PFF Roundup: Offseason stars struggle, young offensive players shine

Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) catches a pass against Oakland Raiders cornerback Nick Nelson (23) in the first half at Oakland Coliseum.
Dec 24, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) catches a pass against Oakland Raiders cornerback Nick Nelson (23) in the first half at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos’ Monday night debut was downright ugly. The Raiders thoroughly outplayed them on either side of the ball for much of the game, an ominous potential foreshadowing of the season to come. With such a negative performance, it helps to turn to Pro Football Focus to find some positives in a new weekly series called PFF Roundup.

Each week we’ll be breaking down some of the most interesting numbers and grades to keep an eye on throughout the season. Without further ado, here we go:

Offseason darlings struggle in opening

The two best-performing Broncos this preseason were Mike Purcell and Demarcus Walker. In fact their exhibition outings were so impressive the Broncos listed Dre’Mont Jones as inactive for their game against the Raiders. In the preseason, among players with at least 60 snaps, Purcell and Walker were two of the top three graded defensive linemen in the league.

On Monday night, the pair came back down to earth, earning the lowest category grades of any defensive Bronco with tackling grades of 23.0 and 26.6 respectively, and they weren’t the only players plummetting from the heavens.

Isaac Yiadom and Justin Simmons, two other players that looked vastly improved through training camp and the preseason, earned the lowest grades of any Bronco on the field Monday.

Yiadom earned a grade of 41.3 overall and 41.5 in coverage. Meanwhile, Simmons had one of the best tackling grades on the team (79.2) but was held down by bad coverage and run defense grades (44.4 and 54.7), finishing with an overall grade of 42.4.

Second round picks starring

While Demarcus Walker struggled in Oakland, two of Denver’s other recent second round acquisitions flourished. Rookie left guard Dalton Risner and second-year wide receiver Courtland Sutton were the two highest graded Broncos with grades of 84.2 and 86.3 respectively.

Risner earned the best pass blocking grade on the team by nearly five points with a grade of 83.3. He also earned the team’s best run blocking grade, an 80.3, by nearly 16 points over the next highest-graded linemen. Based on early returns alone, Risner may already be the Broncos’ best offensive linemen.

Sutton also made the case to be the best on the team in his position group in Oaktown, reeling in seven of Joe Flacco‘s 21 completions on just eight targets for 120 yards, the 12th-most in the league. Most impressive was Sutton’s work in the middle of the field. He caught five of his seven receptions further than 10 yards down the field, between the hashes. If Fant starts rolling too, the Broncos could go from having zero dynamic weapons to attack the seams with, to having two.

Tight end woes continue

The Broncos long-standing issues with the tight end position continued against the Raiders, not only on the offensive side of the ball but on the defensive side as well.

Three of the five lowest-graded offensive players for the Broncos were tight ends. This year’s first round rookie was the best of the bunch with a poor grade of 53.7, as Troy Fumagalli and Jeff Heuerman brought up the rear with grades of 49.2 and 51.0.

Noah Fant could’ve, and possibly should’ve, had a much higher grade but his 3.9 pass blocking grade held him back. That awful grade may scare Broncos fans who were hoping the rookie tight end will be a competent blocker, but it shouldn’t. The grade was so dramatic because Fant only engaged in a pass block on one snap and he was beat badly.

Meanwhile, the Broncos inability to stop tight ends on defense was incredibly present. The Denver defense allowed preseason wunderkind Darren Waller to catch seven of his eight targets for 70 yards on his way to a grade of 78, and on plays when Derek Carr targeted Waller, he earned a passer rating of 103.1.

In a division featuring Travis Kelce and Hunter Henry, Darren Waller will be the least of the Broncos’ concerns at tight end.