OT Menelik Watson, G Ronald Leary, DT Zach Kerr, DT Domata Peko.
Early Draft Picks:
OT Garrett Bolles, DE DeMarcus Walker, WR Carlos Henderson, CB Brendan Langley, TE Jake Butt, WR Isaiah McKenzie. Broncos Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
WR Jordan Norwood, OT Russell Okung, DE/DT Vance Walker, NT Sylvester Williams, DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware, LB Dekoda Watson, CB Kayvon Webster.
2017 Denver Broncos Offense:
If the average football fan were asked if the Peyton Manning-led Broncos offense was substantially better in 2015 than the one operated by Trevor Siemian in 2016, the consensus answer would be a resounding "yes." However, that's not true at all. Denver averaged 22.2 points per game in 2015, and that number decreased by just a bit to 20.8 last year. Siemian obviously wasn't as good as Manning, even in his decrepit state, but neither he nor Paxton Lynch happened to be the main reason the Broncos missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The primary issue was the offensive line, which happened to be one of the NFL's worst blocking units. Denver had just two quality linemen on the roster in 2016, left tackle Russell Okung and center Matt Paradis. Okung signed with the Chargers this offseason, and he'll be replaced by first-round pick Garett Bolles. It remains to be seen if the highly athletic Bolles will be ready to play right away. Regardless, he should be better than inept right tackle Menelik Watson, who was acquired in free agency this spring.
As for Paradis, he's Denver's best blocker by a long shot, but he had double hip surgery this offseason. He's already off crutches, which is obviously great news, but the Broncos can't feel completely optimistic because of the nature of that procedure. Paradis will be flanked by former Cowboy Ronald Leary and the mediocre Max Garcia. Leary played well for the Cowboys in 2016, but has been inconsistent throughout his career.
While Denver's offensive line will be better in 2017, it's only by default, and the whole thing could come crashing down if Paradis' hips flare up. Having improved blocking is a necessity if Lynch overtakes Simian as the starter. Lynch obviously has more upside as a former first-round pick, but he's raw and still is in the development process. He struggled in brief action last year, so he needs all the help he can get right now.
That help also means Demaryius Thomas actually catching passes. Thomas is a very gifted receiver, but he dropped way too many balls last year. He'll need to be more reliable as a starter across from Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos will also need a tertiary option to open in the passing game as well. The Broncos had no No. 3 wideout this past season, so they'll be hoping speedy third-round rookie Carlos Henderson helps out. There's also Jake Butt, but he'll have to stay at the rear of the tight end depth chart for now because he sustained a torn ACL late in the college football season.
The third option in the passing game could turn out to be Jamaal Charles, who was signed during the draft. However, Charles appears to have lost all of his explosion in the wake of multiple injuries, so he may just have to be an ordinary third-down back behind C.J. Anderson, whom the Broncos are hoping can stay healthy for a change. Anderson, who has never played a full 16-game slate, was on the field for just seven contests in 2016. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which was a nice figure considering how poor the offensive line was. If Anderson goes down again, Denver's rushing attack will be in shambles.
2017 Denver Broncos Defense:
The primary reason the Broncos were able to prevail in Super Bowl 50 despite Manning's ghastly performance was the play of the defense. Resembling the 1985 Chicago Bears, Denver locked down the league's most explosive offense. Unfortunately for Denver, the stop unit took a step backward in 2016, thanks to the departures of a couple of key players.
The two primary defectors were Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Jackson was crucial in Denver's run-stopping efforts, while Trevathan's absence made it very difficult for the Broncos to defend tight ends and pass-catching running backs. The Broncos spent a second-round pick on DeMarcus Walker to potentially replace Jackson, but that choice was widely considered a reach. Jackson was productive at Florida State, but tested poorly and appears to have low upside. Still, he can't be much worse than the incompetent Jared Crick as a bookend to Derek Wolfe. Someone who could actually be worse is former Bengal Domata Peko, who hasn't played well in years. He's the favorite to start at nose tackle, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
As for Trevathan's replacement, well, there is none. Brandon Marshall is a solid linebacker, but there's no one to play next to him. It'll have to be Todd Davis again, and while he wasn't horrible in 2016 because of his run-stopping ability, he was atrocious in coverage. The Broncos will once again be abused by tight ends and pass-catching running backs.
Fortunately for the Broncos, the negatives end there as far as their defense is concerned. They're extremely potent when rushing the passer on the edge, thanks to Von Miller, one of the top players in the NFL. Miller's partner in crime, DeMarcus Ware, has retired, but the Broncos have Shane Ray to take over. A former first-round pick, Ray recorded eight sacks in 2016 despite being a part-time player. He's expected to enter double-digit sack territory, while Shaquil Barrett should once again provide solid depth.
Denver's great pass rush makes things easier for an already-excellent secondary, which has been dubbed the "No Fly Zone." It all starts with two elite cornerbacks in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Both are extremely difficult to throw against, though nickel Bradley Roby was a bit of a liability in 2016. Third-round rookie Brendan Langley could provide solid depth.
The safeties, meanwhile, aren't as good as the cornerbacks, but they are pretty solid. Darian Stewart had a strong 2016 campaign, while T.J. Ward was a bit of a disappointment considering his talent level. Still, he didn't perform poorly, or anything, and he could bounce back.
2017 Denver Broncos Schedule and Intangibles:
The thin Denver air creates a hostile environment for opponents, which explains why it had an NFL-best 77-18 home record from 1995 to 2005. The team tailed off after that, but has since reestablished its great homefield advantage. In the Peyton Manning era, the Broncos were 32-6 as hosts, including the playoffs. We'll see if Denver can stay dominant at home under Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch; it was 5-3 last year.
Brandon McManus once again proved to be a solid kicker for the Broncos in 2016, hitting 29 of 34 tries. He was just 3-of-6 from 50-plus, however, after being 5-of-7 from that range in 2015.
Punter Riley Dixon did a solid job in his first year with the Broncos, ranking ninth in net average.
The only special-teams touchdown went against the Broncos in 2016, but they managed to outgain their opponents in both punt and kickoff returns, so that may have just been a fluke.
The good news concerning Denver's schedule is that four of the first five games are at home. The bad news is that three opponents (Cowboys, Raiders, Giants) all had 10-plus wins in 2016, though the Giants are expected to take a step backward. The Broncos' slate as a whole is pretty balanced, though they have a three-game road trip in which they have to battle the Chargers, Chiefs and Eagles in the middle of the season.
2017 Denver Broncos Rookies:
Go here for the Broncos Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2017 Denver Broncos Analysis: The Broncos figure to once again struggle on offense, as their quarterback and offensive line situations are extreme weak points. They overcame Peyton Manning's incompetence in 2015 with their impenetrable defense, but that stop unit now has some holes that have remained unfilled. As a result, Denver will likely miss the playoffs again, though the team will be competitive and could secure between seven and nine victories.
Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: The Broncos were in the Super Bowl recently, yet they have so many issues with their roster. They don't have any play-makers beyond their two starting receivers, while their offensive line is in shambles. On the other side of the ball, their defensive line and linebacking corps need to replace key departed players.
2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: One of the narratives entering the 2017 NFL Draft was that the offensive line class was absolutely terrible. All but one of the teams picking between Nos. 1 and 31 agreed, but the Broncos were the single outlier. They selected Garett Bolles with the No. 20 overall selection. There are questions with Bolles' character, intelligence and age, but there's no denying his physical skill set. He has the potential to provide the Broncos with a much-needed upgrade at tackle, but he's also a risk.
John Elway addressed a couple of other needs after that. He selected DeMarcus Walker to replace Malik Jackson's spot on the defensive line in the second frame, though Walker was a bit of a reach. Third-rounder Carlos Henderson provided more value, and he'll be the much-needed third receiver to go along with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Denver's highest-graded selection came atop the fifth round when Elway stole Jake Butt. The Michigan tight end would've gone early on Day 2 if he didn't tear his ACL in a bowl game. He won't play until 2018, in all likelihood, but he could potentially be great for the Broncos when he recovers from his injury.
The one criticism I have of the Broncos' class, outside of fifth-rounder Isaiah McKenzie, was that they didn't address a huge hole at inside linebacker. This could've been done at the end of the third round when Denver selected Brendan Langley. It won't completely ruin this grade, but the Broncos will continue to have problems covering tight ends and pass-catching running backs.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
20. Garett Bolles, OT, Utah: B+ Grade
I thought the Seahawks were going to jump the Broncos for Garett Bolles, but apparently not. Bolles is the most athletic offensive tackle in this class. He has some off-the-field issues, but not anything major. The Broncos have taken chances on players like that before though, and it's worked out, so Bolles seems like a solid pick. He obviously fills a massive need on the roster, as Denver had arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL heading into the draft. It's unclear if Bolles will pan out, but the Broncos actually have a chance to block well now.
51. Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State: B- Grade
Demarcus Walker makes sense for the Broncos from a needs perspective. They lost Malik Jackson last offseason and were worse against the run because of his departure. Walker will take his place, and he could be a decent replacement. However, Walker tested poorly, and so I think his proper range was the third round. The Broncos probably could've moved down to obtain him, but I don't hate the pick.
82. Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisana Tech: A- Grade
There was some speculation that Carlos Henderson would be chosen in the second round. I had him in the third frame, but I think this is solid value. Henderson has terrific athleticism and plays much bigger than his 5-11 frame. He's a perfect slot receiver to go along with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
101. Brendan Langley, CB, Lamar: B- Grade
I had Brendan Langley slotted in the fifth round, as he's a converted receiver who is still learning how to play cornerback. However, he has the athleticism and upside, and he has the luxury of sitting and learning behind some great veterans in Denver before being asked to take over. This pick could work out down the road even though it was a bit of a reach.
145. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan: A+ Grade
John Elway tweeted out that he was sweating out Jake Butt being available, and I don't blame him. Despite the torn ACL, I thought Butt could've gone in the third round. He's a huge steal in the fifth frame, and I can't imagine liking this more than any other pick in this round. Butt could emerge as a potent weapon in Denver's offense in 2018 and beyond.
172. Isaiah McKenzie, WR/KR, Broncos: C Grade
It's doubtful that Isaiah McKenzie will play much receiver for the Broncos, as he wasn't productive whatsoever at Georgia. He was a dynamic returner on special teams, however, so he'll be able to help in that regard. I had McKenzie as a seventh-rounder/UDFA, but I don't think this is a bad pick.
203. De'Angelo Henderson, RB, Coastal Carolina: B Grade
This pick makes sense, as the Broncos needed depth at running back, especially after trading Kapri Bibbs. De'Angelo Henderson was productive at Coastal Carolina, especially as a pass-catcher, and he has some solid athleticism. He could become Denver's No. 2 running back at some point.
253. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss: A- Grade
Chad Kelly has second-round ability, and he may have even snuck into the first round had he been clean. Unfortunately, Kelly has dealt with off-the-field problems and a myriad of injuries. Kelly, however, possessed too much ability to go undrafted, so I slotted him at the bottom of the sixth frame. The Broncos took him later than expected, so I think they're getting good value. Kelly is young, so perhaps he can turn his life around before it's too late.
The Broncos failed to reach the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl the year before. Don't look at Peyton Manning; the right tackle and defensive end positions were particularly problematic, as Denver couldn't pass protect or stop the run. Now, they'll have to move on with a new coach in the wake of Gary Kubiak's retirement.
Broncos sign RB Jamaal Charles
Broncos announce retirement of DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware
Broncos sign NT Domata Peko
Broncos sign DT Zach Kerr
Broncos sign OT Menelik Watson
Broncos sign G Ronald Leary
Two Offensive Tackles: Make it one if the Broncos exercise Russell Okung's 4-year option. Many consider quarterback to be the weakness of Denver's offense, but Trevor Siemian was at least decent on occasion. Denver got nothing out of its right tackle spot, while Okung wasn't very good either. Signed Menelik Watson
Quarterback: This need really depends on Paxton Lynch. Lynch could be ready to start in 2017. However, Lynch, considered a raw product entering the NFL, may need more time to develop. If so, the Broncos will consider signing or trading for a veteran quarterback like Tony Romo.
Defensive End: The greatest need on defense is clearly at defensive end. Malik Jackson's departure for Jacksonville was the primary reason why the Broncos were so putrid against the run in 2016. An early-round choice should be used to fix this problem.
Inside Linebacker: Denver missed Danny Trevathan almost as much as Jackson. The team struggled to cover tight ends and running backs catching balls out of the backfield, and that can be attributed to Trevathan's absence.
Nose Tackle: Another hole on defense happens to be at nose tackle. Sylvester Williams was a major disappointment there in 2016, but he's an impending free agent anyway. Signed Domata Peko and Zach Kerr
Wide Receiver: The Broncos have two stud receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but they need a third option, as they really have nothing behind those two.
Tight End: Jeff Heuerman, Virgil Green and A.J. Derby are all OK players, but if the Broncos have the opportunity to find a stud tight end in the first couple of rounds in the 2017 NFL Draft, they should take it.
Running Back Depth: Devontae Booker struggled to fill in for C.J. Anderson. Denver should find a better backup runner in case Anderson gets hurt again. Signed Jamaal Charles
Ronald Leary, G, Cowboys. Age: 28. Signed with Broncos (4 years, $35 million)
Ronald Leary was once the weakest link on Dallas' offensive line, but that's no longer the case. Leary has developed into a quality starting guard with no weaknesses.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs. Age: 30. Signed with Broncos
Jamaal Charles is a tough free agent to rate. He has played just eight games in the past two years because of dual knee injuries. He also turned 30 in December. However, when healthy, Charles is a dynamic player. He may have lost some explosion because of his injuries, but he can at the very least serve as a potent receiver out of the backfield.
Menelik Watson, OT, Raiders. Age: 28. -- Signed with Broncos (3 years, $18.3 million)
Zach Kerr (RFA), NT, Colts. Age: 27. -- Signed with Broncos
Domata Peko, DT, Bengals. Age: 32. -- Signed with Bronos (2 years, $7.5 million)
Denver Broncos Free Agents:
Salary Cap Space: $38.8M.
Russell Okung, OT, Broncos. Age: 28. Signed with Chargers (4 years, $53 million)
Russell Okung is certainly one of the most physically gifted left tackles in the NFL, but he definitely has an extensive injury history that is weighing his ranking down. Okung did, however, play in all 16 games this past season, and was one of the few bright spots on Denver's offensive line.
Brandon McManus (RFA), K, Broncos. Age: 26. Tendered by Broncos
Brandon McManus has connected on at least 85 percent of his kicks over the past two seasons, and he's only missed two extra points in his career. Just 26 in July, McManus could continue to improve.
DeMarcus Ware, DE/OLB, Broncos. Age: 35. Announced retirement
DeMarcus Ware will be in the Hall of Fame one day, but he struggled this past season. An ailing back forced him to miss six games, and he accumulated just four sacks. Perhaps he'll rebound a bit in 2017, but he turns 35 in July, so it's not looking very good.
Todd Davis (RFA), ILB, Broncos. Age: 25. Tendered by Broncos (2nd round)
Todd Davis started for Brandon Marshall and did a solid job in run support. However, he was a liability in coverage, and he's a major reason why opposing tight ends and running backs catching balls out of the backfield were so successful versus Denver.
Vance Walker, DE/DT, Broncos. Age: 30.
The Broncos lost Malik Jackson to the Jaguars this offseason, but they planned to replace him with Vance Walker. Those plans were derailed when Walker tore his ACL in August. Walker, who turns 30 one day before the 2017 NFL Draft, is a sub-par starter who would probably be better off in a 4-3.
Sylvester Williams, NT, Broncos. Age: 28. Signed with Titans (3 years)
Sylvester Williams' fifth-year option wasn't exercised, so he'll be a free agent in March. The Broncos will not miss his pedestrian play. Williams probably should be a 1.5-star free agent, but he was a first-round pick back in 2013, so the potential is there.
Jordan Norwood, WR, Broncos. Age: 30.
Kayvon Webster, CB, Broncos. Age: 26. -- Signed with Rams
Juwan Thompson (RFA), RB, Broncos. Age: 25.
Bennie Fowler (RFA), WR, Broncos. Age: 31.
Justin Forsett, RB, Broncos. Age: 31.
Dekoda Watson, OLB, Broncos. Age: 29. -- Signed with 49ers