Case Keenum Was Not the Answer
Before 2018, the Denver Broncos decided that journeyman Case Keenum would give them their best chance at winning football games. But Keenum was a prime example for statistical regression. Before his prolific 2017 year, Keenum had an aggregated career quarterback rating of 40.8 – significantly below average for signal-callers. Then he suddenly bumped to 72.8 in 2017 (Hey Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen!). John Elway decided that this anomaly was the new standard and rolled with Keenum. He was an upgrade from the Trevor Siemian mess the year before. But Keenum finished the 2018 season with a rating of 46.9, reverting to around his career path. The Broncos offense ranked 5th in “rush DVOA,” but only 24th in pass DVOA. Unfortunately for them, passing is significantly more critical for winning football games.
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Even though the defense played at an above-average level throughout the year, it wasn’t all on Case Keenum. Elway traded away wide receiver Demaryius Thomas after week eight, Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles in week twelve. Only two starting offensive linemen played 16 games. The two best players along the line, left guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis, went to IR in weeks six and nine, respectively. On the season, the Denver Broncos went 6-10 but had 7.4 Pythagorean victories. They went 4-6 in one-possession games with a positive turnover differential of +0.4. Their defense created 25 turnovers. Overall, Denver was more of a 7-9 team than a 6-10 one. Head coach Vance Joseph got fired anyway – the right decision.
John Elway revamped the coaching staff with former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who will be a rookie head coach at age 61. He will likely be one of the most experienced rookie head coaches in the history of the league. Fangio is one of the best defensive minds in the league and should easily be an upgrade over Vance Joseph and Joe Woods.
Elway also made another *splash* signing when he traded a third-round pick to Baltimore in exchange for QB Joe Flacco. But the latter is Case Keenum with a stronger arm. Over his career, Flacco averaged 0.013 expected points added (EPA) per dropback. Keenum sits at 0.003. Only 3.7 points separate these two in their respective career QBR with Flacco having the lead. In a friendlier scheme with a robust offensive line, Joe Flacco will likely look better than Keenum did in 2018. However, first-year play-caller tend to struggle.
New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello served the past two years as the quarterback’s coach for the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan. He also spent the 2015 season as the offensive quality coach for the Atlanta Falcons when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. According to reports, Scangarello used Shanahan staples when he coordinated the Wagner offense in 2016. Outside zone scheme, play-action out of running formations, sweeps – we will probably see plenty of Shanahan stuff. This offense is most likely looking more creative than it did under Bill Musgrave. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak might be the most underrated signing. He has coached a terrific Pittsburgh Steelers unit from 2014 to 2018.
An Underrated Supporting Cast
The offensive line could finish as an average unit. Left tackle Garett Bolles hasn’t lived up to his draft status; he’s hoping to get pushed by Munchak. Ronald Leary has been a rock-solid guard throughout his career, whereas rookie right guard Dalton Risner ranked 19th on Pro Football Focus’ Big Board as a tackle. According to draft pundits, Risner should easily slide in and play right guard. His and Bolles’ development is critical for the success of this unit. Risner will kick in because the Broncos signed free agent Ja’Wuan James, formerly with the Dolphins. James is a reliable veteran addition. Center Connor McGovern will try to fill the void left by Matt Paradis, who is now a Panther, full-time.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders might not be ready for week one, but last year’s rookies showed a lot to be optimistic about this group. Courtland Sutton finished his first pro year with 42 receptions for 704 yards and four touchdowns. DaeSean Hamilton got the starting gig after Sanders went down. Over the last four games, he had 25 catches for 182 yards and two scores. I struggle to figure out the backups, but Sutton, Sanders, and Hamilton look like a decent unit on paper.
In the first round, the Broncos drafted receiving tight end, Noah Fant. The learning curve for rookie tight ends is steep, so we shouldn’t expect miracles. But he is expected to contribute early. Former college star Jake Butt is coming off his second ACL tear in two years. He was competing with Jeff Heuerman for the starting job last summer. Especially with Sander’s absence, I’m expecting many 2-TE-sets by Scangarello. We will also likely see heavy usage of full back Andy Janovich. Running back Phillip Lindsay had a good rookie season but is coming off a broken hand.
All in all, this can be an underrated squad, depending on the development of the tight ends and Mike Munchak’s work. With Joe Flacco, the ceiling is not high. But there should be a more upper floor than in 2018.
Get the Mastermind Vic Fangio to Work!
Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell – who spend the last eight years coaching secondaries under mastermind Fangio – have some functional pieces to send out on the field. As mentioned, Fangio is a significant upgrade at the coaching position. He will scheme the defense up to its strengths. While the interior defensive line doesn’t stand out, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb form one of the best edge-rushing tandems in the entire league. According to Pro Football Focus, these two collected 121 combined pressures against one of the harder schedules. With Chubb entering year two, they can only improve. Linebacker Brandon Marshall left the Broncos towards Oakland which means that Todd Davis and Josey Jewell will pave the way. In terms of coverage, both guys have some development in front of them.
In the secondary, Fangio has a functional group on the outside. He brought over slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, one of the best in the league. Chris Harris, also among the best on his position, will play opposite of 31-year old Kareem Jackson. The latter should get targeted a lot by opposing offenses as he seems to be the weakest spot. Free safety Justin Simmons will play alongside William Parks – the two are not close to the level of Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos last year. The performance of this defense is going to get dictated by opposing offenses but also by Vic Fangio. They have a terrific edge-rushing duo and two very good cornerbacks, but the rest isn’t particularly good and can get exploited. This defense seems like an average to an above-average unit that has borderline top-10 potential with Vic Fangio.
The Denver Broncos are going to walk a stony road this year. Using the wisdom of the crowd – the regular season win totals at Pinnacle – gives us a clue about their potential strength of schedule. According to these totals, the Broncos are projected to play the second-hardest program in the league at 0.5244. Within their division, they are going to play four tough matchups against the Chiefs and the Chargers, both who went 12-4 last year. In the AFC, they will face the South with three teams potential playoff teams from 2018. An early east game at Buffalo in late November, as well as a matchup against the up and coming Browns, is no cake-walk either.
On top of that, Vic Fangio’s squad will play a tough-nosed AFC North. After their bye week in week ten, Denver is going to travel in four games out of five. Intriguing scheduling spots:
Week 6 vs. TEN: The Broncos have a sandwich matchup between playing on the road against the Chargers and receiving the Chiefs four days later for a prime time game. Home teams before a Thursday game have been bad against the spread, especially as favorites. The lookahead line is Broncos -2.5. But keep in mind that this is more than likely priced into the line.
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Denver Broncos 2019: Minor Improvements
The Denver Broncos are an improved team from last year, but I would describe these improvements as a minor. Denver should have a little bit more luck overall. The offensive line should be healthier, but Joe Flacco is only a small upgrade over Case Keenum if all. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw rookie Drew Lock on the field at some point. The receiving corps has potential but is still very young. Vic Fangio is a defensive mastermind whereas we don’t know what to expect from Rich Scangarello as a first-year play-caller. We can only assume that his scheme is going to be more QB-friendly than Bill Musgrave’s. Is Fangio giving him full control of the offense, or is he interested in a strong-defense / run-first approach?
The neck breaker might be a robust program with a lot of quality opponents. While I expect them to improve, the ceiling is not very high when your quarterback is Joe Flacco. Anything more than 8-8 would surprise me. Therefore I mostly agree with the markets which hold the Broncos at the win total of 7 with little downwards tendency. Seven wins seem like a fair projection. I wouldn’t touch any Broncos futures at all though. If the win total were 6.5, it would have some value for the over.