On the 5280 Podcast during training camp and preseason, we had talking heads from Denver’s sports media predict everything between 6-10 and 10-6. Some had us as playoff contenders, others had us missing out altogether.
The spectrum showed that, as talented as this team was on paper, the only consensus was that we didn’t know what this team would be capable of with a new coaching staff, and the strongest strength of schedule in 2017.
Being optimistic, we settled on 10-6, which would have been an improvement on 2016, and a return to playoff contention. How wrong we were!
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The 2017 rookie class has been another abysmal affair for the Broncos with injuries and poor decision-making plaguing most of the youngsters drafted.
Michigan tight end Jake Butt and Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly saw no action at all, while Louisana Tech wide receiver Carlos Henderson, who was projected to play in the slot, wasn’t seen after a preseason injury.
Georgia wide receiver/punt returner Isaiah McKenzie has been a bust so far. Half a dozen muffed punts, and taking it upon himself to go infield rather than out of bounds with no time outs and the clock running out on the first half against Washington in week 16 was another infuriating moment.
He was benched twice and should have remained inactive despite injuries to Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Tim Patrick or River Cracraft — both have been given futures contracts — off the practice squad should have been given a chance on offense late in the season.
Whether McKenzie returns in 2018 remains to be seen as Vance Joseph also gets a second chance in Denver.
Running back De’Angelo Henderson, who many tipped to rise up the depth chart after a promising preseason, has seen little action behind CJ Anderson and Devontae Booker.
Since Booker returned from injury, Henderson has been a regular inactive on game day, with Jamaal Charles being the regularly underused third running back.
Considering the Broncos have been handicapped at wide receiver for much for the season with injuries to Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer, the absence of Henderson’s pass-catching ability is a poor reflection on the coaching staff, and Henderson gave Broncos Country a timely reminder of his ability with a majestic 29-yard receiving touchdown on a screen play against Kansas City in week 17.
On defense, Lamar cornerback Brendan Langley was active for 11 games, but offered little in terms of production. Was given a working over by the Oakland Raiders in week 12, when he saw more game time after Aqib Talib was ejected, but his biggest contribution has been on special teams, with six kick returns going for 183 yards, all averaging more than 20+ yards and a long of 61.
The Broncos can’t work out what to do with defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Walker, who has been another regular on the inactive list. Has seen some rotational action, but has largely been a disappointment as a second-round pick although not necessarily his fault.
The one shining light from this year’s class has been Utah tackle Garett Bolles, who won the starting left tackle job and has been solid for the most part, despite being one of the most-penalised players in the league this season.
There are obvious growing pains, and one of his problems has been the glut of holding penalties he was known for in college, but he’s been solid and done well considering he was going up against some of the league’s best edge rushers.
Notably, he outperformed and outlasted right tackle Menelik Watson, who finished the season on injured reserve.
Aside from Bolles, and very briefly Henderson, it was another disappointing draft class for John Elway and friends in the front office with fans having to wait again to see if the new recruits break out in year two.
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Was there anything to be pleased about from rookie head coach Vance Joseph or his assistants this 5-11 season?
It’s fair to say that the coaching at times this season has left a lot to be desired. For the most part it has been awful.
Despite the promising start to the season, with Joseph “having the time of his life” on the sidelines in the opening last-gasp win over the Los Angeles Chargers to the thrilling annihilation of Dallas in week two, it was a fairly inauspicious to the Joseph era.
The eight-game losing streak after starting 3-1 solidified the opinion for many that Joseph is not head coach material.
Miami Dolphins fans insist he wasn’t a great defensive coordinator from his time there in 2016 — they ranked 26th in overall defense — which begs the question what on earth does Elway see in him that no other general manager does, and why does he deserve a second season in Denver?
Teams weren’t exactly lining up to interview Joseph for head coach in 2017 — or in 2015 when Elway wanted him while he was in Cincinnati — unlike now-San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
The back-to-back wins that ended the crushing losing streak might, just might, have been a factor in saving Joseph from the axe after one season, but it’s difficult to feel good about that for the future of the team.
That most of the players came out and backed the coach was likely a big part in Elway standing behind the guy he brought in.
Yes, the quarterback situation has been a disaster from day one and there should be some mitigation there, the offensive line was the fourth worst in the league in 2017, but the coaching wasn’t great, and the buck should stop with Joseph, this supposed “leader of men”.
How can we trust him to turn it around just because there’s a new quarterback in place for 2018?
Joseph has consistently reeled off the same lines about practice being great, everyone doing fine, trusting the process, and that’s without the talk of not making changes because of two-score games or, in stating the obvious, that everyone has to coach better, play better.
He gave multiple chances to McKenzie only for that to blow up in his face.
The decision to keep Joseph in Denver hasn’t gone down too well with a large number of fans.
Special teams coordinator Brock Olivo has a clear passion for the game, but whatever he did with special teams didn’t translate on the field, especially when it came to the coverage and return game.
It’s amazing that McKenzie took so long to learn when to fair catch the ball. That’s fundamental for a returner and that’s on the coach, and the player. Olivo was lucky to still be in Denver in week 17.
The fact he’s a first-year coordinator probably meant he got a pass from the team, but it was no surprise to see him shown the door at the end of the season.
Bill Musgrave is a man with potential. Lauded for his role in transforming Derek Carr into a franchise quarterback in Oakland, he did improve the offense in a limited capacity since taking over the reins from Mike McCoy after most of the damage was done.
The less said about the offensive performances under McCoy the better. Like many, we were guilty of buying into the notion that he would return the Broncos to being the high-scoring team it was during Peyton Manning’s early years in Denver.
It’s easy to see that Musgrave could create an offensive scheme that would suit Heisman winner Baker Mayfield should the Broncos draft him in 2018, but he should also be able to craft a scheme that would suit seasoned veterans such as Kirk Cousins or Alex Smith should they be in Broncos colours next season, and it makes sense he was given the coordinator role on a full-time basis.
For all the talk that the promotion of Joe Woods from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator wouldn’t been much of a change in the defense following the loss of Wade Phillips, we saw it only in patches because of how often the offense turned the ball over.
The problem with stats is they can often mask problems: The Broncos finished 2017 ranked third in total defense (290 YPG), fourth in passing (200.6) and fifth in rushing (89.4), but were also 23rd in total points allowed (23.9 pts/game) and 28th for receiving touchdowns allowed (29).
Yes, it was year one for many of these coaches, but the roster was talented enough to be a playoff team. The fact that the head coach remains as well as the offensive and defensive coordinators doesn’t sit well so soon after a disappointing season.
They just about deserve the chance to turn it around, but further failures won’t be accepted. He remains on thin ice going into 2018 and might not see out the season if we see the sort of results through the middle of 2017.
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Team Trevor, Team Paxton, Team Brock, Team Kyle, Team Swag. Almost every fan had a favourite Broncos quarterback at the start of the season. None of them really delivered.
We loved what we saw from rookie Kyle Sloter in preseason, wish he would have stayed in Denver, and begrudgingly accepted his decision to secure his financial future in quarterback-rich Minnesota, but he was never going to start unless we got really desperate.
It would have been nice to see what Kelly could have done for the Broncos, and he might still get a chance during the offseason after sitting out his rookie year with injuries.
Trevor Siemian was the best of an inexperienced group in preseason and rightly deserved to be named starter ahead of Paxton Lynch, but it would have been interesting to see what could have happened had Brock Osweiler been in Denver during training camp.
The early signs were promising for Siemian, notably after that performance against Dallas, but it proved to be an outlier. Just as the big performance Siemian had against Cincinnati in 2016, it showed he’s capable of doing it, but not consistently enough, and after some tenderising from defensive linemen, and some niggling injuries, he falls apart.
The poor offensive line hasn’t helped, but that’s when quarterbacks really show what they’re capable of. Kirk Cousins was pretty useful in Washington despite a glut of injuries to his offensive line, while Russell Wilson was still handy for the Seahawks, and rookie DeShaun Watson was lighting it up before tearing his ACL despite the poor offensive line in Houston.
Unfortunately for Siemian, he’s probably a backup quarterback at best. Still, he and Osweiler were outplayed by many other backups this season, notably Case Keenum in Minnesota and even the much-travelled Josh McCown for the New York Jets.
With Lynch out, the Broncos should have moved to Osweiler long before he was given the reins for the Philadelphia blowout defeat. That’s on the coaches.
Osweiler has shown since his return that he offers a lot more. More comfortable going downfield, a bit more mobile although not as mobile as Lynch, and more passionate leadership, even if his teammates aren’t always paying attention on the sidelines.
That’s not to say Osweiler is the answer. In his brief outings, Lynch hasn’t exactly lit it up either. All three quarterbacks to play this season had problems with ball security and poor decision-making. Which of them comes back in 2018?
It’s not unfair to say the Broncos’ franchise quarterback was not on the 2017 roster based on what we’ve seen, and we wait to see which of them return in 2018 and who arrives at Dove Valley in the coming months.
Early expectations for 2018
It’s too early to say what the Broncos will look like in 2018 and futile to go into expectation detail until the quarterback situation is known, then which of the veterans are returning, and how the team performs in the draft, which hasn’t been great in recent seasons.
Joseph’s return as head coach isn’t overly popular, but we’ll give him a chance to turn it around. He might be one of the nicest guys in the world, but has looked too clueless too often to consider him a decent — never mind elite — head coach.
It could be weeks or months before the quarterback situation is clear as offers are made on veterans and the 2018 NFL Draft takes place at the end of April. Instead, here’s what should happen.
Those players brought back — there are more than a dozen free agents across the team this offseason — get a clean slate. Same for the rookies and the practice squad guys, who didn’t get much of a look in towards the end of 2017.
The big question is how the Broncos front office balances the books to free up cap space for a franchise quarterback when Von Miller is already receiving that money, and resign key players including Bradley Roby, Matt Paradis and Shaq Barrett.
Aqib Talib, Darian Stewart, Demaryius Thomas, Sanders and CJ Anderson all have contracts that can be renegotiated or traded away. If two, or more, are willing to take team-friendly deals, the Broncos need to keep them.
In terms of quarterback, it’s hard to disagree that the Broncos should throw the chequebook at Cousins if Washington doesn’t slap him with the franchise tag for a third season.
He might never come close to equalling Manning’s overall success, but Cousins is the best quarterback potentially available and will be around for a good while yet.
There is a growing respect for Keenum and what he’s been able to do in Minnesota this season, but he hasn’t done it multiple seasons.
If Smith is out of Kansas City, he’d be a good short-term option, but that probably means drafting a quarterback in 2018. If the Broncos get Cousins, there isn’t that strong need to draft a quarterback in the first round, which will allow the team to deal with deficiencies on the offensive line or inside linebacker.
The Broncos drafted Jay Cutler, Tim Tebow and Lynch in the first round. None of those were the answer. Given the quarterbacks Elway has drafted during his time as general manager, confidence isn’t high he’ll get the right guy this time around.
Joseph talked of a reboot when he became head coach almost a year ago, but with some familiar faces expected to leave during the offseason it still feels like a team in rebuild mode rather than transition.
Elway has been lucky before with quick fixes keeping fans largely happy, but it can’t be understated that the Broncos aren’t immune to needing a few years to rebuild. The history shows that. Veteran Broncos fans will remember the barren years.
More recently, the Broncos had just two winning seasons between 2006 and 2011, five of those years were without playoff football, and that streak was broken in 2011 as they scraped an 8-8 record to finish top of the AFC West. Then came the Manning years.
In a competitive AFC West, the Broncos have to keep moving forward. The Los Angeles Chargers showed this year that they are a team capable of winning and aren’t far off having a great team. Kansas City has back-to-back AFC West titles, a quarterback of the future, and a raft of young talent that is already delivering, while Oakland has their franchise quarterback and seems set to lure Jon Gruden back as their head coach.
With the divisional rivals so strong, there is no guarantee that next season will see a return to winning football, which at the very least means returning to the playoffs, and 2018 could be as difficult as 2017 if the right pieces don’t fall into place.
This article was originally published by our friends at Gridiron & Gravy – the NFL community for the north.
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