Denver Broncos fans should brace themselves for another year without playoff football, according to The Denver Post’s Broncos beat reporter Cameron Wolfe.
The 2015 Super Bowl champions are set to endure the toughest strength of schedule in 2017 without future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware, as well as a shake up to their coaching team.
The Broncos insist they haven’t become a bad team despite missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons after finishing third in the AFC West in 2016, and believe they are capable of a return to the Super Bowl under first-time head coach Vance Jospeh, spearheaded by Mike McCoy’s return as offensive coordinator, but Wolfe isn’t convinced.
“At this point, I think playoffs is a more realistic goal than Super Bowl,” he told Broncos Europe’s 5280 podcast.
“Obviously, things can change. If you get into the playoffs, magic can happen, but I’m not certain that this team is a lock to be better than 9-7 like they were last season.
“At this point, that’s a realistic ceiling for them — 9-7, 10-6.”
They haven’t done much to say it’s going to be better immediately.
A Super Bowl-winning hangover and the retirement of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning saw the Broncos’ offensive struggles continue in 2016 as they stuttered to a 9-7 season in Gary Kubiak’s final season before retiring on health grounds.
The offensive stats make for difficult reading with the Broncos ranked among the worst teams in most categories, notably 31st on third down, 27th on total yards, possession average and fewest penalties.
That came despite a 4-0 start, including wins over the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Trevor Siemian, with the second-year quarterback winning the job ahead of first-round pick Paxton Lynch.
Despite a solid showing with a limited playbook, Siemian struggled with injury throughout his first year as a starter while Lynch, in his stead, showed flashes of the talent that convinced general manager John Elway to trade up for him, but the rookie proved he wasn’t fully ready to start in the NFL.
Injuries, particularly to running backs CJ Anderson and Devontae Booker and full-back Andy Janovich, also hit the Broncos in 2016 to compound the issues of some — at times — dismal play from the offensive line which helped neither the quarterbacks nor run game, while the defense couldn’t maintain their impressive 2015 form as the run defense slipped to 28th ranked overall despite the pass defense again topping the charts.
While mid-season injuries can’t be accounted for in the offseason, Elway addressed the offensive line deficiencies in March through free agency with Manchester-born tackle Menelik Watson arriving from the Oakland Raiders and guard Ronald Leary – arguably the best guard available – joining from the Dallas Cowboys.
Despite a weak tackle class in the 2017 draft, the Broncos splashed their first-round pick on Utah tackle Garett Bolles with the hope the 25-year-old rookie can slot into the problematic left tackle position vacated by Russell Okung after his one year with the Broncos didn’t work out.
With Sylvester Williams failing to earn a new contract, and still no obvious replacement for Malik Jackson, Elway picked up free agent defensive linemen Domata Peko and Zach Kerr, and added Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker in the second round of the draft, but Wolfe believes questions remain over the Broncos’ defensive front.
“There’s still some worry in the interior of the defensive line,” Wolfe said. “They didn’t really pick up an interior defensive lineman.
“Obviously, they signed Domata Peko and Zach Kerr this offseason, but Domata Peko is coming towards the end of his career — he’s 32 — and then you’ve got Zach Kerr, who hasn’t been a full-time starter yet, and they look at him as more of a defensive end, so there’s still a bit of worry on that defensive front.
“They’ve brought in DeMarcus Walker, but he’s more of a pass rusher than a bulky run stuffer, so I’m not sure they’ve fixed the run defense problems at this point and that’s a big concern.
“That would probably be my biggest question mark, and there’s still question marks as far as the tight end position. They added Jake Butt, but he’s a guy coming off a torn ACL and he may not be ready week one, and their tight end corps was probably one of the worst in the NFL last season.
“They haven’t done much to say it’s going to be better immediately.”
With Siemian and Lynch again vying for the starting quarterback job when training camp begins later this month, uncertainty remains around which of the young quarterbacks will lead the Broncos in Joseph’s first year and what the Broncos can achieve in 2017.
Some pundits believe the Broncos can return to the playoffs at the expense of either the Raiders or Kansas City Chiefs, whereas others have them on the bubble and missing out again, or missing out entirely.
Wolfe agrees that the spread is wide for where the Broncos could finish next season in what could be described as a transition year rather than a reboot.
“I don’t know how you can say looking at this roster, compared to last year, that they’re going to be better than [9-7],” he said.
“It’s going to be dependent on how well the quarterbacks play, how well VJ transitions it to year one, but I can see this team being anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6 at this point.
“I think they’ve got some room for improvement – they’re anywhere from being a non-playoff team to making it into the wildcard team right on the cusp.
“It could be a transition year, I don’t know if rebuilding is the right word because when I think of rebuilding I think of teams towards the bottom of the league.
“I don’t think this will be a bottom 10 team, but I do think this is a team still trying to find its identity, and I think they’re a little further from championship contention than they’d want to admit.”
Cameron Wolfe appeared on episode 2 of the 5280 Podcast. Listen to the full show, also featuring former Broncos left tackle Ryan Harris, and That’s Good Sport’s Brandon Perna below or subscribe on iTunes.