A Look Inside: 2021 Denver Broncos

When the Broncos spent a second-round pick on Missouri QB Drew Lock in 2019, it became GM John Elway’s latest attempt at plugging the proverbial leak that has been the QB position. Denver has been trying to fix that leak since Peyton Manning’s retirement following their Super Bowl 50 victory over the Carolina Panthers. After a 4-1 record to close the 2019 season, Lock was primed for a 2020 breakout.

Injuries and inconsistency followed, and now there are major question marks surrounding the QB position. With an offense that is loaded with talent, rumors have swirled around the possibility of Denver making a trade for disgruntled Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but it’s widely accepted that Denver would be an instant threat to Kansas City’s reign atop the AFC West if Rodgers comes to town.

If Denver sticks with Lock, and Lock remains healthy, all signs point to an upward trajectory for both the team’s fantasy output and their playoff potential. Let’s take A Look Inside the 2021 Denver Broncos.

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode with special guest Jeff Haseley on Youtube below!

Quarterbacks

I’ll get this out of the way real quick — the acquisition of Teddy Bridgewater from the Panthers is to protect them against a Drew Lock injury. He may have supported three top-25 WRs for fantasy and completed almost 70% of his passes, but he was otherwise uninspiring as both a fantasy asset and a real-life NFL QB. Unless the Broncos can make a move for Rodgers, Drew Lock is their guy. The same Lock who finished as QB23 last year (QB30 in PPG). He also only won as many games as he did as a rookie… in eight more starts. Yikes.

Lock completed less than 60% of his passes and was 30th in yards per attempt. His 15 INTs tied for the league lead. He also had the 3rd highest drop percentage of qualifying QBs. Those are just some of the bad. How about some good? Of quarterbacks with more than 400 attempts, Lock’s 9.7 average depth of target (aDOT) was the best in the league. On play-action passes, Lock didn’t throw a single interception. At least we have something to work with!

His number one receiver, Courtland Sutton, suffered an ACL tear during Week 1 last year. Phillip Lindsay (now in Houston) regressed, partly due to injury. He just wasn’t the same 1,000-yard rusher from the previous two seasons. They spent a second-round pick on RB Javonte Williams to replace Lindsay, and Sutton returns from injury. This should take the pressure off of 2nd-year-pro Jerry Jeudy and the rest of the receiving corps. The stars are aligning for Lock, who also has a stud at TE (Noah Fant), a strong running game (led by Melvin Gordon), a potentially elite receiving corps (featuring the aforementioned Sutton and Jeudy), and what hopes to be a solid offensive line (led by Garrett Bolles). If we get a full season from Lock, we could be looking at a sneaky low-end QB1, for the price of QB34. That’s right. Literally free.

(Of course, if Denver can swing a deal for Aaron Rodgers, you can pencil in Rodgers for a top-3 finish. This would be the best array of offensive talent he’s ever had at his disposal, hands down. And young offensive talent, at that.)

Running Backs

At the age of 28, we’ve known for a while what Melvin Gordon is an uninspiring RB2. He does have skills as a receiver and a nose for the end zone. Since 2016, only once has Gordon not totaled 10 or more touchdowns in a season — in 2019, when he scored only nine in 12 games. He’s also never had fewer than 30 receptions in a season. He’s topped 1,100 total yards in four of the last five years. After three straight years over 14 fantasy points per game (2016-2018), Gordon has failed to average more than 12 PPG the last two years (11.6 and 11.1 in 2019 and 2020, respectively).

Despite the low PPG from Gordon last year, there’s a reason for optimism. He finished 5th in forced missed tackles and was Top 12 in yards gained after first contact, per PFF. He also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (YPC), only the second time in his career he’s topped 4.0 YPC. Gordon did all this with an underachieving Phillip Lindsay taking carries from him (and, you know, poor QB play). Lindsay’s 118 carries from a year ago will figuratively land in the hands of rookie Javonte Williams. Honestly, he may take some of Gordon’s with him.

Like Gordon in 2020, Williams is a tackle-breaking machine. Williams led college football in forced missed tackles a year ago and finished Top 5 in the country in yards gained after first contact, per PFF. Gordon had to handle most of the passing down work because Lindsay is atrocious as a pass blocker. Seriously, Lindsay finished 72nd out of 78 qualified RBs in pass-blocking grade from PFF. That won’t be a problem with Williams. He finished 3rd among qualified RBs in the country in pass blocking grade. He even caught 80% of his targets and scored three times on 24 receptions. If any of this is sounding like a pro-Javonte Williams write-up, it is.

As good as Gordon has been, he has only one year left on his contract. With Williams drafted in the 2nd round, Gordon’s time in Denver may be ending soon. Gordon is likely to lead the charge to start the season, but Williams will still get his share. In fact, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wasn’t shy about splitting carries between Gordon and Lindsay. Gordon averaged 14.3 carries/game, while Lindsay saw 10.7 carries/game. The improvements will come in the passing game, where Shurmur only targeted his RBs 72 times (12.9% target share). That should increase in 2021 with better options.

If injuries derail what looks to be solid seasons for both Gordon and Williams, we can look to Royce Freeman and free-agent signee Mike Boone for inspiration. Or desperation, as it were. Neither has lit the NFL on fire in their brief time in the league, aside from a solid game here and there. They are names to know if nothing else.

Wide Receivers

Let the fun begin. Drew Lock’s big arm was supposed to unlock Courtland Sutton’s ability to get downfield in a hurry. We know about Sutton’s knee injury, but then we found out Lock isn’t exactly accurate on those downfield throws. Of the top-20 quarterbacks in deep attempts (passes over 20 yards downfield), Lock had the 2nd worst completion percentage. Only rookie Joe Burrow had a worse completion percentage. The good news is that Lock isn’t afraid to look downfield, which bodes well for Sutton. In Week 1, Sutton had three receptions and averaged 22 yards per catch. I’m not saying that’s sustainable, but it’s a reason to get excited. Especially after he averaged 15.4 on 124 targets in 2019. I still believe Sutton is a legit WR2 in fantasy and the top dog in this passing offense.

Jerry Jeudy had an abysmal rookie season. Everyone talks about Diontae Johnson’s drop problems, but Jeudy’s may have been worse. Jeudy had 12 drops and a catch percentage of 47.3%. Um, BIG YIKES. I get it, QB play wasn’t great. Maybe, just maybe, taking a player who ran over 67% of their career routes in college from the slot and making them an outside receiver in the pros just wasn’t the right move. But hey, I just write about the players, I can’t put them in positions to succeed. I’m not as convinced as others that Jeudy makes some big 2nd-year leap. Especially with Sutton returning and the presence of TE Noah Fant (and the aforementioned duo of RBs), but I’m sure Jeudy will have some weeks where he’s FLEX-worthy.

Tim Patrick flashed at times last year, with three 100-yard performances, but he’s nothing more than a backup on the Broncos. He is not someone you should consider drafting. K.J. Hamler came from Penn State with drop problems (he also had seven drops) and eclipsed 50 targets last year. He’s a player with a lot of talent, but may find himself on the outside looking in. Unless the Broncos find themselves throwing the ball 600+ times in 2021.

Tight Ends

Noah Fant seems bound for stardom. He finished sixth in targets, seventh in receptions, and sixth in yards among TEs in 2020. The lack of touchdown production kept him as TE8 though. Only two other TEs finished in the Top 12 and had less than six touchdowns. I think we need to start a campaign to get Fant to six in 2021, but I digress. He was second on the team a year ago in targets, and will likely be, at worst, the third option in the passing game. When you have the chance to find TEs with that type of usage, it’s usually a good idea to snag them in fantasy drafts.

Albert Okwuegbunam is the TE2 on this team. On any other team, we might be talking about a 2nd-year breakout. Okwuegbunam lit up the Combine in 2020 with a blazing 40 but raw ability. He played with Drew Lock at Missouri so a connection is already there. If Fant gets hurt, Okwuegbunam could be our Aflac-level insurance policy.