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With Improved QB Play, Refined Denver Broncos Can Contend in the AFC West

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 22, 2021

Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) throws a pass against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan.. 3, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Justin Edmonds)
Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

Gaps close quickly in the NFL. 

And while the Denver Broncos might remain unlikely to overcome the chasm that separated them from the juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West last season—a canyon that contained the division's two other teams and measured the distance of nine wins—an encouraging early-offseason run could have a growing Denver team on a trajectory to contend for the first time since it won the Super Bowl in 2015. 

The Broncos were underrated to begin with and have already improved immensely in 2021. Not only did they retain star veteran defenders Justin Simmons and Von Miller, but they've also significantly bolstered the secondary with the additions of two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller and late-blooming shutdown artist Ronald Darby at the cornerback position. 

Fuller and Darby both surrendered sub-90 passer ratings on throws into their coverage with the Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team, respectively, in 2020, well ahead of the ugly 108.4 rating allowed by departed disappointment A.J. Bouye during an injury-derailed solo campaign in Denver. 

Kyle Fuller spruces up Denver's secondary.
Kyle Fuller spruces up Denver's secondary.Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

Injuries were, in fact, a huge reason the Broncos won just five games despite possessing plenty of talent in 2020.

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Bouye missed nine games and wasn't himself outside of that, Miller didn't play a single down as a result of an ankle injury, top wide receiver Courtland Sutton missed basically the entire season due to a torn ACL, the run defense was crushed by injuries to starting interior defensive linemen Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell, and highly paid right tackle Ja'Wuan James was a COVID-19 opt-out. 

Despite all that, the Broncos D ranked 13th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. Head coach Vic Fangio's defensive unit registered the fifth-best adjusted sack rate and the seventh-best pressure rate in the NFL thanks to another strong season by rising 2018 No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb and breakout campaigns by 24-year-old revelations Malik Reed and Dre'Mont Jones. 

Miller might be beyond his prime, but he was a Pro Bowler with eight sacks and 20 quarterback hits when he was last healthy in 2019. He's now apparently fully recovered, and his presence, along with those additions to the secondary, should allow that defense to become elite again in 2021. 

If Von Miller can get back on track, the Denver defense could dominate.
If Von Miller can get back on track, the Denver defense could dominate.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Throw James back into the fray alongside standouts Garett Bolles and Graham Glasgow and high-potential 2019 second-round pick Dalton Risner, and the offensive line could be stacked next season, as well. Ditto for the pass-catching corps with Sutton returning to work with recent first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant.

And while they could miss departed running back Phillip Lindsay, they rescinded his first-round tender for 2021 because they're in quality shape with Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman in the backfield. 

It's actually rather difficult to find a weak spot until you get to the elephant on the depth chart: quarterback Drew Lock. 

Quarterback has, of course, been a problem for the Broncos ever since the Peyton Manning era came to an end following that 2015 championship season. Lock flashed in a limited sample as a rookie second-round pick in 2019 but failed to follow that up with much promise in 2020. There's no questioning his arm talent, but the Missouri product ranked last among qualified passers with a 57.3 completion percentage as a sophomore. 

There are some valid excuses. He entered the league pretty raw, he lacked support without Sutton and James, he wasn't healthy for much of the season, and it was a weird year to become a full-time starter considering the offseason was severely diminished by the pandemic. 

That said, new general manager George Paton appears to know the team will need better quarterback play in 2021, regardless of where it comes from. 

"We've evaluated all the quarterbacks," he said last week. "We like Drew Lock. We have a plan in place and there's free agency, there's the draft, there's trades, there's a lot of ways to acquire a quarterback. Fortunately, we have a quarterback here, and we have a nice quarterback room. We do want to bring in competition. We are not going to force it."

Drew Lock might have one more shot to establish himself.
Drew Lock might have one more shot to establish himself.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Lock could absolutely still be the answer in or beyond his looming age-25 season. But 2020 starters Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold and Derek Carr could all potentially be had on the trade market, and Denver could be in play for a blue-chip entry-level signal-caller like Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance or Mac Jones with the No. 9 overall pick in next month's draft. 

If it all comes together with Miller, Fuller and Darby joining the defense and Sutton and James rejoining the offense, and if either Lock or somebody else can finally deliver under center, Denver should absolutely contend despite going just 5-11 with the NFL's fourth-worst team DVOA last year. 

At the very least, the law of averages should be on their side in terms of injury luck. And on the bright side, the Chiefs look much more vulnerable than they have over the last two years following the release of stalwart offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.

Elsewhere in the division, the Las Vegas Raiders embarrassed themselves early in the offseason by inexplicably gutting a strong offensive line, while the Los Angeles Chargers don't look significantly improved after a losing 2020 campaign. 

If the Chiefs are due for a fall back to earth this fall, it could very well be the Broncos who wind up in position to make a surprise run at the playoffs, if not Super Bowl LVI. 

           

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.

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