The 2018 season didn’t play out like the Broncos had hoped. In their second year under Vance Joseph, the team entered the season saying all the right things. Though they held a high draft pick, Denver opted not to go for a quarterback. Instead, they grabbed defensive beast Bradley Chubb and pushed all their chips in with veteran free agent signing Case Keenum. As the team started 2–0, and the squad of rookies that included running backs Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay and receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton looked like a good haul.
But it wasn’t to be. The Broncos slumped badly at times, again, ending with a 6–10 record. It was the team’s second straight losing season, and third straight missing the playoffs after winning Super Bowl 50. There was no question changes were coming, and changes did come. The Broncos that began training camp on July 17 look a lot different than the ones that ended the 2018 season, but will it be enough to get them back into the playoff hunt?
The first change was the one that everyone knew was coming, as Joseph was fired. He landed as the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals, while the Broncos went and hired Bears’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to fill the head coaching slot. Fangio has been coaching in the NFL since 1986 (with the exception of a year at Stanford in 2010), and has 19 years experience as a defensive coordinator. But Denver will be his first head coaching gig. And to help balance things out, the Broncos were originally looking at bringing in Gary Kubiak to handle the offense, but instead turned to 49ers QB Coach Rich Scangarello as offensive coordinator and brought in Mike Munchak to fix the offensive line issues.
But coaching wasn’t the only changes made. The Broncos shipped Keenum off to the Washington Redskins and traded a fourth round pick to land veteran Joe Flacco. Flacco has played 11 seasons with the Ravens, going 96–67 as a starter, including winning the Super Bowl following the 2012 season. Denver hopes he can bring a veteran presence that can help guide the offense, which is otherwise full of young talent.
It was a busy off-season for the Broncos in free agency, as well. The team saw long-time defensive players Brandon Marshall (Oakland), Shaq Barrett (Tampa Bay), Shane Ray (Baltimore) and Bradley Roby (Texans) all depart. In addition, the Broncos lost a slew of offensive lineman as Matt Paradis (Carolina), Jared Veldheer (Patriots, then retired), Max Garcia (Arizona) and Billy Turner (Green Bay) also left. But it wasn’t a one-way street in Denver. The Broncos signed Kareem Jackson (from the Texans) and Bryce Callahan (from the Bears) to bolster the secondary, and splashed out on a big deal for Ja’Wuan James (Dolphins) to a four-year, $51 million deal to lock down the right tackle position.
But the Broncos also made the most of their draft, making a trade in the first round to acquire more picks and landing tight end Noah Fant at pick 20. Then, in the second round, the Broncos picked back-to-back and grabbed Dalton Risner to bolster their offensive line and took Missouri QB Drew Lock to be the future of the franchise. So now the Broncos return a core of talent, but have made over their offensive line, quarterback room and a large chunk of their secondary heading into the 2019 season.
The Broncos hope for better production from their offense in 2019, and that starts with better work at the quarterback position. Keenum produced just 3,890 yards and 18 TDs against 15 INTs in 2018. He was also sacked 34 times. The Broncos have to hope Munchak and the addition of James and Risner helps to protect Flacco better, but he has only produced more than 4,000 yards passing in a season once in his 11-year career. While the Broncos hope he’ll be less turnover prone, from a fantasy perspective I wouldn’t rely on Flacco as a starter in even a 16-team league. And since he’s due $20 million or more each of the next two years, neither of which is guaranteed, it’s possible he loses his spot to Lock at some point in the 2019 season. For a longer take on Flacco, check out this player profile.
While QB might not be high on the list, the Broncos do offer some interesting fantasy options. The Broncos’ best offensive player last year was Lindsay, and undrafted free agent who snagged the top rushing spot. Lindsay rushed for 1,037 yards and nine TDs, catching 35 passes for 241 yards and another TD and made the Pro Bowl. And while he was a steal that went largely undrafted in 2018, now you have to pay up to grab him. He’s currently going as RB23, and it’s fair to wonder if he can be better, or even at the same level, that he was in 2019, especially as he returns from a wrist injury that ended his season. And he faces plenty of competition in Royce Freeman, a third round pick in 2018, who underwhelmed as a rookie despite being named the starter at the outset of the season. Freeman added 521 yards and five TDs, catching 14 passes for 72 yards. He, too, missed time with injury, and often looked sluggish. But as the bigger back, he figures to get more of the goalline looks, which helps his value. And as RB40 he presents better draft value. It’s also possible with better line play he takes a step forward in his second year, looking more like the runner we saw at Oregon.
At tight end, the Broncos have a gaggle of players. While Fant went in the first round of the draft, rookie TEs have traditionally struggled to provide value in fantasy. And the Broncos still have Jake Butt, second year pro Troy Fumagali and the newly re-signed Jeff Heuerman competing for snaps. While Flacco has been good for TEs in fantasy, this is a situation to monitor in camp and pre-season. As of now, I’m not drafting and relying on any of the Broncos’ tight ends in re-draft, while Fant is a solid pick up in dynasty.
Finally, the Broncos receivers are also somewhat of a question. Last year the team began the season with veterans Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders entrenched as starters. But Thomas was dealt to the Texans in the middle of the season and now sits on the Patriots’ roster, while Sanders tore his Achilles in December. Sanders produced 71 receptions for 868 yards and four TDs in 12 games, and was among the best in fantasy when he went out. Now, he’s going as WR48 because of questions about when he will return, and what he might look like when he does. For his part, Sanders hopes to return Week 1. If he does, and he looks like he did in 2018, he’ll be a steal at his ADP.
The waiting game with Sanders also has a bearing on the Broncos’ second year receivers, Sutton and Hamilton. Sutton figures to be a starter no matter what, as he fills the role Thomas had last season. As a rookie, Sutton had flashes of brilliance as he caught 42 passes for 704 yards and four TDs. He could be a solid deep threat for Flacco, a better deep ball passes than Keenum. Sutton is going as WR38, and is actually the most costly option for the Broncos. He is a better pick up in dynasty than re-draft for 2019. Hamilton, meanwhile, is going under-the-radar a bit. But when Sanders was out to end 2018, Hamilton was the better Bronco pass-catching option. He snagged 25 of his 30 receptions the last four games, including two TDs. He’s going as WR58, but might be the player most dependent on what happens with Sanders. He, too, is a better bet in dynasty than re-draft, but the upside is there with a more meaningful role and more consistent snaps to start the season.
The Broncos haven’t made the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl following the 2015 season. It’s arguable that better coaching in 2017 and 2018 could have made them more of a .500 team. The defense still figures to be strong with Von Miller and Chubb anchoring the outside pass rush, and Chris Harris, Jr., Jackson, Callahan and safety Justin Simmons guarding the back end. Fangio did wonders with the Bears defense, and could use the Broncos’ pieces to inflict similar damage. But it’s hard to believe this team will see career performance from Flacco, so it’s hard to gauge just how good the offense could be. Plus, in a division with the Chiefs and Chargers along with the improving Raiders, it won’t be an easy road for Denver. There’s a wide range of outcomes possible, but with a little better turnover management and better coaching, this team could be in the 7–9 to 10–6 range and possible compete for a playoff slot.
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