Team Previews: 2018 Denver Broncos

Team Previews: 2018 Denver Broncos

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

You can see whatever you want to see in this Broncos squad. The optimist will see a defense with multiple new chess pieces and more offensive firepower than seasons past. On the other hand, the team's core continues to age, and things might get ugly if Case Keenum turns back into a pumpkin.


For the first time since the team's Super Bowl run, there is no quarterback controversy in Denver. Case Keenum is in town on a two-year deal that smacks of new personnel advisor Gary Kubiak, who signed Keenum as a local undrafted free agent while with the Texans. Keenum might have been a letdown for those hoping for Kirk Cousins, but he finished second in the league in completion percentage, seventh in passer rating and seventh in adjusted net yards per attempt in 2017. Keenum was particularly deadly in the red zone, an area in which the Broncos have struggled recently. He and Carson Wentz represented the only two passers who completed 60 percent of their passes with at least 15 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20. GM John Elway committed to giving his new passer the same smorgasbord of weapons that he had in Minnesota and delivered during draft weekend, bypassing prominent quarterbacks in favor of four offensive skill players in the first five rounds to complement the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Not selecting a quarterback could also buy a little more time for 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch. A known project when he was drafted, Lynch missed most of last season with shoulder and ankle injuries, but flashed mobility and a big arm against a resting Kansas City squad in Week 17.

After opting for a steady veteran over a promising rookie at quarterback, the Broncos appear set to install a ball-control offense reminiscent of the latter part of the Peyton Manning era. They'll do so without C.J. Anderson, who was jettisoned after a career year in 2017. Devontae Booker and De'Angelo Henderson represent the next men up, but the team hardly expressed unwavering faith in the duo, drafting two running backs and paying a third the highest UDFA bonus for an offensive player in the Elway era. Booker has developed into a solid target out of the backfield but has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in two seasons. Henderson was kept to just nine touches all year after preseason fumbling issues, but scored on a 29-yard catch in Week 17. Third-rounder Royce Freeman is the most likely challenger for the starting role among the rookies. Despite some ebbs during his college career, he topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage and scored double-digit touchdowns all four seasons, including 2,184 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Elway described Freeman as similar in build to Anderson but with greater second-level speed. Don't sleep on seventh-rounder David Williams, who despite his power-back build, flaunts 4.5 40 speed. Though undrafted, Phillip Lindsay could carve out a role in Denver as a scat back.

After winning a Super Bowl by harassing opposing quarterbacks, the Broncos slipped from first in the league in sacks in 2015 to third in 2016 and 22nd in 2017. The team has yet to recover from the retirement of DeMarcus Ware and departure of Malik Jackson. Neither Shane Ray nor Shaq Barrett, both solid as reserves, have stepped up opposite Von Miller, combining for just 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons. The Broncos hope fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb can serve as a better pass-rush partner after recording 10 sacks in both of the last two years. His arrival could push Ray and Barrett back to reserve roles alongside Jeff Holland, who notched 9.5 sacks at Auburn in 2017. Improved depth on the edge will allow 2016 NCAA sack leader Demarcus Walker to shift back to his more natural position inside. Behind the revamped rush, the "No Fly Zone" will be looking for a new captain after Aqib Talib's sendoff. Bradley Roby, who has three career defensive touchdowns, is the favorite to fill his shoes. If Roby can't, veteran Tramaine Brock and a pair of third-round picks, Brendan Langley and Isaac Yiadom, wait in the hangar. Trade pickup Su'a Cravens might end up being the defense's most valuable new weapon as a safety/nickel/linebacker hybrid that the team was missing last season after releasing T.J. Ward.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Demaryius Thomas
For the first time since 2011, Thomas is coming off a season in which he failed to hit 90 catches and 1,000 receiving yards. Injuries have robbed Thomas of his explosiveness, and poor QB play has persisted since Peyton Manning's last stand. There's an upgrade under center, but will Thomas rebound in time to stave off his heir apparent?

RISING: Jake Butt
Denver chose not to invest heavily at tight end this offseason. That's good news for Butt, who missed his rookie year with a torn ACL. A classic in-line Y when healthy, he's the safest bet to win the starting job.

FALLING: Jeff Heuerman
Undrafted Austin Traylor logged more snaps in the last five games of 2017 than the former third-rounder, 179 to 139. With Troy Fumagalli also in the fold, Heuerman and Traylor might battle for one roster spot.

SLEEPER: DaeSean Hamilton
Denver's in a youth movement at wideout. Courtland Sutton and Carlos Henderson bring the measurables, but the sure hands and sharp routes of Hamilton may lead to earlier production.

The No. 3 wide receiver in Denver has averaged a measly 24 catches and 263 yards over the past three seasons. With last year's No. 3 target, Bennie Fowler, now in Chicago, the Broncos double dipped on receiver in the first half of the draft. Fourth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton left Penn State as the school's all-time receptions leader and ranked second in team passer rating among the draft's receivers when targeted in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. Big-bodied second-rounder Courtland Sutton had a first-round grade, per Denver's brass, and could push Emmanuel Sanders inside in three-wide sets. Among returning options, 2017 fifth-round selection Isaiah McKenzie has reportedly turned heads this offseason, despite recording more fumbles (six) than catches (four) as a rookie. Fellow sophomore Carlos Henderson, a third-round pick last year, has yet to play a down after a thumb injury derailed his rookie campaign. This offseason, he was hobbled by a hamstring injury at minicamp and didn't report for training camp due to a personal issue. Finally, veteran Jordan Taylor started camp on the PUP list due to his recovery from hip surgery, which could threaten his roster viability.

Case Keenum – QB (from Vikings)
Passer rating of 98.3 ranked seventh among quarterbacks in 2017.

Bradley Chubb – LB (Rd. 1, No. 5 – N.C. State)
Tenacious edge rusher had 44 tackles for loss over the last two years.

Courtland Sutton – WR (Rd. 2, No. 40 – SMU)
The 6-3, 218-pounder brings an uncommon wingspan to the table.

Royce Freeman – RB (Rd. 3, No. 71 – Oregon)
The barreling back found the end zone 64 times for the Ducks.

Aqib Talib – CB (to Rams)
Press corner nabbed six pick-sixes in four seasons in Mile High City.

C.J. Anderson – RB (to Panthers)
Sent packing after his first career 1,000-yard campaign.

Bennie Fowler – WR (to Bears)
Big slot man was fourth on the team with 29 catches last season.

Trevor Siemian – QB (to Vikings)
Now slated to back up Kirk Cousins following 24 starts with Denver.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR – Sanders suffered a frightening-looking ankle sprain in Week 5. The speedster managed to miss just two games before returning to action, but came back to mixed results. He caught at least four passes just twice in his final seven games before missing the final two contests of the season. He returns to a new quarterback in Case Keenum, whose 98.3 quarterback rating in 2017 is more than 20 points higher than Denver's team rating over the past three seasons.

Shane Ray, OLB – Will a fourth surgery be the charm for Ray's ailing left wrist? In the end, he avoided another procedure on the region but opened training camp Saturday with a brace. Ray, the Broncos' 2015 first-round pick, seemed set for a promising career with eight sacks in his first taste of starting duty in 2016. He missed the first eight games of 2017 with his wrist injury and never returned to form. Since then, Denver has declined Ray's fifth-year option and drafted a new tag-team partner for Von Miller in Bradley Chubb.

Derek Wolfe, DE – Wolfe missed five games in 2017 with nerve issues in his neck and ended the season on injured reserve. Offseason surgery has reportedly alleviated the discomfort. Wolfe returns to a Broncos front bolstered by Chubb, a 2018 first-round pick. The rookie outside linebacker should free up Wolfe to wreak havoc along the line after recording his second lowest career sack total in 2017.

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Andy Segedin
Andy is a business and sports writer residing in South Philly - home to the world's greatest sandwiches. He is a lifelong fan of your Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos, a fact that he enjoys bringing up in conversation - especially when speaking with Bostonians.
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