Looking at where Broncos land as analytics community weighs in with preseason rankings

George Paton and John Elway at Denver Broncos OTAs. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.
George Paton and John Elway at Denver Broncos OTAs. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.

Ask around Broncos Country and there’s no doubt Denver improved greatly this offseason.

First and foremost they improved by landing the superstar quarterback the Broncos have been desperate for since 2015 in Russell Wilson. Now Denver’s offense looks to finally be the featured aspect of the team once again.

Coupling with Wilson was the hire of Nathaniel Hackett, the young and talented former offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers who helped Aaron Rodgers win back-to-back NFL MVPs in his late 30s.

Defensively, the Broncos made a few splash signings in edge rusher Randy Gregory — a true boom or bust player — and D.J. Jones on the interior of the defensive line. Plus, George Paton re-signed Kareem Jackson and Josey Jewell on that side of the ball and drafted Nik Bonitto in the second round for edge depth, too.

Of course, we won’t know the drop-off from Vic Fangio’s defense to Ejiro Evero’s unit this year until the games are played. Similarly, we won’t know just how much the offense has improved under Hackett compared to Pat Shurmur until the Broncos take the field in September.

Still though, the overall feeling around the team is they will improve from the AFC West cellar dwellers they’ve been three of the last six years.

Wilson is lifting all teammates, on offense as well as defense, thanks to his dedication and attention to detail. There’s a new excitement around Dove Valley as Hackett’s love for the game shows in every practice. Expectations are the Broncos will at least be in contention for the playoffs this year, if not finally get back in the postseason.

Well, not from everyone.

As we wrote about last week, Peter King believes the Broncos are the worst team in the AFC West and the 14th team in the NFL, behind even the Las Vegas Raiders (13). Our argument back was: Wilson is a better quarterback than Derek Carr, the Broncos have more playmakers on defense and the Raiders’ leadership is in shambles. Mike Mayock and former team president Dan Ventrelle were let go this year, and Jon Gruden was fired last year. Gruden was replaced with Josh McDaniels, who Broncos fans know well for his captaining the franchise off a cliff 12 years ago.

And as it turns out, analytics folks are now backing up the idea that Denver is likely playoff bound this year, while the Raiders will be on the outside looking in.

Pro Football Focus’ ranking of the AFC West

  1. Los Angeles Chargers (3)
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (4)
  3. Denver Broncos (7)
  4. Las Vegas Raiders (16)

PFF’s Sam Monson wrote:

“Denver catapulted itself into the contenders by trading for Russell Wilson, giving them their first legitimate championship-caliber passer since Peyton Manning. Denver now has to craft an offense that gets the most out of Wilson while doing so without running into the same issues that the Seattle Seahawks had. Can Wilson be unleashed to be the best version of himself without eschewing too much of the quick, routine passes to make the offense among the league’s best?”

It’s a fair assessment of the situation. Hackett needs to build the offense around Wilson, and there’s little doubt he will. However, he’s mostly unproven as a play-caller and this will be his first year as a head coach. Nothing is a given in the NFL.

Computer Cowboy’s betting line rankings

If you haven’t heard of Ben Baldwin, he’s an analyst who created an algorithm to determine when and if teams should go for it on 4th downs.

In this chart, he takes the betting lines for upcoming games and breaks down NFL teams by how much they would be favored against a league average opponent. The Broncos rank 12th, behind the Chiefs and Chargers and ahead of the Raiders.

It should be noted these teams will see changes in how much they’re favored or considered the underdog as the season goes on and they go on a streak in either direction. But, that’s not too different from power rankings, really.

Certainly, it’s too early to really pay attention to rankings. We’re not even to Memorial Day yet. Although, this is a new era in Broncos Country, with Wilson at the helm. Excitement is already at a fevered pitch and the Broncos will be one of the most fun teams to watch in the league this year.

Once again, my best guess (in May) on how the AFC West shakes out:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 13-4
  2. Denver Broncos, 11-6
  3. Los Angeles Chargers, 10-7
  4. Las Vegas Raiders, 9-8
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