ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos won’t kick off against the Giants for nearly four more months, but it’s not too early to take an initial look at Denver’s schedule.
In this edition of “Ask Aric,” we take a look at the early part of the schedule, how the team’s defense could help them get off to a fast start and which former player would make a big impact this season.
We’ll also take a look at Drew Lock’s future and how the inside linebacker position could be shored up.
If you’d like to ask a question for a future mailbag, click here.
Is it realistic to see a 3-0 start to the season? – Anthony L.
Anthony, while starting 3-0 is no easy task no matter who is on the schedule, this year’s slate definitely sets up more favorably for the Broncos than their 2020 slate. Last year, Denver faced three eventual playoff teams over the first three weeks of the season in Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay. The Broncos didn’t have their starting quarterback for most of Week 2 and all of Week 3, which certainly didn’t help as they started the year 0-3.
As the Broncos look to earn a Week 1 win for the first time since 2018 — they’re 0-7 in September since 2019 — they’ll start the year against teams who were a combined 9-39 last year. Two of those teams — the Jaguars and Jets — could presumably start rookie quarterbacks, and Head Coach Vic Fangio has found success against rookie signal-callers. He’s won 18 of 27 matchups against rookie QBs as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, including a 2-1 mark in 2020.
If Denver can get off to a 3-0 start, it could set the team on a path toward the playoffs. Since 1990, nearly 75 percent of teams to start the season 3-0 ended up with a playoff berth. Of course, if the Broncos don’t go 3-0 or 2-1 in the season’s first three games, they could be facing another uphill climb. Beginning in Week 4, they’ll play four games against playoff teams in five weeks.
I feel confident the Broncos will get at least two wins in the first three weeks, and as things stand right now, I think 3-0 is a reasonable goal.
What is a realistic and bold record for the first half of the season? – Brandon W.
Brandon, I’m going to consider Weeks 1 through 10 as the first half of the season, because the Broncos’ schedule shifts after their Week 11 bye. Following the bye, the Broncos play five of their seven games against division opponents, including the final three games of the year. For those games to matter, though, they’ll need to get off to a strong start in those first 10 games.
Let’s start with a realistic/reserved projection. I believe 3-0 is quite realistic, so let’s start there. Over the next five weeks, the Broncos play the Ravens, travel to Pittsburgh, host the Raiders, play the Browns on a short week and host Washington. That’s a tough stretch, but I think it’s fair to expect the Broncos to pick up at least two wins. They then travel to Dallas and host Philadelphia, and I think it’s fair to assume they can split those two games. This projection would send the Broncos to their bye week at 6-4 and firmly in the playoff conversation. They’d need to likely go 5-2 after the bye to ensure a playoff spot, but 4-3 might get it done.
A best-case scenario could put the Broncos at 8-2 or 7-3 entering the bye. I’d again count on a 3-0 start, but I think there’s a good chance the Broncos’ defense can slow Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger enough to win one or both of the games against their AFC North opponents. The Thursday night, short-week game against Cleveland might be the toughest on the schedule outside of a trip to Kansas City in December, so it’s hard to count on a win there. I do think that a road game against Dallas is more winnable than some might think, as the Broncos have the personnel to matchup with Dallas’ high-powered offense. The Broncos should also be able to move the ball against the Cowboys’ defense. If Denver holds serve at home, that could set them up for a string of early-season wins.
This sort of success would buck a recent trend for Denver; The Broncos haven’t been over .500 in Week 10 or later since 2016.
Will we have the best defense this upcoming season? – Adrian M.
As I mentioned above, my expectation is that Fangio’s defense will make life very difficult for rookie and veteran quarterbacks alike. On paper, there aren’t many weaknesses. The Broncos likely have the top safety duo in the league with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson and have a stacked cornerback group that includes Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan and Pat Surtain II. Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should be on the field together for the first time since 2018, and the defensive line is solid with Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell and Dre’Mont Jones. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell are solid run stoppers and the Broncos should have Baron Browning and Justin Strnad to aid in pass coverage at the linebacker position.
ESPN’s Mike Clay recently projected that the Broncos would have the top defense in the league, led by their secondary. Clay graded the Broncos’ cornerback group as the second best in the NFL, while deeming their safety group the league’s top duo. Denver’s linebackers (11th), outside linebackers (fourth) and defensive line (16th) all rank in the top half of the league, as well. Clay figures that the Buccaneers, Washington Football Team and Steelers will be among the Broncos’ competition for the league’s top defense, but Denver clearly has the talent to be the league’s best unit.
If you could bring back one former Broncos in their prime to play for this season alone, who would it be? – Ryan V.
Well, the easy answer here is John Elway or Peyton Manning. General Manager George Paton has talked about adding competition to the quarterback room to improve the position, and there’d be no better jolt than Elway or Manning. The Broncos would be instant Super Bowl contenders in this scenario.
Since that’s a bit too easy, I’ll look elsewhere. It’s also tempting to add a player like Al Wilson to the Broncos’ inside linebacking corps, but Denver’s defense is already in good shape. I’ll add a marquee player to the right tackle position, where Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming will reportedly battle for the starting spot. Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman and former All-Pro Ryan Clady were both left tackles during their careers, but I feel confident that either could get the job done on the right side.
Who has a legit shot to step up at LB? … Seems like to me it’s our biggest glaring need. Thoughts? – Chris F.
Chris, as I hinted at above, Johnson and Jewell are solid run-stoppers who have been proficient at times in pass coverage. The X-factor for this group is Browning. The Broncos have started practicing the Ohio State product at inside linebacker, and if he can help the Broncos in passing situations, this defense could take the next step. Browning has the athleticism and size to cover tight ends, and he said he believes that staying at one position — rather than alternating like he did at OSU — should help him perfect his technique. He might not be an every-down player right away, but I’d expect Browning would make an impact sooner rather than later. We also can’t forget Strnad, who impressed in the early days of training camp before suffering a wrist injury. Both players should help improve the Broncos’ defense.
How good does Drew Lock need to play this year for all the haters to eat crow? – Troy B.
Troy, this is a good question. All of the attention has been on whether Lock can win the job against Teddy Bridgewater, but I haven’t heard much chatter about what Lock can do to secure the job for future seasons.
In my eyes, if Lock leads the Broncos to 10 wins while cutting down on turnovers, I’d think that would be enough to earn him the job in 2022 and start conversations about if he deserves a contract extension. There are ways to quantify Lock’s performance like completion percentage and his touchdown-to-interception ratio. I’d love to see his completion percentage over 65 percent for the season and have his touchdown-to-interception ratio move to at least 2-to-1 to show that he’s made progress. From a “feel” standpoint, I’d hope to see him consistently play like he did against Carolina and at home against the Raiders. He closed the season strong in 2020, and it’s possible the best is still to come for Drew Lock. If he can play more consistent football and avoid turnovers, it’s possible he’ll do more than just win a QB competition for 2021.