siemian did enough last season, however, the Broncos would be loath to use him as anything other than a game manager. In 2016, Siemian threw for just 10 interceptions. He also had a solid 25.58 interceptable pass rate, per Cian Fahey’s charting, but Siemian didn’t do much else. He threw for only 3,401 yards, averaged just 6.04 adjusted net yards per attempt, and finished outside the top-20 quarterbacks in both DYAR and DVOA. He also really struggled against pressure.

The Broncos ranked 12th in pressure rate last year, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac, yet dropped to 27th in adjusted sack rate. Though Siemian was praised for his pocket poise, numbers like that tend to indicate that the quarterback was at fault for a lot of sacks. There were some brief flashes last year where it seemed like Siemian could be something more than a game manager, but they were often accompanied by mistakes. Personnel-wise, Denver still has one of the best defenses in football. They won’t try to depend on Siemian as long as that’s the case.

One thing working for Siemian is his supporting cast. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are two very good receivers at the top of Denver’s depth chart. Both went for over 1,000 yards last season. It’s easy to forget about them because we don’t think of them as top fantasy receivers, but Siemian couldn’t really ask for much better. Thomas had a 63 percent catch rate last year; Sanders was at a cool 58 percent. The duo only combined for 10 touchdowns, but that had more to do with Denver’s playcalling in the red zone as anything else.

The Broncos’ receiving corps does drop off after Thomas and Sanders. It looks like Cody Latimer will be the No. 3 wideout to start the year. However, Latimer had just eight receptions in 2016 and Denver spent two draft picks on receivers. Isaiah McKenzie, a fifth-round pick, could end up with the job. Unfortunately, Carlos Henderson, their third-round pick, is out for the year with a thumb injury.

At tight end, Denver is pretty much waiting on Jake Butt to come back from an ACL tear suffered in the Orange Bowl. The position was a black hole for them last year, with Virgil Green catching just 22 balls for 237 yards. Green will start until Butt returns, however, taking the Michigan product in the fifth round was the right play for the long haul. Without injury, Butt would have been the third or fourth tight end off the board in this draft. He has all the size and route running ability to be a matchup problem. Moreover, Butt can make tough catches and pick up ground after contact. Green will probably be Denver’s primary blocking tight end even after Butt returns, however, the rookie will be an impact player in the second half of the season.

Denver Broncos running back Jamaal Charles during NFL preseason Week 3

At running back, the Broncos have a stupid amount of talent. However, both C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles are coming off injury. The two played just 10 games combined last season. It’s almost worth disregarding the question of who starts as both players should get a healthy diet of carries.

Given Charles’ longer injury history and older age, however, it would be surprising to see Denver use him as a workhorse. Ironically, both players had poor numbers last year before getting hurt.

However, these are two of the most efficient backs in the league. At 5.5 yards per carry over his career, Charles is in the top-five all-time running backs. As for Anderson, he’s averaged 4.6 per carry over his career and has a knack for picking up good yardage after contact. Assuming health, the Broncos should improve from being 30th in rushing DVOA last season.

It’s tough to make an argument against the offensive line either. On the inside, the Broncos brought in left guard Ronald Leary from Dallas and plan to move him to right guard. Leary didn’t allow a sack last year, per FOA, and had an 80.2 PFF grade. Center Matt Paradis was one of the best in the league last season. He was second at the position with a 90.4 PFF grade and ranked ninth in snaps per blown block, according to FOA. Allen Barbre and Max Garcia will both get time at left guard. Barbre was top-20 among guards in PFF grading last year while Garcia ranked 20th in snaps per blown block, according to FOA.

The team spent its first round pick at left tackle, taking Garett Bolles out of Utah with the 2oth pick. Setting aside that Bolles is already 25 years old, he’s a great fit in a Denver scheme that ran outside zone on over half of its runs last season. He uses his hands well and gets to the second level with ease. As a pass blocker, Bolles is quick into his stance, allowing him to beat speed rushes easily. However, bull rushes will be an issue in the NFL. Bolles often got pushed backward by bull rushers in college and the NFL is a step up from the Pac-12. He also struggled to recognize stunts.

In college, Bolles was quick enough to survive against them, but that probably won’t be the case in the NFL. Right tackle Menelik Watson is the only weak point here. Watson played just 328 snaps in Oakland last season and struggled, with a 56.0 PFF grade. He’s never been a full-time starter and Donald Stephenson — who had a 31.0 PFF grade of his own last year — has a real chance to win back the job at some point.

Nov 27, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) and outside linebacker Shane Ray (56) react to a defensive stop in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the Broncos probably won’t be the best team in the league for the third straight year. They lost their leader, coordinator Wade Phillips, cut safety T.J. Ward, and lost outside linebacker Shane Ray for at least the first half with injury. There’s also the ever-impending issue of age. However, this is still a great defense.

The secondary is led by Chris Harris Jr., whose 91.6 PFF grade ranked first among all cornerbacks last season. Across from him, Aqib Talib ranked third with a 90.6 grade. Harris had a 67 percent success rate in 2016, third among corners, per FOA.

Both players gave up just 4.7 adjusted yards per target, a truly amazing number that tied for second at the position according to FOA. It’s worth noting that Talib is 31 years old, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to aging.

When Denver runs nickel personnel, Harris usually slides to the slot with Bradley Roby playing the outside. Roby struggled last year, with a 48 percent success rate, per FOA. At safety, the Broncos may struggle to replace Ward. Even though he’s 31 years of age, cutting him was a huge leap of faith in Will Parks.

Parks is only 23 and played just 268 snaps last season. He also struggled with a 45.9 PFF grade. The talent is obviously there and the Broncos clearly believe in it. But Parks has to prove himself. Next to him, Darian Stewart had a ho-hum 2016. He finished 20th among safeties with 7.4 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA, along with a 79.1 PFF grade last season.

At inside linebacker, Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis are a strong duo. Marshall is one of few players who could challenge Luke Kuechly as the best coverage linebacker in football. He led the position with a 77 percent success rate in 2016, per FOA. Marshall also gave up just 5.3 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. Davis is more pedestrian, with a 75.9 PFF grade in 2016. However, he’s far from a liability, with a 51 percent success rate last year.

Derek Wolfe Denver Broncos

On the edge, Von Miller is still freakishly great. He had 13.0 sacks, 11 hits, and 38 hurries last season, per FOA, along with 62 stops and 29 defeats. Miller’s 76 percent run stop rate doesn’t knock you out in the same way, but he still had a 93.6 run defense grade from PFF. Opposite him, replacing Ray is going to be tough.

Right now, it looks like the job belongs to Kasim Edebali, who had a terrible 48.6 PFF grade last season. If Shaq Barrett’s hip recovers in time for Week 1, he could end up being the starter. Barrett played just 415 snaps last season, but had an 83 percent run stop rate, per FOA.

The front three was a weakness last year, as the team ranked 28th in adjusted line yards, and hasn’t gotten much better. Nose tackle Sylvester Williams was replaced with Domata Peko. However, Peko is 33 years old and had a 47.7 PFF grade last season. At defensive end, Jared Crick had a 50.4 PFF grade despite respectable pass rushing numbers. Crick only had 3.0 sacks, but put up 10 hits and 19 hurries last season, per FOA. Opposite him, Derek Wolfe had poor run defense numbers, but posted 6.0 sacks, 12 hits and 21 hurries last year, per FOA. This team finished first in pressure rate last year, per FOA, and will be near the top this year as well.

All things considered, the Broncos might be one of the best last place teams ever. The biggest problems are a new coaching staff, a division that could produce three playoff teams, and Siemian. Vance Joseph, the team’s new head coach, has strong pedigree. But he’s coming in and changing a defense whose coordinator built a historically great unit which, by default, makes him a downgrade.

The AFC West had two playoff teams last year and if the Chargers stay healthy, they will compete for the wild card. As for Siemian, he probably won’t lose games for them. But the Broncos are going to struggle when they have to throw the ball. This is a great defense, but Denver will still inevitably be in situations where they’re down and need Siemian to do more than manage a game. It’s hard to trust him in those situations.

In another division, Denver might have enough to overcome those problems. However, the AFC West is just too good.