Why the Denver Broncos can make the playoffs next season

Nov 3, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio calls out in the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

John Elway’s time as GM of the Denver Broncos is a mixed bag.

On one hand, he helped the franchise escape sure failure by ditching Tim Tebow. He fell into a massive upgrade by landing Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and it led to two Super Bowl appearances (one win).

It’s tough to knock a guy who has delivered two special seasons and a few other solid runs. But Elway hasn’t ever truly figured out the quarterback position and the best football betting sites aren’t pegging the Broncos as a title threat anytime soon for good reason.

Manning was someone else’s dream, reimagined. Tebow was Josh McDaniel’s’ misguided infatuation that somehow conjured up a dream run to the playoffs.

All Elway has to offer anyone is a never-ending sea of has-beens and never-was guys like Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, Brock Osweiler and Joe Flacco.

That was the case, at least.

Now, with Drew Lock lighting a fire under the Broncos and going 2-1 as a starter – not to mention dazzling with some straight up darts – the Denver faithful are allowing themselves to dream big again.

If Drew Lock is the real deal, John Elway may have just saved his job. More importantly, though, the Broncos could be officially back and ready to make a playoff run next season.

Lock is the inspiration, but he’s not the only reason Denver fans need to get excited. Here’s why the Broncos could be ready for a postseason bid next year:

 

Drew Lock is the Man

Development is at a break-neck pace in the NFL these days. Quarterbacks seem to adapt to the league midway through their rookie seasons.

If not by then, year two is the dawn of a new age as guys like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes have proven that age is just a number. Inexperience is just a silly word.

That doesn’t mean a wet-behind-the-ears Lock is going to be crowned the next savior of the Broncos, but what he’s flashed in mere weeks suggests he very well could be. Heck, if we’re going off of his first two starts, there is an argument that he’s already done enough to suggest Elway found a good one.

Of course, Lock has his inconsistencies and general flaws. He wasn’t accurate coming out of Missouri and he received poor grades for his footwork and response to pressure inside the pocket.

That’s all natural for a young quarterback, though, and none of the issues Broncos fans have seen in the first few starts are surprises.

The good news is Lock isn’t afraid. He shows aggressiveness, poise and his elite arm talent is every bit as tantalizing as scouts hyped it up to be. Long-term, there are absolutely concerns if Lock can’t adapt to pressure, be more consistent and convert over-aggressiveness and inaccuracy into more reliable production.

But the kid can play. Lock has the raw talent needed to take Denver’s passing game – one that is loaded with talent in Noah Fant, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton – to a whole new level.

For the first time since Elway started drafting potential franchise passers, that isn’t hyperbole.

 

The Broncos Have a Running Game

Not completely sold on Lock as the future of the franchise? I’m not sure you need to be. Look at Lamar Jackson and what he’s doing. Nobody thought he was accurate coming out of college.

Heck, some brilliant NFL minds said he was destined to play wide receiver. I’m looking at you, Bill Polian.

Josh Allen wasn’t accurate at Wyoming and had his struggles in his rookie year, too. Jackson is now the NFL MVP front runner and has his Ravens looking like title threats. Allen and his Bills are hoping to crash the AFC playoffs.

Lock isn’t those guys yet and he may never be. But Denver just needs to play to his strengths and utilize his mobility and cannon arm as needed.

Why? Because they have the makings of an amazing running game.

Denver hasn’t really been able to fully tap into it due to having such a weak passing attack for so long, but the two-headed dragon of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman give them a dynamic and effective rushing attack.

The results haven’t been there in 2019. Lindsay took a mild step back and Freeman arguably hasn’t been used enough. Ideally, Freeman just takes over the starting gig and never looks back. But even as things stand, we know this tandem can be successful based off of what they did in 2018 (12th in rushing).

Individually, the numbers are there. Lindsay averaged an unsustainable 5.4 yards per carry as a rookie, but a drop to 4.5 yards per tote is plenty fine. Freeman’s 3.9 yards per carry average is passable as a secondary act, while his explosive ability arguably makes up for an inefficiency.

The question marks arise from Denver’s late-season regression, as well as the overall inconsistency on the offensive line. That could demand some moves to be made in free agency in the draft, but we know two things; the Broncos have the rushers to make this thing work and Mike Munchak is one of the best o-line coaches you could ask for.

If the offensive line can reach new heights – whether via upgrades, better play or fewer penalties – that should allow the running game to take flight.

 

Von Miller Heads a Talented Defense

There’s also the fact that the Broncos can play some defense. Former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller is still here and the 30-year old remains an impact player.

Miller will anchor a pass rush that got off to an atrocious start in 2019, but climbed inside the top-20 in sacks. With Miller on the edge and Chris Harris helping in the secondary, Denver has pushed forward a stingy pass defense (10th in the NFL).

Those components could change in 2019, as Harris is expected to enter free agency and run-stuffer Derek Wolfe could also jet. Denver could opt to retain both to see how they evolve in Vic Fangio’s defense, of course, especially since everyone was robbed of the chance to see how this system could thrive opposite of Bradley Chubb.

In theory, the pieces are still there for Denver to have success defensively. The Broncos have generated consistent pressure in the second half of the season and in year two of a brilliant system, the sky is truly the limit for this defense.

If the Broncos are also better through the air and soaking up the clock with an improved ground game, the job only gets better for the defense.

 

Denver is Already Competitive

The 2019 season has been a lost one and for a good stretch there, Vic Fangio felt like a strong candidate to be a one-and-done hire. But ever since the Broncos got off to a forgettable 0-4 start, the team has been a respectable 5-5.

This, with Joe Flacco holding the offense back for the majority of the year. This, with something called a Brandon Allen seeing starts. And now with the unseasoned Drew Lock seeing the field down the stretch.

Credit goes to Fangio for keeping Denver focused enough to not completely mail in the season. But for as much as the NFL is a results-based business, Denver fans can’t possibly look at Fangio’s first season and scoff at what’s transpired.

This was always a rebuilding process. Denver didn’t even have their quarterback solution in print yet. Still, the Broncos fought hard early, losing to what would eventually be discovered to be a respectable Raiders team, a decent Bears team and a playoff-bound Packers squad.

Of Denver’s nine losses at the time of this writing, four have come by a touchdown or less. A 20-0 lead in Minnesota should have been a win. That week two loss to the Bears – had it not been for a terrible call – definitely should have been a win.

If Denver just simply handed off the ball repeatedly in a week three loss at Green Bay, there could have been another win.

The 2019 season wasn’t one of horrors. It was one of building, of lessons learned and surprisingly competitive play. Believe it or not, the Broncos have everything in place needed to take things to the next level.

Fangio will do as the head coach. He can coach up a great defense and he should have the pieces on hand to do that to the best of his ability. Munchak will make the o-line better, which will assist an already solid ground game. And Drew Lock will be the guy Elway drafted him to be.

The AFC West is a one-team show. Everyone knows that. Denver is looking up, along with the Raiders and Chargers, at the mighty Chiefs. But the Broncos don’t need to build Rome in a day. They don’t need to take back the division crown just yet.

The Broncos just need to keep showing progress and take that next step. If that’s a winning record and a wild card spot, Denver fans will take it. It’s nice to confidently say that it isn’t a dream going into next year, though. It can actually be the expectation.

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