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2021 Team Report: Denver Broncos

Last updated: Tue, Aug 3

Offensive Philosophy

Denver's offense was among the worst in the league last year. They "led" the league in interceptions thrown and ranked 5th-worst in points, 2nd-worst in plays per drive, and 4th-worst in yards per drive. In theory, they have plenty of offensive talent everywhere outside of the quarterback position, they just can't make good use of it. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has historically preferred to run an up-tempo, pass-centric offense, but has proven adaptable in the past, such as with the 2017 Vikings when he used a run-heavy approach to help ease the job of journeyman quarterback Case Keenum.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater
Backup(s): Brett Rypien

Starting QB: The Broncos are going to have a 50-50 competition for the starting quarterback position between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. Lock was given the job in 2020 and was one of the lowest-graded starters in the league. That's why the Broncos went out and traded for Bridgewater. New general manager George Paton spent many years with the Minnesota Vikings and was the right-hand man of Vikings GM Rick Spielman when they selected Bridgewater in the first round. The team has built an incredibly strong defense and they need a quarterback who won't turn the ball over - a huge problem for Lock in 2020 when he led the NFL in interceptions. Lock is working to make improvements but we'll have to see how he responds to the addition of Bridgewater when training camp starts.

Backup QB: If Lock is the backup, then the Broncos will likely ride with Bridgewater for most of the season. If Bridgewater is the backup, the Broncos might have a short hook for Lock if he struggles again as the starter. We won't know how this battle unfolds until training camp. Brett Rypien is likely to be a coach in the league someday. Think of Kellen Moore, another former Boise State quarterback like Rypien, when you think of the Broncos third-string quarterback. Rypien won't do much if he's thrust into action but he's bright and was helping Lock learn the offense in 2020.

Running Backs

Starter: Melvin Gordon
Backup(s): Javonte Williams [R], Royce Freeman, Mike Boone, LeVante Bellamy
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Melvin Gordon is the starter...for now. He's in the final year of his contract and doesn't have Phillip Lindsay to contend with for snaps. However, Gordon does have second-round pick Javonte Williams to compete with in training camp. Gordon's salary and experience may give him the edge in this battle but for how long? He's a good runner, but Gordon has been hellbent on working inside and is no longer the speed back he once was in college at Wisconisn. Gordon is not a tackle-breaker and usually just falls forward after contact - which he's seeking out far too often. He's a decent receiver out of the backfield and a hard-charging running back but doesn't give you much excitement when the rock is in his hands. Oh yeah, Gordon also has an injury history that reads like "Infinite Jest" (it's really long) so don't expect him to play a 17-game season when he's only been able to play a 16-game season once in his six-year career. We expect Gordon to begin the season as the starter, but do not be surprised if (when?) Williams takes over as the lead back.

Backup RBs: Javonte Williams was arguably the best back in the 2021 NFL draft. He fell to the second round, but the Broncos liked him so much they moved up in the round to secure his services. Williams is a power back who runs with natural violence. He broke 75 tackles in 2020 for North Carolina, a number that led all FBS backs, and Williams has incredible contact balance to keep his legs moving upon contact. Williams is smart and can work well in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield. He'll compete with Melvin Gordon for the starting job and may beat him for that spot - if not in training camp then sometime in the regular season. Royce Freeman has lost confidence as a runner although natural talent is still there. He looks to be one of those guys (like former Broncos running back Devontae Booker) who needs a second chance with a different team to showcase his ability. Mike Boone was picked up in free agency earlier this year. The former Vikings back brings experience, explosion and special teams ability to the Broncos roster. LeVante Bellamy has some Phillip Lindsay to his game. He's a smaller back who is not afraid to run inside but is a long-shot to make the 53-man roster.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy
Backups: K.J. Hamler, Tim Patrick, Tyrie Cleveland, Seth Williams [R], Diontae Spencer, Kendall Hinton, Warren Jackson [R], Damion Willis

Starting WRs: Courtland Sutton missed almost all of the 2020 season due to a knee injury suffered in Week 2. He's been on the road to recovery ever since but should be ready to go all full speed in training camp. Sutton was on the verge of a breakout season in 2020 but we were robbed of seeing him do that. Now, Sutton wants to pick up where he left off and make the most of his natural ability in the final year of his rookie contract. His size and ability to play "above the rim" make him a special player and a favorite for whoever is throwing him the rock. Sutton has "my ball" mentality and can dominate a smaller cornerback consistently. Even if the Broncos have a run-heavy offense, Sutton has the ability to be quite fantasy relevant as a WR2 every-week starter. Jerry Jeudy is one of the best route-runners in the game today. The second-year pro flashed as a first-round pick in 2020 but he dropped too many passes and didn't seem to have the strongest chemistry with QB Drew Lock. Jeudy can get open with ease and many times he was wide open and his quarterback didn't see him. That led to frustration which led to drops and lack of production. This year, Jeudy is motivated to prove the doubters wrong and cement himself as an up-and-coming prospect in the game. He's got speed and quickness but the drops are a problem. If he cuts down on that part, Jeudy could be a flex-worth play for Fantasy GMs in 2021.

Backup WRs: K.J. Hamler is the Broncos version of Tyreek Hill. Now, he's not as good as Hill but he might be as fast. Hamler will work as the no.3/slot receiver for the Broncos this year. His speed makes him a threat to score no matter where he's at on the field. Hamler can take underneath passes and turn them into long gains in the blink of an eye. He may not get a lot of targets as the no.3 receiver in a run-heavy system, but Hamler has "what the heck" flex appeal because of his speed. Tim Patrick has always had talent, size/speed ratio, but last year he finally got his opportunity. When Courtland Sutton went down with an ACL injury, Patrick stepped into the starting lineup and shined. His 51 catches, 742 yards and six touchdowns were all career highs. This year, Sutton is back healthy and that means Patrick is back to being a reserve player. If given the opportunity, Patrick can be reliable but he's likely looking at his next stop as a place where he can compete for a starting job. Tyrie Cleveland was a seventh-round pick last year out of Florida. He's got size and speed, but Cleveland is buried on the depth chart. Cleveland did impress as a receiver in limited opportunity and worth keeping an eye on in super deep dynasty formats. Seth Williams, a 2021 sixth-round pick out of Auburn, has size and speed to his game. He can make crazy catches and get open deep but Williams does little after the catch. Diontae Spencer is mainly a return man who can be used as a gadget player. Kendall Hinton will mainly be remembered for playing quarterback last year in a one-game, emergency situation for the Broncos. Warren Jackson, a huge target undrafted out of Colorado State, has a large wingspan and can play "above the rim" so well that we're watching him in crazy deep dynasty formats. Damion Willis did flash a bit during his time with the Bengals but is now trying to make the Broncos roster in one of the most cramped wide receiver rooms in the league.

Tight Ends

Starters: Noah Fant
Backups: Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Austin Fort, Shaun Beyer [R]

A first-round pick for the Broncos in the 2019 NFL draft, Noah Fant continues to progress and work hard to improve all facets of his game. He's mainly known as a receiving tight end, and he's got the ability to be an even more dangerous one in 2021. In 2020, Fant posted a career high 62 catches for 673 yards. His three touchdowns matched what he posted as a rookie, and if there's an area he could improve on it is in the red zone. If the Broncos get better quarterback play, and Fant improves near pay dirt, we could see him finish the season as a TE1 for Fantasy GMs for the first time in his career. Right now, he's posted TE2 numbers but his dedication and steady increase in production over two seasons shows there is more there to be had. We'll see if Fant continues on that trajectory in 2021. If he hits, Fant could end up not only being a weekly starter for Fantasy GMs at tight end, but he could be a value pick - a steal - in your drafts. Albert Okwuegbunam is a huge target with a red zone presence that is tough to match up against. He's coming back from a knee injury suffered last year as a rookie and may not be himself until the midway point of the regular season. Okwuegbunam has great chemistry with his college quarterback Drew Lock, but if Teddy Bridgewater is the starter he'll have to build a working relationship with him instead. Eric Saubert has bounced around the league a bit. Coming out of tiny Drake University, Saubert showed well at the East-West Shrine Game as an "F" (receiving) tight end. Austin Fort showed upside when he was undrafted out of Wyoming a few years ago. Injuries have kept him from seeing the field in the regular season and he's yet to play a snap for the Broncos. Shaun Beyer was picked up as a UDFA this year out of Iowa where he was a backup to Fant and T.J. Hockenson. Beyer is a receiver first but an effort blocker.

Place Kicker

Brandon McManus: If you play in leagues with distance kicking bonuses, McManus is a savvy late pick. The thin Denver air encouraged the Broncos to give him attempts from 50+ - 15 in fact, five more than any other kicker. McManus made 10 of them, which led the league, and he was 8-for-8 from 40-49 yards. If he can repeat those numbers, McManus should be inside of the top 10 in leagues that award field goal values based on length of the kick. McManus's salary jumps to three million next year, so he'll need to have a solid year to keep that from looking like an overpay for his services.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Diontae Spencer, Tyrie Cleveland

Diontae Spencer had to spend five years in the CFL before sticking on an NFL roster, but he's made the most of his chances since, turning into a quality return specialist with the Broncos over the past two seasons.

Punt Returners: Diontae Spencer, K.J. Hamler

Diontae Spencer had to spend five years in the CFL before sticking on an NFL roster, but he's made the most of his chances since, turning into a quality return specialist with the Broncos over the past two seasons.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Garret Bolles, LG Dalton Risner, C Lloyd Cushenberry, RG Graham Glasgow, RT Bobby Massie
Key Backups: OT Cam Fleming, OL Calvin Anderson, OL Quinn Meinerz [R]

The guards highlight this unit, as Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow provide steady performance inside. At left tackle, Garrett Bolles has not really lived up to his draft pick. Meanwhile, right tackle Bobby Massie arrives on a short-term deal from Chicago. Center Lloyd Cushenberry is improving. This is a decent unit, well-coached, returning four starters with experience in the system. But measured by raw talent, they lack elite upside.

Team Defense

The Broncos should be your top target if you are waiting until the end of your fantasy draft to take a defense. They open with Daniel Jones, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, and barring an unfortunate injury will have Bradley Chubb and Von Miller together on the field for the first time since Week 4 of the 2019 season. They also overhauled their secondary, adding Patrick Surtain II with the #9 pick and signing Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. Vic Fangio should have this group in attack mode and they will be able to take advantage of the inexperience at quarterback and porous offensive lines in the trio of opening games to help get fantasy teams off to a hot start.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Shelby Harris, NT Mike Purcell, DE Dre'Mont Jones
Backups: NT Shamar Stephen, NT DeShawn Williams, DE McTelvin Agim, DE Jonathan Harris

Starting DL: The Broncos value their powerful front line heavily, so they prioritized bringing back Harris on a $27 million deal, even coming off an COVID-shortened 2020. Harris has developed into one of their key defenders, a space-eater who can also penetrate and make plays in the backfield. Jones was productive as well, particularly down the stretch, with 3.5 of his 6.5 sacks coming over the final month of the season. Still, neither is much of an IDP consideration in this two-gap scheme. They're much more valuable to the Broncos than to fantasy players. The same goes for Purcell, who should reclaim his starting job in the middle but offers little more than run-stuffing skill on early downs.

Backup DL: Stephen was acquired in April as a platoon partner for Purcell on the inside. He's a one-dimensional run-stopper, though, offering little anywhere else. He's likely an upgrade on Williams, though. Agim offers some potential as a high-motor penetrator. Harris brings over a handful of rotational snaps from his time in Chicago.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Bradley Chubb, ILB A.J. Johnson, ILB Josey Jewell, WLB Von Miller
Backups: SLB Malik Reed, ILB Baron Browning [R], ILB Justin Strnad, ILB Austin Calitro

Starting LBs: Chubb has yet to dazzle the NFL on the level of some of his high-drafted peers on the edge. He's produced 20.5 sacks over his 34 NFL games, though, and he made notable strides in 2020 after recovering from ACL surgery. He was actually credited with more pressures (34) than the likes of Myles Garrett, Khalil Mack, and J.J. Watt. Miller is likely entering the final year of his Denver career, which puts even more pressure on Chubb to truly break out. Miller should be ready for the start of the season following ankle surgery and a long, much-deserved recovery. He was plenty productive when last on the field, registering 22.5 sacks over 2018-19, though he's not much of an overall fantasy consideration any longer. The inside starters are primarily leaned on for their run defense, where both Johnson and Jewell are productive. They posted 124 and 113 tackles last year, respectively, and while both are liabilities against the pass, fantasy players love the cheap tackle counts. Both are solid if unspectacular LB3 options.

Backup LBs: Reed spent 2020 filling in for the injured Miller and excelled, leading the team with 8.0 sacks off the edge. He'll keep factoring into pass-rush sets, even with Miller (likely) back in action, which will mean more to the Broncos than to fantasy players. Still, there's big-play upside if either Miller or Chubb misses time. Browning was taken in Round 2, presumably to groom as the top backup on the inside. He's a dynamic athlete who makes plays against the run, and were he to knock the mediocre Jewell out of the lineup early on, it wouldn't be a huge upset. Strnad also fits the profile of a tenacious run-stuffer who doesn't contribute much against the pass.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Kareem Jackson, FS Justin Simmons, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Ronald Darby
Backups: CB Patrick Surtain II [R], SS Jamar Johnson [R], CB Bryce Callahan, CB Michael Ojemudia, CB Duke Dawson, S Caden Sterns [R]

Starting DBs: The team completely remade its cornerback room, with two splash additions in free agency and a top-10 pick. Fuller has long been an up-and-down cover man, but posted his best play in Chicago under new coach Vic Fangio. A playmaker on the ball, he's an upper-shelf cornerback and a great fantasy option for formats that require the position. The team spent the No. 9 pick on Surtain II, who's widely viewed as a pro-ready star-in-waiting. But Darby, still just 27 years old, comes fresh off a strong bounce-back season and looks to fit nicely in Fangio's system. He didn't intercept a pass last year, but broke up 16 and proved his mettle as an elite No. 2 man. If he can stay healthy - he's missed 24% of his NFL games - he'll look to lock down one boundary and help funnel things inside to the playmaking safeties. Simmons, in particular, has emerged as a true star and a low-end fantasy DB1. He hasn't missed a snap since 2017, and he plays all over the field, averaging 95 tackles and 4 interceptions. There are DB1 options with higher upside, but Simmons is a rock-solid play for those content to wait a bit on draft day. Jackson remains an impact piece at age 33, and while his splash plays dipped in 2020, he recorded a career-high 89 tackles.

Backup DBs: Surtain will see relevant time on the field early, even with the star power in the starting lineup. It shouldn't be long before he's more or less starting on the outside, bracketing with Fuller while Darby moves into the slot. Surtain is close to a can't-miss prospect, with pro-level technique and a pedigree like no other, and it's frightening to think of this trio's potential under Vic Fangio. Callahan has long flashed brilliance, but continues to struggle with foot woes. Surtain's selection may have spelled his doom; the team can save over $6 million by cutting him loose. That's pricey for a No. 4 cornerback, especially with Ojemudia coming off a promising rookie year. The Broncos can certainly rely on their depth at cornerback, if nothing else. Anything received from Dawson, who damaged his ACL, MCL, and LCL last December, will be a bonus. Johnson may prove a steal from Round 4, a big, versatile playmaker capable of lining up all over the secondary. Jackson is officially on notice at 33.