Denver Broncos Are Building AFC's Next Sleeping Giant

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 24, 2020

Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock throws a pass under pressure from Oakland Raiders defensive end Benson Mayowa (91) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

There's no question that the Kansas City Chiefs are the kings of the AFC West. And the AFC as a whole. And the National Football League.

Hoisting a Lombardi Trophy will do that for you.

However, as the division's other teams gear up to take a run at downing the Chiefs in 2020, one franchise is quietly building a team that is capable of competing with them and joining the upper echelon in the AFC.

That team is the Denver Broncos.

In recent years, the Broncos have been driven by defense. It was the defense that propelled them to a victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. And under a head coach in Vic Fangio who has long been known as a mastermind on that side of the ball, it's the defense that will serve as the backbone of the team this season.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

The Broncos were a respectable 12th in the NFL in total defense in 2019, and given the additions the team has made, it's reasonable to predict improvement in that regard in 2020.

Broncos general manager John Elway didn't even wait for free agency's legal tampering window to open before making changes. With longtime stalwart Chris Harris Jr. set to hit the open market, Elway was aggressive in replacing him, agreeing to a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars that brought 2017 Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye to Denver. Like Harris, Bouye's 2019 season wasn't his best. But he's two years younger than Harris and a better fit as a boundary cornerback.

Denver will get a second potential impact addition on the back end in 2020 with the return to health of cornerback Bryce Callahan. Callahan's first season in Denver in 2019 ended before it began, compliments of a foot injury. But when he's healthy, the sixth-year pro is one of the better slot corners in the game.

And the Broncos franchised safety Justin Simmons, who is coming off a season with a career-high 93 tackles that resulted in a second-team All-Pro nod. While it may not quite be the "No Fly Zone" secondary of Denver's Super Bowl run, it's a fine defensive backfield.

Elway used a trade to bolster the front seven as well. The Broncos sent a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for veteran defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. The 30-year-old, who has quietly been one of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL for several years, has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons. A ferocious edge-setter and stout pass-rusher capable of playing both end and tackle, Casey told Dylan Scott of KOAA-TV that he feels he's playing the best football of his career.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

"You're going to turn on my film, you'll see that," Casey said. "I'm running to the ball, downfield, I'm getting into the backfield and being disruptive."

With both Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris hitting free agency, finding a quality replacement was a priority for Denver. Elway did that and then some.

If youngster Dre'Mont Jones steps up opposite Casey, Denver's front seven could be a big area of strength in 2020. That's especially true when you consider that a linebacker corps that consists of two solid inside players in Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson and two stud edge-rushers in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb was already the best group at that position in the AFC West.

As Ryan O'Halloran wrote for the Denver Post, as good as Denver's defense might be in 2020, Fangio is well aware that it will only get the team so far if the Broncos can't improve an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL in scoring in 2019.

"[The Chiefs have] lost eight games in the last two years; all of those games except one, the other team has scored 31 of more points," Fangio said. "That paints a little picture for you. You've got to be able to slow them down somewhat, which to some degree we did a little bit [in '19]. But obviously you're going to have to score some points."

It's that offense for which Elway cracked open the checkbook.

The biggest free-agent signing the team has made in 2020 came on the offensive front, where Elway handed $44 million over four years to Graham Glasgow. The 27-year-old Glasgow, who spent the first five years of his career in Detroit, has extensive experience playing both guard spots and center. Per Aric DiLalla of the Broncos website, Glasgow has surrendered just one sack over the last two seasons.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

While the loss of center Connor McGovern opened a hole on Denver's O-line, Glasgow more than fills it. It's a nice bump for a Broncos line that ranked 25th in the NFL in pass protection last year, according to Football Outsiders.

The other major offensive signing was a bit more puzzling. With Phillip Lindsay (who has rushed for over 1,000 yards in both of his NFL seasons) and Royce Freeman already on the roster, running back didn't appear to be an area of need for the Broncos. Denver added one anyway, inking Melvin Gordon III to a two-year deal.

Gordon's 2019 season was forgettable, but the 26-year-old has three seasons with over 1,300 total yards, 224 career receptions and 47 total touchdowns. The Broncos now have arguably the deepest group of tailbacks in the NFL. They are well-positioned to rotate fresh, talented runners with regularity. To ground-and-pound an opponent to dust.

Every one of these moves can only help Drew Lock's chances for success in 2020. The second-year signal-caller showed flashes as a rookie, but he remains a work in progress. The improvements on defense will help keep the Broncos in games. A better offensive line and punishing ground game will help take pressure off Lock to try to carry the offense.

Of course, Lock will need to step up in 2020—the Broncos are going to have to score significantly more than 17.6 points per game to contend for a playoff spot. But Lock is not going to have to stand on his head every Sunday for the Broncos to move the football.

This doesn't mean that the Broncos are ready to take a run at dethroning the Chiefs. As is the case with approximately 32 NFL teams, the Broncos could use another cornerback and more help on the offensive line. The team also needs a wide receiver to pair with youngster Courtland Sutton, but just about every mock draft out there has the team addressing that position in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft.

The Broncos still have work to do. But substantial progress has already been made with a team that wasn't that far away in 2019—the gap between 7-9 and 10-6 isn't as wide as many think.

Elway has received his share of criticism as Denver's general manager—much of it justified. But he's done a good job adding talent in free agency to a team that quietly turned it on over the second half of last year, winning four of five to close out the season.

And in doing so, Elway may just be building the AFC's next sleeping giant.

The question now is how long it takes the Broncos to wake up.