2018 Season Recap: Denver Broncos

2018 SEASON RECAP: DENVER BRONCOS

Record: 6-10, 3rd in AFC West

Record Splits: 2-4 vs. AFC West, 2-2 vs. AFC North, 2-2 vs. NFC West, 0-2 vs. 2017 4th Place Teams (Jets, Texans)

Playoffs: He is not having the time of his life

Statistics

Offense/Defense

Team Statistics Offense Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 20.6 24th 21.8 13th
Total Yards Per Game 350.1 19th 365.1 22nd
Pass Yards Per Game 230.9 19th 246.4 22nd
Yards Per Pass Attempt 6.7 T-24th 7.7 T-23rd
Rush Yards Per Game 119.2 12th 119.6 21st
Yards Per Rush 4.9 T-3rd 4.5 17th
Total Turnovers (Offense)/Turnovers Forced (Defense) 21 18th 29 T-8th
First Downs Per Game 20.0 20th 19.9 16th
Third Down Conversions 33% (69 for 207) 28th 39% (82 for 211) 17th
Penalties/Penalty Yardage 125/985 31st/27th 123/1,006 28th/26th
Average Time of Possession 28:58 28th 31:02 24th

Special Teams

Team Statistic Broncos Special Teams Rank
Kickoff Yards Per Return 20.1 28th
Punt Yards Per Return 4.4 32nd
Gross Yards Per Punt 44.5 19th
Net Yards Per Punt 38.3 28th
Kickoff Coverage (Yards Per Return Against) 20.8 4th
Punt Coverage (Yards Per Return Against) 10.5 29th

Coaching and Other Personnel Changes

Outgoing Incoming
Brock Olivo (Special Teams Coordinator) Tom McMahon (Special Teams Coordinator)
Eric Studesville (Running Backs Coach) Curtis Modkins (Running Backs Coach)
Tyke Tolbert (Wide Receivers Coach) Zach Azzanni (Wide Receivers Coach)
Fred Pagac (Outside Linebackers Coach) Bill Musgrave (Full-Time Offensive Coordinator)
Johnnie Lynn (Defensive Backs Coach) Greg Williams (Defensive Backs Coach)
Jeff Davidson (Offensive Line Coach) Sean Kugler (Offensive Line Coach)
Tom Heckert Jr. (Senior Personnel Adviser) Mike Sullivan (Quarterbacks Coach)

All six outgoing coaches were relieved of their duties on January 1st, 2018 after the last game of the season.

Sean Kugler and Chris Strausser replaced Davidson on the offensive line, a unit that finished ranked 24th in the league by Pro Football Focus. Mike Sullivan took over as QB coach, coming over to Denver after two years as offensive coordinator with the Giants. The numbers posted at the QB position (19th in pass yards per game, 24th in yards per pass attempt) in Denver were not enough to keep him around after the 2018 season. Two coaches that were able to keep their job despite the changes after 2018 were RB coach Curtis Modkins (Broncos would finish the year 12th in rushing yards per game, 3rd in yards per carry) and WR coach Zach Azzanni, two former Bears coaches who spent time with soon-to-be Broncos coach Vic Fangio.

John Bowlen also sold a portion of his minority stake in the Broncos to the Broncos, further solidifying Pat Bowlen’s majority ownership of the team.

Draft Picks

*=Compensatory Draft Pick

Draft Pick Player College
1 (5) Bradley Chubb NC State
2 (40) Courtland Sutton SMU
3 (71) Royce Freeman Oregon
3 (99)* Isaac Yiadom Boston College
4 (106) Josey Jewell Iowa
4 (113) DaeSean Hamilton Penn State
5 (156) Troy Fumagalli Wisconsin
6 (183) Sam Jones Arizona State
6 (217)* Keishawn Berria Washington
7 (226) David Williams Arkansas
UDFA Phillip Lindsay Colorado

· Bradley Chubb and Phillip Lindsay emerged as the stars of this draft class in their rookie years. Chubb broke the Broncos’ rookie sack record with 12, while Lindsay accumulated the second-most rushing yards by an undrafted rookie in league history. He also became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make a Pro Bowl.

· Sutton was given a first-round grade by John Elway and started the season out as the team’s #3 wide receiver but wound up as the #1 option at the end of the year through a combination of trades and untimely injuries. He struggled with being the primary focus of opposing defenses but finished the season with a glowing 16.7 yards per reception.

· Hamilton missed a few games mid-season with a sprained MCL but came back and served as the team’s primary slot receiver when Emmanuel Sanders went down for the year, hauling in at least 5 passes in each of the team’s final four games.

· Freeman’s rookie season was vastly overshadowed by Phillip Lindsay’s breakout. The Oregon product finished with 521 rushing yards on 4.0 yards per carry and should open next season firmly entrenched as the #2 back behind Lindsay.

· Yiadom started the year on special teams, but an injury to Chris Harris Jr. and poor play by Tramaine Brock allowed Yiadom to see more playing time late in the year. He finished his rookie season with his first career INT off Philip Rivers in the season finale.

· Jewell started his season out hot, being ranked as high as #2 among all linebackers in the league early on by Pro Football Focus but cooled down once entering a snap rotation with fellow inside linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall.

· Jones saw very little action in his first year, as the interior line is a strength of the Broncos’ offense. He rotated in in relief, but otherwise did not see the field much.

· Fumagalli missed his entire rookie year with a sports hernia surgery. He’ll open 2019 competing with Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman for the starting TE spot.

· Bierria was relegated to special team duties in his rookie year, only recording 4 tackles on the year.

· Williams was the lone draft pick of the group who failed to make the team’s final roster.

2017 Key Free Agents and Departures

Player 2018 Team
C.J. Anderson Carolina Panthers/Los Angeles Rams (Released)
Riley Dixon New York Giants (Traded)
Todd Davis Denver Broncos (Re-signed)
Aqib Talib Los Angeles Rams (Traded)
Bennie Fowler III Chicago Bears (Signed)
Trevor Siemian Minnesota Vikings (Traded)
Virgil Green Los Angeles Chargers (Signed)
Cody Latimer New York Giants (Signed)
Corey Nelson Philadelphia Eagles (Signed)
Brock Osweiler Miami Dolphins (Signed)
Billy Turner Denver Broncos (Re-signed)
Matt Paradis Denver Broncos (Re-signed)

Most of the Broncos’ key players were under contract through the 2018 season. Todd Davis and Matt Paradis – the latter of whom has become one of the best centers in the league – were re-signed by the team. The most notable losses to free agency were Bennie Fowler and Cody Latimer, two second-string receivers, Virgil Green, the team’s starting tight end from last year, and Brock Osweiler, a former starter for the team. Most of the players they lost would fail to produce at a level high enough such that their production was irreplaceable. The most notable of them – Osweiler – started a few games for the Dolphins in the absence of Ryan Tannehill.

In the trade department, punter Riley Dixon was traded to the Giants for a conditional draft pick in 2019. Trevor Siemian, once a starter for the team, was traded to the Vikings for a fifth-round pick. The most notable departure of the season came when the team agreed to send Pro Bowl CB Aqib Talib to the Rams for draft picks, signifying the end of Denver’s “No Fly Zone” secondary. C.J. Anderson, another key part of the NFC Champion Rams’ late-season push, was cut after the additions of Freeman in the draft.

Notable New Acquisitions

Player Position 2017 Team
Tramaine Brock CB Minnesota Vikings
Adam Jones CB Cincinnati Bengals
Su'a Cravens S Washington Redskins (via trade)
Case Keenum QB Minnesota Vikings
Jared Veldheer OT Arizona Cardinals (via trade)
Marquette King P Oakland Raiders
Gino Gradkowski C Carolina Panthers

The Broncos’ 2018 offseason was one to forget from an acquisition standpoint, signing numerous players who were cut after only a few weeks on the roster. Marquette King was signed as a replacement for Riley Dixon but was cut after sustaining an injury in favor of Colby Wadman. Adam Jones was brought over from Cincinnati but only lasted 7 games before being released. Tramaine Brock was benched late in the year in favor of Isaac Yiadom after spending most of the year as the #3 corner. Veldheer came over in a trade after struggling for years at both tackle spots in Arizona. However, the pièce de résistance of the offseason was Case Keenum. After a season in which the Broncos rotated between Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch at QB, the Broncos firmly entrenched themselves in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. When Cousins signed with Minnesota, the Broncos signed Keenum over from the Vikings to be the piece needed to bring the Broncos back to Super Bowl contention. As the season progressed, Keenum struggled to complete passes at an efficient rate, completing just 62% of his attempts with a passer rating of 81.2.

Season Summary

The Broncos entered 2018 looking to improve on their 5-11, last place finish in 2017. They were also looking to avoid consecutive losing seasons for the first time in almost half a century. In doing so, they added Bradley Chubb in the draft hoping to create a lethal pass rushing duo with Von Miller as well as adding two running backs to complement Devontae Booker in the backfield. Head coach Vance Joseph returned to the team despite some believing that he should have been let go after last year.

The biggest step the team took in trying to return to contention was signing Vikings QB Case Keenum to a 2-year, $36M contract. Keenum was a major piece in the Vikings making it to the NFC Championship the year prior, throwing for a career high in TDs while also setting career marks for completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. The belief was that Keenum could replicate his success in Minnesota and lead the Broncos back to the postseason. If he couldn’t, the seats of both Joseph and GM John Elway would be getting a lot warmer.

The season started strong with two wins to open the year, but quickly fell apart as a 1-6 stretch had the team at 3-6 entering their Week 11 game with the then 8-2 Chargers. A three-game winning streak, including victories over the Chargers and the 7-2-1 Steelers gave fans hope that the team could make a late-season playoff push, but season-ending injuries to Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Harris Jr. as well as a bad loss to the 49ers quickly squashed them. The Broncos finished the year on a four-game losing streak and closed out the year with a 6-10 record. As a result, head coach Vance Joseph was shown the door one day after the season’s end.

Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the Broncos’ season was the way they played up or down to their opponents. An art mastered by the Steelers, the Broncos lost games to bad teams (see: Jets, 49ers, Raiders) as often as they beat good ones (see: Seahawks, Chargers, Steelers). The team also gave the Chiefs (twice), Texans and Rams some of their toughest fights of the year.

Weekly Game Recaps

The Broncos kicked off the season with a rematch of a Super Bowl that I’m almost certain never happened to Broncos fans. In his debut game in a Broncos uniform, Keenum showed both flashes of brilliance and causes for concern with a 329-yard, 3 TD, 3 INT game. Offensively, Emmanuel Sanders and Phillip Lindsay starred with over 230 yards from scrimmage between the two. On defense, it was two familiar faces in Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller delivering the key plays against Seattle, limiting them to 64 rushing yards on the day. An Adam Jones interception of Russell Wilson sealed the Broncos’ first win of the season.

Following a win over Seattle in Week 1, the Broncos got an early taste of divisional football as the Raiders came to town. The offense struggled mightily early on, with four of their six first half drives ending in punts. A fifth drive ended in a Rashaan Melvin interception at the Oakland 18. The defense struggled to stop Derek Carr through the air (29/32, 288 Yards, 1 TD) but kept the Raiders from the end zone for most of the afternoon. The turning point of the game came when Shaquil Barrett blocked Mike Nugent’s extra point attempt, a play that proved to be the difference in the final score. The Broncos got on the board early in the 3rd with a Royce Freeman TD run and would score on each of their four second-half possessions, including a game-winning field goal by Brandon McManus.

Lack of offense and discipline proved to be the Broncos’ downfall in a loss to the Joe Flacco-led Ravens. The game started off well enough for Denver, with Joseph Jones blocking a Sam Koch punt which turned into a Royce Freeman TD run. On the ensuing drive, the Ravens answered with a TD thanks in part to penalties on Isaac Yiadom and Todd Davis giving Baltimore 20 free yards on a 63-yard drive. The Broncos would respond with an Emmanuel Sanders TD run, but would end their scoring on the day there, as the Ravens would close out the game scoring 20 unanswered points through the final three quarters on their way to a win. Of the Broncos’ final nine offensive possessions, seven ended in a Marquette King punt, one ended in an interception, and one in a turnover on downs. One such drive saw the offense put something together only to be brought out of field goal range thanks to penalties by Garett Bolles, Connor McGovern, and Ronald Leary.

The Broncos returned home to face the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs under the bright lights of “Monday Night Football”. Opposite the Broncos’ defense was sensation Patrick Mahomes II, who will be referred to as “Showtime” from here on in. The game was an exchange of scores early on, as the teams both made field goals followed by TD runs in the first half. A second Denver field goal was matched with a second Kansas City field goal to keep the game knotted up at 13. A Phillip Lindsay touchdown run and third field goal made it 23-13 Broncos early in the fourth. It was then when the Broncos could no longer keep up with Showtime. A 12 play, 95-yard, 6:20 TD drive by the Chiefs was answered with a Broncos punt. The Chiefs’ late rally was nearly stopped when Von Miller had Showtime sacked, only for Showtime to make a left-handed pass to Tyreek Hill that had the media falling over themselves for weeks to come. The Chiefs would score on that drive, and a last-ditch effort by the Broncos to win the game was stopped when Justin Houston nearly recovered a lateral attempt that was ruled incomplete.

The Broncos turned a solid first quarter into their most disappointing loss of the season as the Jets would outscore Denver 34-9 over the final three quarters of the game. In what would be the low point of the early part of the year, the Broncos would allow a Jets-franchise record 219 rushing yards to Isaiah Crowell as well as three passing TDs to rookie Sam Darnold. The Broncos’ defense allowed two 70+ yard scoring plays, the only game this year in which this happened. A field goal and garbage time touchdown to Demaryius Thomas made the score closer than the game was throughout the afternoon. Case Keenum would throw a season-high 51 pass attempts in this game and complete a career-high 35 of them.

For the second time in three weeks, the Broncos would face an undefeated team at home, and for the second time in three weeks, the Broncos would come close to upsetting a red-hot offense. The story of the game was the same as the week prior for Denver, with the defense failing to stop the opposing run game. Todd Gurley II gashed the Broncos’ D for 208 rushing yards and 2 scores on 7.8 yards per carry. The defense was able to limit Jared Goff (201 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick on 50% completion) and keep the game from getting out of hand by forcing the Rams to kick field goals. Bradley Chubb and Darian Stewart had spectacular games, but the offense’s inability to score early was their downfall. The run D of the Broncos had now given up 548 rushing yards to #1 backs in a three-game stretch. Their own run game was shut down as well, accumulating only 60 yards on the ground.

In what was the most dominating performance of the season and the largest blowout on Thursday Night Football in almost a year, the Broncos pounced on a weak Cardinals team early and never looked back en route to a 35-point victory. The game started with two early pick-sixes by Todd Davis and Chris Harris Jr. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders did his best Odell Beckham impression by both catching and throwing for a TD pass in the game. Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay each rushed for a TD after being held scoreless the last two games. The biggest improvement on the week, however, was seeing a run defense that had let up almost 600 yards in the last two games give up only 69 yards on the ground. This would be the only game of the season in which the Broncos had reached the 30-point plateau.

The Broncos would see the Chiefs for the second time in a month, this time in Arrowhead. A Phillip Lindsay TD run gave the Broncos an early lead, and the defense was able to hold the Chiefs to a field goal on the following drive despite a key pass interference call against Bradley Roby. Brandon McManus missed a field goal on the next Denver possession, a moment that turned the game in the Chiefs’ favor. Kansas City would reach the endzone on each of their next two trips downfield, both by way of TD passes from Showtime. A TD pass to Tim Patrick brought the Broncos to within two going into halftime, but the Chiefs would bring the lead up to 16 with two more Showtime TD throws. The Broncos would score a TD on their next drive (failed two-point conversion) and picked off Showtime on the Chiefs’ following possession, but two turnovers by Keenum on two consecutive fourth quarter drives dealt serious damage to their chances of escaping with a win. The defense continued to hold, forcing 3 three-and-outs in a row. A field goal cut the Kansas City lead to 7, but the Broncos’ desperation play to force OT was unsuccessful.

*****TRADE ALERT*****

With the trade deadline looming, the Broncos received some interest in WR Demaryius Thomas, whose $17.5M cap hit was expendable now that the team had Courtland Sutton waiting in the wings. Ultimately, the team found a willing trade partner in the Houston Texans, who sent a fourth-round pick and a swap of seventh-round picks back to Denver in exchange for Thomas. Thomas, the last remaining piece of the record-setting 2013 offense, left Denver trailing only Rod Smith for receiving yards and receiving TDs in a Broncos uniform.

Demaryius Thomas’ first game as a Texan happened to be against his former team. A Deshaun Watson pass to the Texans’ other Thomas – TE Jordan Thomas – gave Houston an early lead. After an exchange of punts, the Broncos would get on the board with a McManus field goal and then forced the Texans to turn the ball over on downs. They failed to take advantage, as Devontae Booker fumbled deep in Broncos territory, allowing the Texans to put up another TD and jump out to a 13-3 lead. Booker would later redeem himself with a TD run. McManus would miss his second field goal in as many games late in the first half, which gave the Texans a short field to tack on another field goal. Vance Joseph tried to ice Texans’ kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn; Fairbairn’s first attempt missed wide right, but he made the second attempt after the timeout. The second half saw the Broncos take their first lead of the game on a TD pass to Jeff Heuerman, but the Texans responded with a field goal that would end up the game’s final score. Notable from this game was Vance Joseph’s 4th-quarter play calling, choosing a more passive approach and settling for a 62-yard field goal attempt instead of going for the TD late. McManus missed the attempt.

First up on the Broncos’ last-ditch playoff push was the Chargers, sporting a 7-2 record and having not lost a game since Week 3. Despite their stellar record, the Chargers also had plenty to play for in this game, as the Chiefs led the division at 9-1. Recent history was on the Broncos’ side, as the team had won 11 of their last 14 games against the Bolts. The game started off slow, as two Los Angeles field goals made up the only scoring in the first quarter. A Lindsay TD run would give the Broncos the lead early in the second and they would get the ball back minutes later when Chris Harris Jr. picked off Philip Rivers.

The Broncos would take control of the game in the third when Von Miller picked off Rivers on a screen pass, giving the Broncos a short field for Royce Freeman to punch it in on a run. Lindsay would score on another run late in the quarter, giving Denver a 20-19 lead. Clock-killing drives defined the fourth quarter as both teams would only manage field goals in the quarter. The Chargers got theirs early on and would spend most of the quarter on top. However, poor clock management by Los Angeles gave the Broncos the ball back with enough time to put together a game-winning drive. Aided by timely Chargers penalties, the Broncos were able to drive the length of the field and put Brandon McManus in position to hit a game-winning 34-yard field goal.

Following an upset win in Los Angeles, the Broncos returned to Mile High Stadium for a showdown with the Steelers, the second straight game in which their opponent entered the game with a six-game win streak. In what was a pleasant change of pace, it was the Broncos’ opponents who failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities and fell victim to untimely turnovers. A missed Pittsburgh field goal was answered with a made Denver field goal to give the Broncos an early 3-0 lead. The 12-play, 74-yard Steelers drive that followed ended in a turnover forced by Will Parks. After a Broncos punt and Steelers field goal to tie the game, the Broncos marched down the field in 6 plays and took a 10-3 lead off a Keenum TD pass to Matt LaCosse. Pittsburgh responded by moving into field goal range at the end of the half and tricked the Broncos on a fake field goal passing TD to tie the game. Early in the third, the defense was burned on a 97-yard TD reception by JuJu Smith-Schuster, but tied the game back up after a Chris Harris Jr. picked gave Denver’s offense a short field. The Broncos would later take the lead on a Lindsay TD run after another Steelers fumble gave the offense the ball back. The Steelers’ final drive of the game saw them reach the Broncos’ 3-yard line before the two-minute warning; however, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass intended for Antonio Brown was intercepted by Shelby Harris, securing the win.

After back-to-back wins over teams firmly in the AFC playoff picture, the Broncos found new life in their playoff hopes. Week 13 had them travel to face a Bengals team missing Andy Dalton and playing a hobbled A.J. Green, who would suffer a season-ending toe injury later in this game. This game started out as an offense to the term “offense”, with neither team advancing past the opponent’s 43 until midway through the second quarter, when McManus missed a 50-yard FG attempt. The first points of the game came when Phillip Lindsay scored from 6 yards out at the two-minute warning and, despite the Bengals driving down the field on their next drive, the Broncos still held a 4-point lead after a Cincinnati FG. The Broncos would extend their lead in the 3rd, with Keenum finding Courtland Sutton through the air and Lindsay scoring on a 65-yard run. The Bengals would cut the lead to 21-10 late in the quarter and would find life after Royce Freeman fumbled, but would not muster up any more offense from that point, and the Broncos kicked a field goal in the fourth to reach the game’s final score.

Now having rattled off three straight wins, the Broncos are making noise at a potential run for the conference’s 6 seed. Unfortunately for them, #1 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles in practice, ending his season and leaving the team with a major hole to fill. Rookie Courtland Sutton would take over in Sanders’ place as the team traveled to Santa Clara to face the 2-10 49ers. The Broncos fell behind 20-0 before the half, as George Kittle racked up 210 receiving yards against the defense, most of which came in the first half. The Broncos tried mounting a comeback in the second half, but early offensive shortcomings (70 yards of offense in their first 6 possessions combined) allowed the 49ers to hang on and placing a major speed bump on the Broncos’ January ambitions. The team would also lose CB Chris Harris Jr. for the season to a broken fibula in this game.

The Broncos hosted the resurgent Browns in a Saturday night football special. After having lost to the 49ers last week, every game became must-win if the Broncos wanted a shot at the playoffs. The Broncos would take a 10-7 lead in the second quarter but would end the first half tied after a Browns field goal and Keenum and Baker Mayfield exchanging interceptions. Another turnover forced by the Denver D would allow the team to kick another field goal, giving them a 13-10 lead entering the 4th. Keenum threw his second INT of the game early in the final frame, allowing the Browns to regain the lead on a Mayfield TD pass. With just under 12 minutes left in the game, the Broncos would go on a clock-chewing 13-play, 64-yard drive that lasted over 7 minutes. With a 4th-and-1 at the Browns’ 6, Vance Joseph – in his most questionable move of the season – elected to kick a field goal. Trailing by 1 with only two timeouts left, Denver would need a defensive stop in order to keep their hopes of winning the game and staying in the playoff picture alive. They would get it on a failed 4th down conversion by the Browns; however, the Broncos’ final drive ended at midfield, with two incomplete passes and a Jabrill Peppers sack putting the nail in the coffin. With the Titans’ win over the Giants the next day, the Broncos were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

With playoffs out of the picture, the Broncos looked to finish the season strong for the sake of both morale and to save the jobs of many coaches on the team. Their penultimate game of the season would be an emotional one for their opponents, as it would be (as I am writing this) the final game the Raiders played at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, their home for the last 24 years. The game started out poorly for the Broncos, as the Raiders would return the punt 99 yards for a score and would add on another 10 points in the second to leave Denver down 17-0 at the half. The Broncos would get on the scoreboard in the third, but the Raiders would respond with another TD in the 4th to make it 24-7. A late rally that saw Denver score another TD and force a three-and-out was quelled when Keenum threw interceptions on consecutive drives. The Raiders kicked another field goal between the two Keenum picks to seal the game.

The final game of the Broncos season was a rematch against the Chargers, who they upset in Los Angeles in Week 11. Despite the defense’s spectacular start (6 of the 7 Chargers’ first drives ended in either a punt or interception), the offense was unable to do anything all afternoon, the low point being the Chargers recovering a Keenum fumble for a TD. The Broncos ended the half with a field goal, aided by Jahleel Addae fumbling an interception that was recovered by Denver. Down 14-3 in the 4th, the Broncos scored, but were unable to add any more points after, as the ensuing 2-point attempt was intercepted and returned to give the Chargers another two points. Another Chargers TD and a Broncos turnover on downs would be the end of Denver’s season, as they would go down quietly in a three-score loss.

Season Awards, Pro Bowl, and All-Pros

  • Week 7 AFC Offensive Player of the Week: Emmanuel Sanders
  • October Defensive Rookie of the Month: Bradley Chubb
  • Week 11 AFC Defensive Player of the Week: Von Miller
  • Week 13 AFC Offensive Player of the Week: Phillip Lindsay
  • Pro Bowlers: Phillip Lindsay (INJ), Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. (ALT), Casey Kreiter
  • All-Pros: Von Miller – 1st Team Linebacker (Pro Football Writers of America), 2nd Team Edge Rusher and Linebacker (Associated Press)

Position Evaluation: Offense

*Note: Any parentheses that look like (# Position) are Pro Football Focus' 2018 rankings of these players.

  Case Keenum League Rank
Pass Attempts 586 6th
Completion Percentage 62.3 27th
Passing Yards 3,890 14th
Passing TDs 18 23rd
% of Passes Resulting in a TD 3.1 30th
Interceptions 15 T-2nd
Yards Per Attempt 6.6 T-29th
Adjusted Yards Per Attempt 6.1 T-30th
Yards Per Completion 10.7 25th
Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) 5.39 28th
Passer Rating 81.2 29th

John Elway brought Case Keenum in as his latest attempt to solve the one position that has needed the most help since the departure of Peyton Manning. Keenum came from the Vikings, where he led Minnesota to its first NFC Championship appearance in eight years. Unfortunately for Elway, Keenum spent the season looking like the Keenum that couldn’t function against the eventual champion Eagles rather than the overlooked signal-caller that threw for 22 TDs to 7 INTs after being thrust into the starting job. The Broncos offense finished bottom 10 in the league this season and, no matter how unfairly, will fall at the feet of Keenum.

Now, regardless of how I or any fan felt about Keenum’s performance this past season, the Broncos’ front office made their opinions known, trading for former Ravens starter Joe Flacco just over a week ago. With Flacco in Denver now, Keenum is all but guaranteed to be either traded or cut before next season begins. Keenum’s numbers would support their choice in making this move. He was the perfect example of what every QB avoids being – volume with almost no efficiency. Keenum ranked 6th in the league in pass attempts this year, but the only other stat he finished top 10 in was interceptions. Perhaps more frustrating than this was the timing of his turnovers. I can’t recount every single one, but as a Chargers fan, I can recall the ones from the Week 17 game. In that game, Keenum threw an INT in the Broncos red zone in a one-possession game, though he was bailed out. Perhaps the more painful turnover came later when Keenum threw an interception to Casey Hayward that was returned 103 yards for a defensive two-point conversion. That game itself was a display of offensive ineptitude comparable to the Super Bowl, but the latter pick – though not officially on his record – effectively halted any momentum Denver had in ending their season on a high note.

Running Back: A-

  Phillip Lindsay Royce Freeman Devontae Booker
Rushing Yards 1,037 521 183
Rushing TDs 9 5 1
Yards Per Carry 5.4 4.0 5.4
Receiving Yards 241 72 30
Receiving TDs 1 0 0

In typical fashion, the undrafted rookie takes over the starting job from the high-round draft pick and the incumbent starter. Phillip Lindsay was one of the few highlights that came from this season’s Broncos’ offense, as he broke the 1,000-yard barrier in his first year and became the first undrafted offensive rookie to be named to the Pro Bowl. Lindsay was oftentimes the only offense to be found on this team, particularly when Case Keenum was struggling to throw the ball. He had three 100+-yard performances on the ground as well as eight games with a yard per carry average over 5. He had 30 runs of double-digit yards and three TD runs of over 25 yards, the longest being a 65-yard scamper against the Bengals. Lindsay will enter 2019 as the feature back of the Denver backfield, a position well deserved for his performance in 2018.

The breakout performance on offense from Lindsay overshadowed the quietly solid rookie season that Royce Freeman had. The third round pick out of Oregon was selected to potentially unseat Devontae Booker as the starting RB, something that Lindsay would eventually end up doing. For Freeman’s part, he put up 521 rushing yards and 5 scores on a respectable 4.0 yards per carry. Pro Football Focus had him as the 52nd ranked running back in the league. His other backfield mate, Devontae Booker, ranked 46th, despite a lower amount of touches. Unfortunately for Booker, he went from entering the season as the starting running back to a distant third on the depth chart. Another important part of the Broncos’ run game is fullback Andy Janovich (#1 FB PFF), who has emerged as arguably the game’s best at a dying position.

Wide Receiver: B-

  Emmanuel Sanders Courtland Sutton Tim Patrick DaeSean Hamilton Demaryius Thomas
Receptions 71 42 30 23 36
Receiving Yards 868 704 243 315 402
Receiving TDs 4 4 2 1 3

The season started with Emmanuel Sanders (#19 WR) and Demaryius Thomas (#42 WR) as the team’s top two receiving options with rookie Courtland Sutton (#77 WR) as the #3. Sanders had #1 receiver production early in the season and leading up to the trading of Thomas but was hot and cold for the season, finishing with stretches of games with either more than 90 or less than 80 receiving yards. Sanders would play 12 games before tearing his Achilles, ending his season. Inconsistency as well as the gradual overhauling of the Broncos’ offense are a couple of reasons why Sanders is a candidate to be cut this offseason.

The roster overhaul is a big reason why Thomas was traded midseason. Thomas was putting up #2 receiver performances while being paid a #1 receiver salary. The longest-tenured player on the offensive side of the ball, Thomas only put up more than 65 receiving yards once all season. His $14M cap hit was no longer being justified by his play, so Denver decided to part ways with the household name. Courtland Sutton would start the season as the team’s third option but would take over Thomas’ spot when he was traded. Sutton would have great performances early on in his new role, but would soon become the #1 option when Sanders went down. In that role, Sutton had expected rookie difficulties being the focus of opposing defenses, finishing with more than 50 receiving yards only once.

Tim Patrick (#94 WR) and DaeSean Hamilton (#97 WR) were used sparingly in the early half of the year but saw more action after the Thomas trade and the Sanders injury, with Patrick taking over on the outside and Hamilton coming in in Sanders’ slot receiver role. Patrick embraced the increased snaps, finishing Denver’s first game without Sanders with more receiving yards (85) than he had all year leading up to it (73) and finishing the season with 242 receiving yards over his final four games. Like Patrick, Hamilton took advantage of his extra time on the field, finishing his rookie season with 182 receiving yards over his final four games after having only 61 yards through the first ten. For Hamilton, the future could be as a middle-of-the-field receiver with Sutton and a second receiver on the outside.

Tight End: C-

Aside from quarterback, tight end might be the most talent-starved position in recent memory for the Broncos. Since Julius Thomas – whose career died the second he was separated from Peyton Manning – left, the best players the Broncos have had at tight end are Owen Daniels and Virgil Green, neither of whom struck fear into opposing defenses nor are on the team anymore. In their place are Jeff Heuerman (#41 TE) and Matt LaCosse (#53 TE), neither of whom finished with 300 receiving yards despite both playing in double-digit games for the Broncos. To put it in perspective, 10 tight ends had more receiving yards than the Broncos’ combined 616 from that position. The Broncos drafted Troy Fumagalli in the fifth round to get more out of the position, but he injured himself before the season started and missed the entire campaign.

Offensive Line: D+

The offensive line has long been a problem for the Broncos’ productivity on that side of the ball, and 2018 was no different. The run game thrived, but pass protection was a major struggle for the unit. A big part of this can be attributed to the midseason losses of C Matt Paradis and LG Ronald Leary, two of the best in the game at their respective positions. Without them, Denver was forced to rotate snaps between Max Garcia, Gino Gradkowski, Billy Turner, and Elijah Wilkinson. Perhaps the biggest change that had to be made was moving third-year guard Connor McGovern to center. McGovern started out the year hot at guard (ranked #1 among guards by PFF through Week 4) but would struggle mightily when tasked with playing center.

It didn’t help those guards that the play from the offensive tackles were among the worst in the league. Broncos fans know all too well about the struggles of second-year offensive tackle Garett “Ereck Flowers” Bolles (#35 OT), a penalty machine who has amassed 10 penalties in each of his first two seasons, seven of which were of the holding variety in each year. Jared Veldheer (#58 OT) was not much better on the other side, his only saving grace being allowing less penalties. Across the line, sacks were given up at a rate just below average. Although Case Keenum was sacked a career-high 34 times – an amount that would have only been topped by his 2016 pace with the Rams had he started all 16 games – that total ranked 20th in the league. The main issue – as was the case for many of the Broncos’ losses this season – was timing. Keenum took sacks in the 4th quarter on potential game-tying/game-winning drives in both games against the Chiefs as well as against the Texans and Browns.

Position Evaluation: Defense

Pass Rushers: A

  Von Miller Bradley Chubb Adam Gotsis Derek Wolfe Shaquil Barrett
Tackles 48 60 38 43 28
Forced Fumbles 4 2 2 0 0
Fumble Recoveries 3 1 1 1 0
Sacks 14.0 12.5 3.0 1.5 3.0

Von Miller and Bradley Chubb…what more can you say about these two? Miller may be the best pass rusher in football and has been among the league’s elite since he came into the league eight years ago. He finished 2018 as his second-best campaign for sacks, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries, recorded his second career interception, and has been as advertised as the disruptive force willing mediocre offenses to victory. What wasn’t expected was the dominance that Miller had alongside him in NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb. Chubb was picked fifth overall, so expectations on him were obviously high, but the rookie exceeded expectations and more. A clear Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, Chubb broke the Broncos’ rookie sack record with 12.0 sacks, recording a sack in 9 games this year, including 3 sacks against the Offensive Line of the Year-winning Rams’ line. Between Chubb and Miller, the Broncos have maybe the best edge defending pair in the league, a great boon in an AFC West loaded with star duos. The supporting cast was not too shabby either, with the trio of Adam Gotsis, Shaquil Barrett, and Derek Wolfe adding 7.5 sacks between them. The five pass rushers were responsible for 34 of the team’s 44 sacks, as many as opponents recorded against the offense.

Defensive Interior: B

  Shelby Harris Domata Peko Zach Kerr
Sacks 1.5 0.5 1.5
Quarterback Hits 7 3 3
Tackles for Loss 8 2 2

This position is responsible for maybe the most memorable play of the Broncos’ season: Shelby Harris intercepting Ben Roethlisberger to win the game and begin the Steelers’ downfall. For a position that’s not that glamorous (Harris, Domata Peko, and Zach Kerr combined for 3.5 sacks, 13 QB hits, and 12 tackles for loss on the year), Harris ranked #8 among interior linemen by PFF. He was the bright spot of the unit, responsible for the lion’s share of the numbers despite not officially starting a single game. Even so, the year for Harris was a significant statistical dropoff from the season prior. Peko (#35 DI), entering his age-35 season, graded out as an above average run stuffer, and would fit perfectly in new coach Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme. Kerr has never been a starting-caliber player at the NFL level, but has done enough to keep himself in the rotations of every team he’s played for.

Linebackers: B+

  Todd Davis Brandon Marshall Josey Jewell
Tackles 114 42 58
Passes Defended 7 1 3
Tackles for Loss 6 0 4
Quarterback Hits 5 0 0

Perhaps the most underappreciated piece of the recent Broncos’ defenses is the inside linebackers. Many don’t think about Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall as the steadying forces roaming the middle of the front seven. The other TD in the Broncos’ organization, Davis (#25 LB) proved himself worth every penny of the $5M he receives each year, finishing the year as the only player on the team with more than 100 tackles in addition to setting career highs in tackles and pass defenses, as well as recording his first career INT and touchdown. He was the anchor to an already stellar Broncos’ linebacking corps.

Josey Jewell (#54 LB) came in and made an impact immediately (ranked #2 among inside linebackers through Week 4) but cooled down once entering a snap sharing situation with veteran Brandon Marshall. Jewell’s production was solid enough to force Marshall out the door, as the team announced they wouldn’t resign him this offseason. Marshall (#48 LB), for his part, produced 42 tackles and defended a past in his final season in Denver and, despite no longer being in his prime, is still good enough to get plenty of attention this offseason.

Defensive Backs: A-

  Chris Harris Jr. Justin Simmons Bradley Roby Darian Stewart Will Parks
Tackles 49 97 50 60 41
Interceptions 3 3 1 2 1
Passes Defended 10 4 12 3 4

Chris Harris Jr. (#3 CB) needs no introduction, as his status as one of the best corners in the league is already well-known, something that he continued to make known in 2018 by adding another three interceptions, 10 pass deflections, and 1 pick-six to his career tallies. The defense put faith in Bradley Roby taking the next step when they dealt Aqib Talib to the Rams. He answered with a respectable 50 tackles and 12 pass deflections in addition to an interception while now being tasked with covering #2 receivers. With Roby as a free agent, rookie Isaac Yiadom currently slots in as the team’s #3 CB (#2 if Roby leaves and they don’t pick up another corner).

Justin Simmons has become a tackling machine at the free safety position and converted his pass defenses into interceptions at a 75% clip last season, setting career highs in both categories. Perhaps the most impressive parts of his third season was his ironman durability and versatility. After missing three games in each of his first two seasons, Simmons played in every one of the Broncos’ 1,077 defensive snaps in 2018. When Chris Harris Jr. and Darian Stewart went down, he saw time as a slot corner and playing opposing tight ends.

Special Teams: D (see table from original post for statistics)

The Broncos’ special teams play was abysmal in 2018. River Cracraft was promoted from the practice squad late last season to take over the punt return duties from Adam “Pacman” Jones, who was cut after two months with the team. The two struggled to get anything going against opposing special teams units, finishing with the worst punt return average in the league. The kick returner spot, a role shared by Cracraft, Jones, Devontae Booker, Phillip Lindsay, and Brendan Langley did not fare much better. Their 20.1 yards per kickoff return was bottom 5 in the league. The offense asked a lot out of kicker Brandon McManus who, despite winning a few games off his leg, finished with an 80% field goal percentage, including 2-for-7 on field goals from 50+ yards out. The punting of Marquette King and, later, Colby Wadman would be about league average all season long, a ranking that meant major implications when their bottom-4 punt coverage unit was asked to make a stop. Perhaps the lone bright spot of this unit was the kickoff return coverage, finishing 2018 with a top 4 ranking in that department.

Coaching: Past and Present

Vance Joseph was fired the day after the regular season ended. Joseph was brought in after captaining the defense of the Dolphins’ one good season in the last decade, and his tenure serves as more proof that you should be wary of anything and anyone that comes from that team. A coach who many wanted gone before the season even started, Joseph artificially saved his job in the first two weeks both years with 2-0 starts before being decimated in Week 3 – last year by the Bills, this year by the Ravens. To his credit, Joseph’s unit did have a couple of notable performances this year. Beating the Chargers prevented them from getting the 1 seed and certainly made their playoff run a lot harder. Beating the Steelers was the start of Pittsburgh’s fall from playoff contention. They gave undefeated teams in the Chiefs and Rams their toughest defensive battles to that point in the season.

What did Joseph in this year was a combination of history and lack of aggression late in games. Against the Texans, Joseph settled for a long field goal late that McManus would eventually miss, giving Houston a victory that fueled their playoff push. Demaryius Thomas, traded to the Texans within the week of the game, said about the decision, “That’s what they do over [in Denver]. I ain’t a part of that no more. We like to win over here.” Thomas’ comment about Joseph’s passiveness late in games reared its ugly head again late in the season. Trailing the Browns by four late with their season on the line, Joseph again settled for a field goal on fourth down, putting faith in his defense to get a stop. Fortunately for him, they did, but the offense ultimately turned the ball over on downs, officially eliminating them from the playoffs.

Joseph was always going to have a short leash when he took this job. Being the head coach of a team that has not seen consecutive losing seasons in almost half a century brings with it the expectation that said team will be in or near the playoffs every other year at the least. With an organization as storied as the Broncos experiencing consecutive losing seasons under Joseph, combined with the fact that fans were vocal about wanting him gone all year, and he had little to no chance of staying.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been hired to replace Joseph and lead the Broncos back to relevance. Fangio led a Chicago defense that finished top 10 in the league in almost every major category and carried a mediocre offense to the Bears’ first NFC North title in 8 years. Given the lethal pass rush duo Denver has along with a solid secondary, the Broncos hope he can bring their defense back to 2015 levels of dominance. Also coming over are 49ers QB coach Rich Scangarello, who managed to get decent production out of Nick Mullens before being brought over and offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who was poached away from the Steelers after being a finalist in the team’s head coaching search. Curtis Modkins (running backs coach) and Zack Azzanni (wide receivers coach) were retained by Fangio, as they were two of the few positions on offense that showed promise. They also worked in the same building as Vic Fangio in Chicago, so there is a familiarity element to the decision.

2019 Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 10 (10th overall)

Round 2, Pick 9 (41st overall)

Round 3, Pick 7 (71st overall)

Round 4, Pick 11 (113th overall) sent to Ravens in Joe Flacco trade

Round 4, Pick 23 (125th overall) – acquired from Texans in Demaryius Thomas trade

Round 5, Pick 10 (148th overall)

Round 5, Pick 18 (156th overall) – acquired from Vikings in Trevor Siemian trade

Round 6, Pick 9 (182nd overall)

Round 7, Pick 6 (220th overall) – acquired from Giants in the Riley Dixon trade, swapped with Texans via Demaryius Thomas trade

Round 7, Pick 8 (222nd overall) – sent to Eagles in trade for G Allen Barbre

Round 7, Pick 23 (237th overall) – pick swap with Texans via Demaryius Thomas trade

Offseason Needs

OT: In his first two years as a starter, Garett Bolles (#35 OT) has massively underwhelmed and Jared Veldheer (#58 OT) was not much better. Veldheer and backups Billy Turner and Elijah Wilkinson (listed as guards on PFF but saw snaps at tackle) are all free agents. If the Broncos do see Wilkinson in their future, they can re-sign him easily, as he is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, meaning that his choices are to take the deal the Broncos offer him or sit out the season. Regardless, the Broncos have a glaring hole at both tackle positions that need to be addressed.

DT: Domata Peko and Shelby Harris saw almost all the team’s snaps at defensive tackle this past season, and both are entering free agency. Peko has already been told he won’t be returning on his current contract, and Harris has been average for the team to consider him as a long-term starting defensive tackle. If nothing else, the defensive line depth that this draft class possesses makes it such that picking a defensive lineman offers the lowest risk.

CB: Chris Harris Jr. is entrenched at one cornerback spot, but the other side of the field leaves a lot to be desired. Bradley Roby (PFF #97 CB) is the best option the team has, but is an unrestricted free agent that will garner looks on the open market. When Harris went down in the latter stages of the year, Tramaine Brock (PFF #98 CB) was thrust into the starting role but was benched not long after. He is also an unrestricted free agent. Isaac Yiadom was charged with starting after Brock was benched and showed some potential, but not enough to lock down a starting spot for 2019. Even if the team does choose to stick with their 3rd-round pick from 2018, there is an evident lack of depth at corner. One free agent defensive back that has been linked to the Broncos is Bears FS Adrian Amos Jr., a player familiar with Vic Fangio’s defensive schemes.

QB: Combine the fact that the 2019 Draft’s QB class is a weak one with the fact that Denver just traded for Joe Flacco and this is a lower priority than it was three weeks ago. It’s no secret that Case Keenum struggled, but the acquisition of Flacco leads me to believe that they’d like to give Flacco a shot at the starting job rather than draft a QB high and let him take the reins immediately. On the other hand, Flacco just experienced a similar situation in Baltimore, where the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson high and let him take the starting job after their BYE with successful results in the win column. The Broncos may choose to draft QB with their high draft pick and let him sit behind Flacco and eventually take over in a repeat of Flacco-Jackson.

Free Agents and Potential Key Losses

Current 2019 Cap Space: $42,745,585

Emmanuel Sanders (Possible Cut Candidate): Sanders was the Broncos #2 receiver alongside Demaryius Thomas for the past four and a half seasons and was elevated to a full time #1 role when Thomas was sent to Houston. For his part, Sanders finished 2018 with 868 receiving yards and 4 TDs in 12 starts before tearing his Achilles late in the year. With the team investing in Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton as the future at wideout, the Broncos may look to move on from Sanders and his $11M cap hit for 2019.

Case Keenum (Likely Cut/Trade Candidate): The Broncos all but moved on from Keenum when they traded for Joe Flacco and will look to trade or release the journeyman signal caller lest they pay $36M combined for the services of the two lower-tier QBs. Keenum’s 2018 showed that he may serve as a bridge starter for a team in need of a long-term answer at QB, but by no means should anyone view him as that answer. If there’s any consolation for Keenum, it’s that he will be entering a poor FA market for quarterbacks, meaning that he will be one of the top names available if a team is desperate.

Brandon Marshall (UFA): With Todd Davis under contract for the next two seasons and the emergence of Josey Jewell as a second option inside, Marshall and his $5M cap hit will almost certainly be playing in a different uniform at the start of next season. Entering his eighth season in 2019, Marshall had a down year in his Broncos’ swan song campaign but should garner plenty of looks on the open market.

Matt Paradis (UFA): The biggest potential loss of anyone that leaves the Broncos this offseason, Paradis has been the steady force on what has otherwise been a bottom-of-the-barrel offensive line since 2015. Having started 57 of a possible 64 games since taking over three seasons ago, Paradis – rated #2 among centers in 2018 – is among the league’s elite at an unglamorous position that most gloss over. He will garner the most attention of the Broncos’ free agent crop, as many teams in the league could use what he offers in the trenches.

Bradley Roby (UFA): An underrated part of the Broncos’ “No Fly Zone” defense of years past, Roby was the team’s third cornerback since he came into the league up until this past season when Aqib Talib was traded. In a starting role, he had the second-most tackles for a season in his career as well as tying a career high in forced fumbles. He offers enough upside for a team to take a chance on him, and his role on one of the greatest defenses of all time will boost his stock.

Shelby Harris (RFA) and Domata Peko (UFA): The Broncos’ two defensive tackles from this past year are both able to move on to different teams this year should they choose to do so. Harris had a solid year, finishing 2018 with a career high in tackles and tackles for loss while racking up 7 QB hits from the interior. What people most remember Harris for is his game-winning pick against the Steelers in Week 12 that started Pittsburgh’s AFC West tailspin on their way to missing the playoffs. Peko, a soon-to-be 35-year-old veteran, was already informed that the Broncos won’t be bringing him back in 2019 on his current contract, but may come back on a team-friendly deal later on in the offseason process.

Zach Kerr (UFA): Kerr never did enough to win a permanent starting job with the Broncos but has been a quality rotation piece. He should be back on a cheap team-friendly deal in 2019 unless there is some unexpected market in the free agent pool for defensive tackles.

Final Words

The Broncos have spent the better part of the 2010s among the league’s elite teams, having made two Super Bowls, winning one of them, and by and large being one of only two teams to consistently beat the Patriots this decade. Since 2011, John Elway has been the man in charge of football operations for the team. As a Broncos legend and beloved quarterback that led them to two Super Bowl wins, the acceptance of Elway as the shot caller was not hard. In a span of three years, he managed to turn a team with the greatest regular season offense of all time into arguably the greatest defensive unit of all time. For all that he’s brought to this franchise, there’s just one thing he’s failed to do: find a quarterback. There is a sweet irony that one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game can’t find a long-term option there, but fans are starting to grow restless of the ineptitude at the game’s most important position. Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Case Keenum have all started at QB for the Broncos in the Elway era, none of whom had any sustained success. Of the 84 wins (including playoffs) the Broncos have gotten during Elway’s tenure, 50 came from Peyton Manning, a surefire Hall of Famer who was well established before the Broncos and effectively fell onto Denver’s doorstep when the Colts decided it was time to move on.

The success of the Broncos has masked Elway’s deficiencies when it comes to the game’s most important position and, to Elway’s credit, shows he can put together a Super Bowl roster. After all, football is a team sport no matter how much praise or blame is heaped upon the quarterback. However, the Broncos are now on their eighth starting quarterback and fifth head coach in the nine years Elway has been team president. With the lack of competent QB play starting to catch up with him, it begs the question of how long the Broncos can continue to roll with him when he’s repeatedly failed to find the solution under center.