To some football fans, it is never too early to look ahead to their favorite team’s upcoming draft in the offseason. In mid-December, not only is it not too early, it is an important time to assess a team’s draft and free agency needs. At this point in the season, many teams are gearing up for a playoff run, while others are scrambling to evaluate the players on their rosters, the coaches on the sidelines and in the booths, and the executives in their front offices. For the Denver Broncos, a team with less than a one percent chance of making playoffs at 4-8, it is obviously the latter evaluations. After a far more competitive game than expected against the Kansas City Chiefs, questions have arisen regarding the team’s future options through the draft and free agency, as well as in terms of their coaching staff. So what should the Denver Broncos 2021 offseason look like?
The Denver Broncos 2021 Offseason
What the Loss Suggests
After a demoralizing defeat at the hands of Kansas City in Week 7, most expected the Week 13 tilt to be a similar blowout. Despite these widely held expectations, Denver managed to keep the score within a single possession— a single possession with which they had the opportunity to eke out a victory.
Many fans will blame quarterback Drew Lock for failing to finish the game-winning drive, while others will blame offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s reluctance to shorten the average passing attempt or head coach Vic Fangio’s game mismanagement and lack of effective adjustments.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but more important than any blame is the implications of the narrow defeat as far as the Denver Broncos 2021 offseason is concerned.
Without cornerback Bryce Callahan on the field, the defense offered exactly zero players with the requisite speed to cover skill players like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, or Mecole Hardman. In light of A.J. Bouye’s season-ending drug suspension and a large contract his production has yet to warrant, it is not unreasonable to expect the Broncos to draft another young defensive back to complement the slot production of Bryce Callahan and the impressive growth of current rookie corner, Michael Ojemudia.
Down on the Corner
It is certainly difficult to pinpoint the direction in which the team will trend when acquiring new talent for the 2021 roster as a result of the widespread injuries on the team (including the entire starting defensive line). With that being said, the cornerback position has struggled mightily (especially against high octane offenses like Kansas City’s) since the No Fly Zone fell apart in the years following their Super Bowl 50 victory.
Bringing in veterans on defense has worked somewhat, but the expectation is for Denver to look for more youth in combination with veterans acquired via trade or free agency, much as they have done in the last three drafts. As for rookie cornerback prospects in the 2021 offseason, a few names jump off of the screen to fill the hole possibly left by Bouye and otherwise available for the express purpose of countering the speed and agility of electric playmakers like Tyreek Hill.
Asante Samuel, Jr. (Florida State), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), and Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) are three particular names to watch in the Denver Broncos 2021 offseason, as all three possess the traits Vic Fangio seems to value in his defensive backs without compromising on speed or ball skills. Other names like Shaun Wade (Ohio State) are similarly attractive to mock drafts, especially considering Elway’s history with drafting Bradley Roby from the same college after the harrowing 43-8 loss in Super Bowl 48.
Other Positional Needs
Assuming the team extends Justin Simmons, the team will still need to look for youth at nose tackle, interior linebacker, edge defender, strong safety (unless they intend Will Parks to succeed Kareem Jackson when his time in Denver comes to an end), and, in all likelihood, right tackle. Demar Dotson, despite his surprisingly effective level of production in Denver, is 35, while Ja’Wuan James will not have played meaningful football in two years, essentially. Elijah Wilkinson is fairly clearly not a solution at either tackle position.
With the team possibly needing the cap space they could derive from moving James and his $43,000,000 collective cap hit over the next three seasons, offensive tackle is unfortunately once again a position the team needs to pay serious attention to. Adding this need to the aforementioned list of positional needs should concern Broncos Country, especially considering the likelihood of a stingier salary cap in 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Logical Lens for Looking at Lock
In essence, the majority of the team’s needs are surprisingly on defense. It is objectively unreasonable to move on from Drew Lock after a maximum of seventeen games (which is only one more than a full rookie campaign), so quarterback is not close to a position the team needs to pour resources into for the 2021 NFL Draft.
With Courtland Sutton returning from his ACL injury, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in their second season with the team, and a full offseason for the first time in Lock’s career, the offense should make significant strides next season. Outside of right tackle (and right guard, if Graham Glasgow continues his inconsistent production and streak of injuries), Denver’s next draft class should prove defense-heavy.
Outside of the redzone, the Broncos defense has been somewhat underwhelming under Vic Fangio, who is revered as a defensive genius despite his stark and utterly baffling lack of defensive adjustments in Denver. It is not untenable for Fangio to want John Elway to help fill the defensive side of the ball with the kind of players Fangio wants for his scheme, as opposed to trying to fit inapplicable players into his system with little to no flexibility or schematic adjustments, the latter of which he has done his entire tenure in Denver.
While Vic Fangio’s job is presumably safe, the team has proven itself willing to move on from coaches after a single season, as illustrated by Rich Scangarello’s truncated tenure with the team.
Should Pat Shurmur’s ineffectual efforts in 2020 inspire John Elway to make yet another change despite Fangio’s vocal commitment to consistency and stability over time, any progress made by the incredibly young offensive nucleus would face unnecessary obstacles. Shurmur’s play-calling has certainly been inadequate throughout the 2020 campaign. But with the number of injuries and the sheer youth of the team (especially on offense), it only makes sense to give him at least one more year to prove himself as a play-caller in Denver.
Other than the inevitable and far-too-late firing of special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, Broncos Country should not expect much in the way of coaching changes. On the field, however, is where they should prepare for significant changes.
The Last Word
There are no moral victories in professional football, but Broncos Country can rest assured the team will learn from their 22-16 loss to Kansas City. One must hope they learn enough to avoid the same mistakes that have plagued the team for the last five or so years, and how the team approaches the 2021 NFL Draft and offseason will tell the world all they need to know about how much, if at all, the Broncos have learned from the 2020 season.
The future for the Denver Broncos is indisputably bright; the road to this bright future is paved not with good intentions, but with self-awareness, commitment, and accountability by players, coaches, and front-office executives alike. John Elway engineered the shift from the greatest offense of all-time in 2013 to the greatest defense of all-time in 2015. He can and must make the necessary changes for the future of this team, and if he cannot, someone else will.
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