The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC West – Denver Broncos


Denver Broncos

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

As the Broncos enter their third season under head coach Vic Fangio, I find it difficult to imagine how the team is going to make progress in the AFC West.

That’s not to say there haven’t been moves that look good in a vacuum. Their first-round pick, corner Patrick Surtain, profiles as an excellent fit in Fangio’s scheme. Corner Kyle Fuller, signed after the Bears cut him as a cap casualty, has already proven he can excel in this scheme, much like Bryce Callahan, another corner who played for Fangio on the dominant 2018 Bears defense before following the coach to Denver. Likewise, corner Ronald Darby, who signed a 3 year, 30 million dollar contract after posting a strong season in Washington (after a few seasons of mediocre play and injury issues in Philadelphia) could repeat last season’s success. Denver also added a strong running back prospect in second-round pick Javontae Williams, along with the underrated Mike Boone, who performed well in his limited opportunities behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison in Minnesota. They also added Quinn Meinerz, a small-school prospect who excelled at the Senior Bowl, in the third round, and the guard could upgrade the offensive line’s physicality.

The issue with all of these moves is that football rosters aren’t built in a vacuum. Denver also retained safety Kareem Jackson, and while Jackson and Justin Simmons have arguably been the league’s best safety tandem over the past two seasons, their presence means that Denver will have to live in a four-corner dime package to get Surtain, Fuller, Darby, and Callahan all on the field. The running back depth chart includes Williams, Boone, Melvin Gordon, and Royce Freeman, and while it’s great to have that many capable players, there’s also not a clear path for the four to have roles. As for Meinerz, his addition could allow the Broncos to shift left guard Dalton Risner out to right tackle, but while I’ve always liked Risner’s tape, particularly his ability to get on the move as a puller, he never struck me as a player whose traits would make him an obvious candidate to move to tackle.

At the same time, Denver has committed to quarterbacks who essentially ensure they will get mediocre play. Teddy Bridgewater won a lot of games for a loaded New Orleans Saints team in 2019, but this Denver roster is nowhere near as talented as that group and doesn’t have Sean Payton scheming things up. Drew Lock showed some flashes as a rookie, but even in the best-case scenario, he would likely be an average quarterback who depends on the offense around him to elevate him, rather than the other way around. The healthy return of Courtland Sutton would make an incredible difference, but despite the hype around Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, the latter duo did not do much to inspire confidence in their rookie seasons. They are both explosive, but Jeudy drops far too many passes and Hamler can’t stay on the field. Noah Fant is a dynamic athlete at tight end and could form an explosive 1-2 punch at the position with Albert Okwuegbunam, but that assumes Okwuegbunam successfully returns from a torn ACL.

As to the defense, while the secondary is absolutely loaded, the front is questionable. Edge Bradley Chubb had a strong 2020 after an injury ended his 2019 season, but Von Miller is attempting to return from an ankle injury that wiped out his 2020 campaign at the age of 32. Nose tackle Mike Purcell has been a dominant presence in the base package, but he too is coming off a season-ending injury. At linebacker, Alexander Johnson is a good player, but his partner, Josey Jewell, is limited athletically, even as a base player. Given their quarterback choices and the emphasis on adding running backs, my best guess is that Denver hopes to win with elite defense and ball control, but I’m not sold that this defensive front will be good enough to make the unit dominant. Anything can happen, but why they passed on the opportunity to add a quarterback with obvious upside in Justin Fields is beyond me. I don’t think revisionist draft history is always appropriate, but the Broncos passed on another highly touted quarterback prospect in Josh Allen in favor of Bradley Chubb three seasons ago, and it might have been worth taking a swing at a player with similar upside in Fields.

The Raiders haven’t followed any sort of clear plan in the Jon Gruden era, but in a division where Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles has Justin Herbert, I think it will be tough for Denver to compete this season. The roster may be strong enough to ensure they won’t have a Top 10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, but for a team without a difference-maker at quarterback, that may not be a positive.

QB Passing Projections

Teddy Bridgewater328183.9276.40.677.452058.911.37.418.14
Drew Lock349200.5322.40.627.242333.812.010.315.91

QB Rushing Projections

Teddy Bridgewater32832.55.56180.62.415.430.918.14
Drew Lock34932.83.70121.51.713.624.715.91

Skill Projections, Rushing

Melvin Gordon IIIRB4717196.84.64913.06.243.642.311.09
Javonte WilliamsRB15317122.64.20514.92.827.119.25.13
KJ HamlerWR157179.05.6050.
Mike BooneRB2051757.94.50260.81.612.810.93.37

Skill Projections, Receiving

Courtland SuttonWR311759.089.014.911327.46.725.228.912.78
Melvin Gordon IIIRB471774.842.56.57279.
Jerry JeudyWR1001754.060.214.13850.53.018.613.27.85
Noah FantTE1231768.058.811.14654.84.214.518.27.06
Javonte WilliamsRB1531777.114.36.6395.
KJ HamlerWR1571758.138.712.13469.12.311.110.05.01
Mike BooneRB2051791.822.04.91107.
Tim PatrickWR2231757.119.811.53228.42.65.811.52.86
Albert OkwuegbunamTE2261783.824.110.75258.
Andrew BeckTE2971774.215.18.06121.

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.