Preseason is here! It’s football season which means we’re previewing the NFL. For the next 32 days we’re doing one team per day, by division, in reverse order of projected finish. Today, projected to finish third in the AFC West, the Denver Broncos.
It’s tough to see the Broncos repeating as Super Bowl champs or even division champs. Last season, they were helped by a great record in close games, going 12-4 when they were a 9.7-win team by Pythagorean wins, and injury luck. Denver’s was second on both offense and defense in adjusted games lost, per Football Outsiders. Both of those things will change and Denver will struggle to cope with losses on their defense. Even with all of that, I still see Denver as a playoff team
Anybody who tells you that the Broncos have downgraded at quarterback is simply wrong. The football-viewing public has forgotten that Peyton Manning was one of, if not the worst quarterback in football last season. Trevor Siemian will struggle to have the same impact in film sessions and other places off the field, but on the field it will be tough for Siemian to be worse than Manning was last season. Manning threw 17 interceptions in 10 games, completing just 59.8 percent of his passes and ranking second-to-last among qualified quarterbacks in DYAR and DVOA. Given that Siemian is surrounded by largely the same skill position players, it’s hard to fathom him being worse.
Siemian’s biggest targets will be Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders—the same two receivers that bailed out Manning time after time last season. Both were considered to have off-years in 2015 and still had over 1,000 receiving yards. Thomas had 177 targets—a mammoth number—and still managed a 59 percent catch rate. Sanders wasn’t far behind, finishing with a 55 percent catch rate. He also had an 87.2 PFF grade, 13th among receivers. Denver managed well without a consistent #3 receiver last year and will likely try and do the same this year. It looks like Jordan Norwood will be in that role to start, but it could easily be Cody Latimer. The same goes for tight end, where either Virgil Green or 2015 third-rounder Jeff Heuerman will try to duplicate Owen Daniels’ 26 DYAR from last season.
The Broncos’ run game will also function better with Siemian at quarterback. With Manning last season, Gary Kubiak had to compromise and run the pistol for a large chunk of last season. Now, he can have Siemian line up under center and run his offense the way it’s intended. This will help a run game that already looks pretty good. From Week 7 on, Anderson averaged 6.35 yards per carry last season. After a notably bad start, he morphed back into the same player that broke out late in 2014, racking up yards after contact and showing absolute dynamism in the open field.
Denver’s offensive line remains a problem. Russell Okung gives them some much needed competency at left tackle, but still had a fairly pedestrian 72.1 PFF grade last season. Losing Evan Mathis at guard will hurt the interior, which is now full of question marks. Max Garcia had a 40.0 pass blocking grade from PFF last season and fellow guard Ty Sambrailo blew six pass blocks in the three games he played according to Football Outsiders. Center Matt Paradis looks better by comparison, but a 65.4 PFF grade in pass blocking is still below average. Donald Stephenson won’t solve anything at right tackle either. He had an awful 34.5 PFF grade last season, blowing 8.5 blocks in protection, per FO. The Broncos were a pedestrian 17th in adjusted line yards last season and it doesn’t seem like this group is much better.
Defensively, the Broncos remain a force. They were first in both DVOA and weighted DVOA last season, riding one of the greatest defensive runs in history to a championship. It’s unlikely that Denver is that good again because, well, it’s almost impossible to be that good. However, this is still a defense good enough to drag them to the playoffs.
Derek Wolfe headlines a defensive line that led the league in adjusted sack rate last season. Wolfe had a 92.2 PFF grade last season along with 5.5 sacks, nine hits and 16 hurries, per Football Outsiders. Nose tackle Sylvester Williams had a 90 percent run stop rate, per FO, making him one of the biggest reasons that the Broncos were third in adjusted line yards and fifth in stuff rate last year. Losing Malik Jackson will hurt, but Vance Walker is more than capable. Walker played just 382 snaps last season but posted an 80.2 PFF grade along with an 84 percent run stop rate according to FO.
Danny Trevathan is the other big loss the defense has sustained, but the linebacking corps still looks pretty good. Todd Davis, his likely replacement, played well in limited time last season. Next to him on the inside, Brandon Marshall was 12th among linebackers in PFF grading last year. He had a 61 percent success rate in coverage along with a 71 percent run stop rate, both ranking in the top-25 among LBs according to Football Outsiders. Von Miller is coming off a Super Bowl MVP and a season in which he posted 11 sacks, 23 hits and 37 hurries, per FO. Miller was also second among edge rushers in PFF grading, adding to an already insane statistical profile. DeMarcus Ware is aging but has continued on as a high-level pass rusher. Ware had 7.5 sacks, eight hits and 19 hurries last season, per FO.
In the secondary, it’s the same group that helped the Broncos win last year’s title. Chris Harris Jr. is a shutdown corner in man-to-man. He had 13 AV last season and was top-10 among corners in PFF grading. Aqib Talib was top-20 among corners in adjusted yards per target and Bradley Roby had an 82.0 coverage grade from PFF last season. T.J. Ward was a top-10 safety by PFF grading last season and had a 66 percent success rate according to Football Outsiders. Next to him, Darian Stewart had an 81.6 PFF grade last season and was arguably the worst player in the secondary.
This isn’t the same Broncos team that won the Super Bowl last year. They had too many things go their way to be that team again, but this is still a playoff team as long as the defense remains intact and Wade Phillips is coaching it.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Unless it’s against Antonio Brown, who beat him so badly that I feel obligated to mention it here.