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State of the 2021 Denver Broncos: Pivotal season ahead for Vic Fangio

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Broncos organization, Broncos fans around the world and those who would love to see Denver rocking some royal blue from the early John Elway days:

I've always told you, Broncos fans, that I'll shoot straight with you. And once again, I stand before you with a humbling reminder that Super Bowl 50 has become a distant memory in today's "What have you done for me lately?" world. In the five seasons since, Denver has logged one winning record (9-7 in 2016) and zero playoff appearances. And it's not going to be easy this year. There are question marks in many areas. But at least one old reliable -- the defense -- looks like it could be as good as it was a few years back. Let's dig into the state of this franchise.

How the Broncos got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • That first win. The Broncos started the season 0-3 and got their first win on the road against the New York Jets. I mean, the indignity of losing to the Jets might have been too much. But it did offer a chance to get started in the right direction.
  • We're going streaking. The Broncos made it two in a row coming off the bye week and knocking off the New England Patriots in Week 6. Brandon McManus provided all of the scoring, booting six field goals. But hey, you still love to beat the Pats.

The lows:

  • Reality check. Denver had a chance to level up after beating New England, but Kansas City stormed Mile High and destroyed the Broncos, 43-16. After that hot finish from Denver in 2019, this was a sobering moment showing just how far apart the Broncos and Chiefs were. And we all kind of knew where the 2020 season was heading for Vic Fangio's bunch.
  • Skidding. The Broncos beat the Dolphins in Week 11 to improve to 4-6. Faint hopes existed for the playoffs. But then Denver finished the regular season with five losses in its final six games.
  • Injuries. Two key contributors, WR Courtland Sutton (ACL) and OLB Von Miller (ankle), missed a combined 31 games last season.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Vic Fangio. It's been a rough go for Fangio in his first two seasons as coach of the Denver Broncos. He stumbled a bit coming out of the gate in his rookie year, but a strong finish (4-1 over the final five games) allowed for optimism heading into the 2020 season. He made a misstep coming into the season with some remarks he later apologized for. But then, the on-field performance again fell short of the mark. Some of it could be blamed on the lack of development from Drew Lock -- we'll talk about him in a moment -- but it was actually the defense that really failed the Broncos last season. And now the longtime defensive coordinator/third-year head coach is on the hot seat.

Some might've been surprised Fangio was even given this season, but I really do believe it was the right thing to do. The 62-year-old was a non-conventional hire at the time, when NFL coaches were getting younger and more offensive-minded. Fangio's like the old guy in the buddy cop movie who mutters that he's too old for this [stuff], but I have a feeling he's up for the challenge.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers. Look, I'm a Chicago Bears supporter. I want this almost as badly as you do. And there are rumors he could come to Denver. I would love to see it. Maybe next year, but I don't think it's going to happen in 2021. I'm sorry. I'll be happy to be wrong. But for now, let's get back to reality ...

Quarterback: Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater. There were high hopes for Lock coming into the 2020 season after he went 4-1 as a rookie starter in the back end of 2019. The Broncos even went out and surrounded him with a lot of talent in the 2020 NFL Draft, adding receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler to a receiving corps that already had Courtland Sutton and TE Noah Fant. But the season didn't go so well. Lock went 4-9 in 2020. He had the lowest completion percentage among qualified NFL passers (57.3), while his 15 interceptions were tied for the most in the league with Carson Wentz. He has the worst completion percentage (59.1) and second-worst passer rating (79.1) in the NFL since being drafted in 2019 (among the 34 quarterbacks with at least 15 starts). I mean, poor Fangio escaped Mitch Trubisky and the Bears only to have Lock.

The Broncos did make a trade for Teddy B., who deserves better than playing for his third team in as many seasons. Teddy was much more efficient than Lock last season, even though he managed to win just four games for the rebuilding Panthers.

The Broncos have publicly supported Lock. Obviously, the hope is that the former second-round pick can develop into a quality NFL quarterback with Teddy serving as competition and possibly the best backup in the league. But even going back to the Trubisky mention above, we've seen these situations deteriorate rather quickly. I mean, I've watched enough pro wrestling in my lifetime to know that this is just setting up for the Teddy Two Gloves heel turn. Only, it probably won't be that cool. In fact, Teddy is too gracious. I would just love for him to show up with a metal folding chair, but I digress.

Projected 2021 MVP: Von Miller, outside linebacker. The quarterback position is of huge importance to Denver this season. No doubt about it. But for the Broncos to be competitive, they need to be strong defensively. And now is the time for Miller to have a healthy bounce-back season. Not easy, considering he turned 32 this offseason. But hey, Edge was much older when he returned to the WWE last year, and he's been part of the main-event scene ever since. There is no reason why Miller can't do the same. And if the Broncos could actually have Miller and Bradley Chubb healthy at the same time, that would be a nice change.

2021 breakout star: Dre'Mont Jones, defensive lineman. One thing that might have flown under the radar for the casuals is the Broncos' re-signing of Shelby Harris. He's quite underrated on a defense filled with stars. His continued presence will help in the development of Jones, a guy with tons of upside who draws rave reviews from teammates in practice. The Broncos' defense is going to be good this season. And having guys like Jones making the leap will be a big reason why. With Harris back, Jones will flourish.

New face to know: Kyle Fuller, cornerback. Oh man, Broncos fans. You're going to love Kyle. He's the kind of cornerback who doesn't shy away from contact. So much so that officials are just waiting to throw the flag any time he cleanly tackles a wide receiver. He's going to bring the kind of toughness that you need to challenge a team like the Chiefs. He won't be afraid to introduce himself to one of those starry pass catchers on K.C. He also strikes me as the kind of guy who will have a great second act to his career after switching to safety at some point.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. There were rumblings that Fangio was in danger of losing his gig at the end of last season. Which, to me, would have been way too quick. And kind of a jerk move, since you pulled him from a perfectly good defensive coordinating gig he likely could have ridden out until retirement. But I have to feel like it's PLAYOFFS OR BUST for Fangio.

Three key dates:

  • Week 4 vs. Baltimore Ravens. The Broncos open the season with three winnable games (at Giants, at Jaguars, vs. Jets). The true test will come against one of the best teams in the AFC. Overall, Denver has the fifth-easiest schedule, based on last year's records. Even including the Ravens game, the Broncos have the NFL's easiest first four games (.313 opponent win percentage in 2020), though they are one of four teams to open with consecutive road games.
  • Week 7 at Cleveland Browns (Thursday). This Thursday Night Football game is the only scheduled prime-time game for the Broncos. A humbling situation for a proud franchise.
  • Week 12 vs. Los Angeles Chargers. This is the Broncos' first game against the Chargers, and they face the Chiefs the following week. Five of the Broncos' last seven games will be against the AFC West.

Will the Broncos be able to …

Have one of the best pass-catching groups in the NFL? One thing that will help out whoever starts at quarterback: a healthy receiving corps. This is where it might get weird if Aaron Rodgers shows up and joins a team that actually invests in the receiver position. Jerry Jeudy was one of five rookies with at least 50 receptions and 850 receiving yards last year. (Not a bad WR class, eh?) Hamler is also a stud who could really flourish in Year 2. But the key will be the healthy return of Courtland Sutton, who had 1,112 receiving yards in his 2019 Pro Bowl campaign. He had the second-highest percentage of his team's receiving yards (32.7) among all players that season, behind only Michael Thomas of the Saints. And then mix in Noah Fant, who led the team with 62 receptions last year. He also ranked sixth among tight ends with 673 receiving yards.

Get that defense roaring again? The Broncos allowed 27.9 points per game in 2020, which was 25th in the NFL. It was the worst ranking for Fangio since he was the Texans defensive coordinator in 2005 and Houston was dead last in defense. I mean, defense is his thing. Like, how you can have a team president who was one of the best quarterbacks ever and can't find a quarterback AND a defensive-minded coach whose defense couldn't stop anyone last year? I mean, I'm old enough to remember when you didn't start your fantasy guys against the Broncos. Last year, I was all, Start Dawson Knox against the Broncos???You bet! But again, the team added Kyle Fuller. Von Miller should be healthy. He and Bradley Chubb have played just four games together (out of 32) since 2019. Just having them on the field at the same time would help. The Broncos also extended the contract of Justin Simmons, the leader of the Broncos' defense. A guy who has played over 3,000 consecutive snaps for the Broncos. Denver also signed Ronald Darby, who led Washington with 16 passes defensed in 2020 (fifth in the NFL). I have a lot of confidence in this D. And to think, Denver also drafted Patrick Surtain II -- the only FBS player with a 90-plus run-defense grade, coverage grade and overall grade from 2018-2020. Those grades are from Pro Football Focus, of course. I love Surtain. But there is one thing we do need to address here ...

Live down passing on Justin Fields for Patrick Surtain II? Again, as a Bears fan, I'm delighted. And I know a lot of Broncos fans will say, "But what if Surtain becomes an All-Pro player?" Which he very well could. Surtain is an absolute stud who will anchor a defense for a long time. But let me run something by you ... Jamal Adams is good. We love him, right? One of the best in the game. He was also selected in front of Patrick Mahomes. So, as a Broncos fan, would you rather the Chiefs have Mahomes or Adams right now? And I know using Mahomes as an example is a bit aggressive. But the Broncos have started nine different quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired. They are 32-48 since the start of the 2016 season and rank second-to-last in TD-to-INT ratio and passer rating in that span, ahead of just the Jets.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Drew Lock was more efficient in his first two years than Josh Allen. I don't want to be too negative about Lock. And if you want something to hold on to, I'll give you this: Lock has been a much more efficient passer in his first two seasons than Buffalo's franchise QB. Beats Allen in completion percentage. Passing rating. And passing yards per game. I know Allen is a better runner. But I did want to give you a little something positive.

… people are ALSO overlooking: Teddy Bridgewater almost as good as Aaron Rodgers (... in one sense). Per Next Gen Stats, Teddy had an 82.7 completion percentage on passes of fewer than 10 air yards in 2020, which was the second-highest mark in the NFL. Only Rodgers (85.4) was better in that department. So, this is almost like getting Rodgers, right?

… people are overthinking: Melvin Gordon's impact on Javonte Williams' workload. Probably more of a fantasy football issue than anything else. Gordon led the Broncos with nearly 1,000 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns last year. He was one of just seven NFL players with at least 980 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. But Javonte is going to be a stud. And while he might not start the year as The Guy, he's going to finish it as such. He led all FBS players with 76 missed tackles forced on rushes in 2020, per PFF. He was one of eight players in the Power Five conferences with at least 2,500 scrimmage yards over the last two seasons. Javonte will be this year's Jonathan Taylor. Trust me. (I was right about Taylor last year, too.)

For 2021 to be a success, the Broncos MUST:

  • Get Aaron Rodgers. Kidding! Well, kind of.
  • Get the definitive word on Drew Lock. I do actually think this team has playoff potential in an old-school way, with great rushing and a potentially dominant defense. So, yeah, let's say ...
  • Make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Vic Fangio's job might depend on it.

In closing

There is a pathway to the playoffs for the Broncos. Pretty much the same game plan used in 2015. Smother teams with defense and hope your quarterback comes through. And it's not the worst way to go about it. The Chiefs were proven mortal last season by a good defense. The Broncos should have one of the best in the league, so let's see how this goes.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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