Midseason PFF Review: Broncos roster has young superstars in the making

Justin Simmons, Broncos

The Denver Broncos’ season is just past halfway done and the Broncos are in the middle of a bye week, making it the perfect time to look over all the stats and check in on how well the team is doing.

Here are three of the clearest and most notable trends we can assess based on the numbers.

Fangio’s defense has arrived in Denver

The Broncos’ defense got off to a slow start this season, raising many fans’ eyebrows in the direction of new head coach and supposed defensive mastermind, Vic Fangio.

That is no longer the case as the Broncos’ defense has become one of the league’s most dominant shutdown units.

The Broncos have earned PFF’s third-best coverage grade as a team despite being down to their fifth and sixth cornerbacks. They’ve also earned PFF’s twelfth-highest tackling grade, third-highest overall defensive grade and are the highest-graded run-stopping unit.

PFF isn’t the only analytical system that loves the Broncos’ defense, as Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metric is also a big fan of the squad. DVOA measures defensive performances and weights those performances based on how talented the opposing offense is.

The Broncos rank third in defensive DVOA, eighth in run defense DVOA and tenth in pass defense DVOA, making them one of just two teams (Minnesota Vikings) to rank top ten in every major category.

Pass rush continues to disappoint

One element of Vic Fangio‘s defense that has yet to translate is the pass rush. The team has graded out as the league’s 23rd-best pass rush, behind even the New York Jets.

The Broncos only have three players with a pass-rushing grade above 70, those being Josey Jewell, Kareem Jackson and Shelby Harris.

Von Miller has also been somewhat of a disappointment. His overall grade of 76.4 marks this season is the first time Miller has ever had an overall grade below 90. His grade is the sixth-best on the Broncos’ defense, which is the lowest he’s ever ranked.

His pass-rush productivity rating (a PFF metric that measures a player’s per snap impact using pressures, hits and sacks with more points weighted towards sacks and hits) is just 10.0, which is good for best on the team but ranks only 22nd in the league (Min. 20 snaps).

Broncos have three superstars in the making in Sutton, Johnson and Simmons

Alexander Johnson, Justin Simmons and Courtland Sutton have all played like superstars among the very best at their respective positions this season.

Per PFF, Sutton has played like a top ten receiver this season. Among wide receivers with at least 60 targets on the season, Sutton ranks seventh behind just Julio Jones, Deandre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin and Michael Thomas. Sutton also ranks sixth in yards per route run, making him one of the league’s most efficient receivers.

Sutton has also been one of the very best deep-ball receivers in the league, reeling in six of his 12 deep targets, the eighth-best rate in the league, but it could’ve been even better considering only seven of those targets were graded as “catchable” by PFF.

Johnson has played like the best defensive player in the league since entering the lineup, with a grade of 92.4. In fact, that grade is the best in the league on offense or defense (min. 100 snaps). On defense, he leads a top-10 that features superstars like Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, Eric Kendricks and Cameron Heyward.

It should be noted that Johnson isn’t just an analytics darling either. As Chris Wesseling of NFL.com writes in his midseason All-Pro article, “I was tempted to include breakout star Alexander Johnson for transforming a Broncos defense that has skyrocketed from 28th to third in Football Outsiders’ metrics since he entered the starting lineup in early October. But he wasted away on the bench for nearly 40 percent of Denver’s games, while the other players on this list have been standouts throughout.”

He also ranks as the league’s fourth-best run defender at any position and the second-best at linebacker with a run-defense grade of 91.0, and the best coverage player at any position with at least 100 coverage snaps with a grade of 91.1.

Simmons has been almost as impressive for the Broncos in his breakout season. He has yet to miss a single snap this season and has made the most of every single one. Where Johnson ranks first among defensive players with at least 100 snaps, Justin Simmons ranks sixth with a grade of 90.7.

Simmons also has the sixth-best run defense grade, the third-best tackling grade and the best coverage grade among safeties. That coverage grade (90.1) also ranks second among players at any position with at least 50 coverage snaps, trailing only the aforementioned Johnson.

NFL.com named Simmons to their mid-season All-Pro team, making him the lone Broncos. Wesseling writes, “Simmons is an athletic freak finally putting it all together in his first season under defensive mastermind Vic Fangio. Overshadowed by Joe Flacco’s Waterloo in Week 7, Simmons had one of the most spectacular performances of any safety this season versus the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football.”

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