My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Broncos 2020 Recap
The Broncos’ forgettable 2020 season came down to two things: Drew Lock not taking a second-year leap and injuries knocking out key starters on each side of the ball. Lock's No. 28 out of 32 ranking in passing EPA was the bigger storyline between the two, but losing Von Miller (0 games), Courtland Sutton (1), Jurrell Casey (3), A.J. Bouye (7), and others for large stretches is what really did the Broncos in. Facing the fourth most difficult schedule didn’t help either. The Sutton injury at least allowed Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to go through their growing pains, but it’s hard to evaluate anyone on offense with Lock throwing up prayers downfield. Between their draft slot and cap space, Denver may be stuck evaluating Lock for one more season. Hopefully the Broncos’ stars can stay healthy this time around.
Broncos 2021 Offseason
Broncos Cap Space
$31.7 million (7th)
Broncos Draft Picks
1.09, 2.40, 3.71, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
FS Justin Simmons, DT Shelby Harris, LB Alexander Johnson, WR Tim Patrick, RB Phillip Lindsay, EDGE Jeremiah Attaochu, RT Demar Dotson, RT Elijah Wilkinson, CB De'Vante Bausby, DT DeMarcus Walker, EDGE Anthony Chickillo
Broncos Cut Candidates
Broncos Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: Pat Shurmur’s first season in Denver went down the drain the second Courtland Sutton tore his ACL in Week 2. Largely because of Drew Lock, Shurmur’s passing offense ranked 31st in passing EPA and 32nd in completion percentage over expected, but the play-calling also put Lock in bad situations. The Broncos were 25th in neutral pass rate and only used play action on 22.6% of their pass attempts (23rd). When Denver did pass, it was often downfield (that’s what happens when you run on 1st-and-10). They led in percentage of passes traveling 15+ air yards (26%) but completed them at the 22nd-best rate (-1.4 CPOE). Overall, Shurmur’s play-calling and the Sutton injury did Lock no favors, but perhaps Shurmur was attempting to hide Lock as much as possible. Chicken or the egg?
Passing Offense: Drew Lock finished 28th out of 32 quarterbacks in EPA per dropback and dead last in completion percentage over expected by a wide margin. Yes, there were drops, but Lock was a sporadic passer and a bad decision-maker. Lock’s career 6.6 YPA and 23/18 TD/INT ratio suggests he’s not a franchise quarterback, but those numbers should improve in year three if only because the skill group is strong and deep. Denver’s young three-receiver set of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and slot man KJ Hamler all come with top-50 overall pick pedigrees, and are nice size versus speed complements to each other. Plus, Noah Fant has top-three receiving tight end potential in 2021 as a 98th percentile athlete and early-age producer. If the Broncos don’t climb out of their No. 31 passing EPA defense next year, it’s because Lock fell on his face.
Rushing Offense: The Broncos were a below-average rushing offense, ranking 23rd in rushing EPA and 22nd in short-yardage rushing EPA. The offensive line ranked 28th in PFF’s run-blocking grade, and the Broncos’ two primary ball carriers ranked second and third in time spent behind the line of scrimmage per NextGen Stats, a sign that they were waiting for a hole to open up longer. Two of the OL issues were RT Ja'Wuan James opting out before the season and 2020 third-round C Lloyd Cushenberry underperforming as a rookie. It’s unknown how much the Broncos can expect from each of these players moving forward, but at least LT Garett Bolles looks like a franchise player and the entire unit is set to return. Continuity is plus. As for running back, Melvin Gordon figures to take on a bigger load in 2021 with Phillip Lindsay heading for free agency. He could re-sign for cheap after an injury-filled season, but Gordon (RB13 out of 74 RBs in PPR points over expected) was the superior player to Lindsay (RB60) all-around. Gordon’s RB21 per game finish from last year is a decent over/under for next year’s ranking.
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Cover 2 & 4 Zone
% of Plays
Mike Purcell (1T)
Defensive Coordinator: Vic Fangio is one of the top defensive minds in the sport. He’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to focusing on eliminating the explosive pass; Anthony Reinhard shows how the Broncos had fewer defenders in the box than the NFL average in all situations. The Broncos disguise their pressure looks well and often just let their pass rush win instead of blitzing (18th), which made Von Miller’s broken foot hurt extra hard last season. Still, Fangio managed to have the No. 14 passing EPA defense and No. 22 rushing EPA. The front office has to make decisions on a couple of the Broncos’ best defenders -- Justin Simmons, Alexander Johnson, Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, etc. -- but Fangio will be maximizing his talent. Assuming most of these players are back, the Broncos have a top-12 defense on paper for 2021.
Passing Defense: Justin Simmons, an All-Pro caliber safety, bet on himself by playing on the franchise tag in 2020, and he played every single snap on the way to arguably the third best season by any defensive back behind maybe CB Jalen Ramsey and Jaire Alexander. Simmons, who also earned the Broncos’ Man of the Year in two-straight seasons, is an obvious priority for the front office to re-sign. Losing him would be a killer. He and Kareem Jackson had success in Fangio’s two-high safety defense. The Broncos’ corner depth chart lacks the elite players of years past, as it features CB1 Bryce Callahan, 2020 third-rounder CB2 Michael Ojemudia, and slot CB Essang Bassey, a 2020 UDFA who will be coming off a December torn ACL. There’s room for an upgrade after releasing CB A.J. Bouye to save $13.2 million. Up front, the Broncos will welcome back Von Miller and get Bradley Chubb in his second season removed from a torn ACL. Denver’s pass defense could be a top-10 unit in 2021 if things break their way. They were 14th in passing EPA defense last season.
Rushing Defense: LB Alexander Johnson, the Broncos’ leading tackler (96), is a free agent this offseason, as is disruptive DT Shelby Harris. Their potential losses would be a concern, but the Broncos have the cap space to retain them if they wish. Overall, it’s likely that Denver’s 2021 run defense regresses back into the top-10 mix on injury luck alone. EDGE Von Miller (0 games), DT Jurrell Casey (3), NT Mike Purcell (6), and Harris (9) were severely missed last year as evidenced by the team’s No. 22 rushing EPA ranking, but like I mentioned earlier, the Broncos are okay with allowing rushing production. They will put more defensive backs on the field and fewer defenders in the box and live with the results. It’s a strategy that’s backed up by both the analytics and film-grinding communities. Just ask the people who studied the Rams’ 2020 defense.
Broncos Team Needs
1. Quarterback - The Broncos roster screams “a quarterback away”, but QBs don’t grow on trees and Denver isn’t in a position to find an easy upgrade over Drew Lock. Their cap space will be spent on re-signing star defenders, and it’s unlikely that a consensus top prospect falls to No. 9 overall. Lock alongside a cheap free agent (i.e. Andy Dalton) may be the end result whether that’s ideal or not. Hopefully Lock improves from last year’s 28th EPA ranking in 2021 with Courtland Sutton back and other youngsters improving.
2. Free Safety - This one is easy. Just re-sign Justin Simmons, who has done everything on and off the field to be paid as an elite defensive back. The Simmons and Kareem Jackson safety duo is top tier for a two-high based defense. Simmons didn’t miss a single snap last season while on the franchise tag.
3. Linebacker - Alexander Johnson is set for free agency after leading the team in tackles. The Broncos arguably have bigger priorities than to re-sign him, so this potentially is a position to target in the 2021 NFL Draft if he can’t fit under the cap. The current starters are 2018 fourth-rounder Josey Jewell and 2020 fifth-rounder Justin Strnad, who didn’t play any snaps as a rookie due to wrist surgery. Neither are long-term starters most likely.
4. Defensive Tackle - The Broncos defensive line at full health has top-five potential if they can re-sign DT Shelby Harris, one of the better interior pass rushers in the NFL. The 29-year-old has shined in Denver with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb coming off the edge. Jurrell Casey, Dre’Mont Jones, and NT Mike Purcell round out the defensive tackle depth chart.
5. Corner - The 2021 starting group is solid but lacks long-term answers. Both CB1 A.J. Bouye and slot CB Bryce Callahan will be free agents after the 2021 season, and 2020 third-rounder Michael Ojemudia mostly struggled in his first season as a starter. Adding more competition at outside corner would be a worthwhile investment.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Courtland Sutton (WR3/4) - Only 26 years old, Sutton is as likely as anyone to be fully effective coming off a torn ACL because he tore it in Week 2. In 2019, Sutton put up a 72-1,112-6 receiving line (13.7 PPR per game) with Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and Drew Lock. Earning 124 targets as he did in that season may be difficult with more target competition around him now, but Sutton is an explosive player playing in a contract season.
Melvin Gordon (RB2/3) - Philip Lindsay is a free agent and was largely ineffective as Gordon’s early-down sidekick. Gordon finished 2020 as the RB21 per game on RB28 fantasy usage. Gordon’s contract locks him onto the Broncos’ roster, and it’s unclear if they want to re-sign Lindsay. A slightly larger workload is in the range of outcomes for Gordon, who will be playing behind an offensive line that could return four-of-five starters. He just may fall in the running back dead zone (rounds 3-7) where fantasy receivers have historically been the better value.
Noah Fant (TE1) - Despite battling a nagging ankle sprain and errant throws from Lock, Fant finished as the TE6 per game on TE9 fantasy usage in 2020. And through two seasons, the former first-rounder has the 11th-most receiving yards (1,235) among tight ends in NFL history at 22 years old or younger. He’s been explosive after the catch and should have more red zone opportunities next season. Fant is worth betting on as a top-six or so fantasy tight end entering his age-23 season.
Jerry Jeudy (WR5) - Jeudy’s rookie season was a disappointment. He was the WR63 in PPR points per game (9.3) on WR33 fantasy usage, and ranked 103rd out of 105 receiver qualifiers in PPR points over expected per game (-3.1). His 12 drops (2nd) played into that. So did Lock’s league-low CPOE. With Sutton returning, Jeudy is unlikely to see enough volume to be a weekly flex play in redraft unless his quarterback takes an unexpected leap. The No. 15 overall pick needs to get more physical at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point. He was bullied in 2020.
Drew Lock (QB3) - The Broncos seem content with giving Lock one more year as the starter. They weren’t in the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes as much as others, and they aren’t picking high enough in the draft to be squarely in the rookie quarterback market. Their cap space will primarily be spent re-signing their star defensive players, so Lock is the favorite to be the Broncos’ starter for most, or perhaps all, of the 2021 season. I’m not convinced Lock takes a big leap in year three after finishing 28th out of 32 quarterbacks in passing EPA and last in completion percentage over expected. His 12.9 rushing yards per game doesn’t move the needle either.
KJ Hamler (WR7) - Hamler may be a better real-life asset than fantasy asset. He’s an explosive player from the slot capable of winning after the catch and down the field, but targets will be tough to come by with Sutton, Jeudy, and Fant ahead in the pecking order. Hamler was the WR72 per game as a rookie, ranking 19th out of 23 rookies in PFF’s yards per route run (1.17).
FA Philip Lindsay (RB6) - Lindsay is a free agent and isn’t likely to draw up much of a market due to injuries and a poor 2020 season. He finished 60th out of 74 running backs in PPR points over expected per game (-1.5) while averaging 4.3 yards per carry and catching 7-of-14 targets. Lindsay could be re-signed cheaply if the Broncos want the 1-2 punch of Gordon-Lindsay, but it’s a low-upside role even if he’s brought back. Lindsay was the RB57 per game last year.