This is the first article of a three-part series that will preview the 2021 AFC West landscape.
2020 Record: 5-11, 4th in AFC West
Head Coach: Vic Fangio
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Denver Broncos made a critical, franchise-altering mistake in the 2021 NFL Draft by passing on Ohio State QB Justin Fields to select Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II. That type of decision will be analyzed under a microscope for the next decade and beyond.
Fields was selected two picks later by the Chicago Bears. The Broncos now seem destined to be the next team that will live with regret after missing on a franchise quarterback. Fields will need to severely disappoint during his Bears career for the Broncos to escape that fate.
The Broncos potentially tipped their hand a day before the draft that they were not in the market for a quarterback when they traded for Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But the Broncos only gave a sixth-round pick for the journeyman quarterback, and former second-round pick Drew Lock has failed to impress in his first two seasons. Those two quarterbacks are frankly not good enough to warrant passing on Fields.
The first eight picks of the draft played out perfectly for the Broncos to land Fields without sacrificing future draft capital. But alas, a decision was made to invest in a premium cover-corner prospect to counter the AFC West passing attacks of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr.
If you don’t factor in the opportunity cost of passing on Fields, the Surtain selection makes all the sense in the world for the Broncos. Passing offense and defense reigns supreme in the NFL, and Surtain joins a very talented and deep Broncos secondary that has a chance to be among the best in the league.
I won’t mention Justin Fields again in this preview. He’s not a Bronco no matter how hard you scrutinize the decision.
The Broncos have still not named a starting quarterback for Week 1, but the growing sentiment is that Lock will be under center against the New York Giants. In the Broncos first preseason game against the Vikings, Lock showcased his tools as a big-armed passer when he connected with speedster K.J. Hamler for an 80-yard touchdown.
The play served as a reminder of Lock’s high ceiling. If he can clean up his accuracy and turnover-worthy plays, he has a chance to become the quarterback that John Elway drafted him to be. Lock went 5/7 for 151 yards and 2 TDs against the Vikings, with Bridgewater going 7/8 for 74 yards and a TD.
Whoever starts at quarterback, the Broncos have surrounded them with weapons.
The Broncos offensive skill players are considered unproven by most, but there is crazy potential all over the field. 2020 first-round pick WR Jerry Jeudy flashed as a rookie and is a popular breakout pick. WR Courtland Sutton is coming off of a torn ACL but produced 72 catches, 1112 yards and 6 TDs two years ago. The aforementioned K.J. Hamler was the 46th overall pick in 2020 and provides a vertical threat that will open up the passing attack.
TE Noah Fant is entering his third year in the league and has an off-the-charts pedigree. Fant has an elite athletic profile and was a first-round pick out of Iowa, a pro factory at the TE position. Expect a major breakout from Fant. He could be in the conversation with Chiefs TE Travis Kelce and Raiders TE Darren Waller by the end of the season.
The Broncos drafted North Carolina RB Javonte Williams with the 35th overall pick this year to pair with RB Melvin Gordon and eventually take over the backfield.
When you combine all these weapons with possibly average play from the quarterbacks and offensive line, the Broncos offense could take a major step forward in 2021.
All-Pro EDGE Von Miller missed the 2020 season with an ankle injury, but he is back to pair with Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb in the pass rush. The Broncos are returning Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones, PFF’s 8th and 27th ranked interior defensive linemen in 2020, respectively.
Rookie Patrick Surtain II joins a top-flight secondary featuring stud safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. The Broncos also have veteran CBs Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan. Callahan is coming off a career year, ranking as PFF’s 3rd best corner.
The Broncos inside linebackers are the weakest among the defense’s position groups, but starters Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson should be able to combine for league-average production.
– 2021 Prediction
The Broncos are testing the consensus opinion that you can’t win in the NFL without a star quarterback. By building a roster with very few holes outside of the quarterback position, the Broncos are betting that one of Lock or Bridgewater will step up and have an average season to pair with their offensive weapons and potentially elite defense.
The Broncos open the season with a favorable schedule (@ NYG, @ JAX, vs. NYJ) and could enter Week 4 undefeated. I absolutely love how the Broncos matchup against pass-heavy offenses. I’m projecting them to win a couple of upsets this season, considering their pass defense and potential positive regression from the quarterback position.
Expect the Broncos to be in the mix for a wild card spot by the end of the season.
Projection: 9-8, 3rd in the AFC West
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