After missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Denver Broncos are certainly not shy of criticism and critique this offseason. Just as much of the coaching staff wasn’t safe after Gary Kubiak retired, only a handful of players will be guaranteed their jobs entering the 2017 season.
During the offseason, John Elway and Vance Joseph will likely ponder and discuss how to upgrade nearly every position on the roster, but at the end of the day only a portion of those changes will actually take place. While the quarterback position will be the hot topic of discussion, it actually isn’t a position that the Broncos brass must address, even though they may.
With a 9-7 record in 2016, Denver wasn’t too far from making the playoffs. Unlike the Cleveland Browns that probably have a double-digit number of positions they must address before thinking playoffs, the Broncos' list is actually quite short.
Although Denver could upgrade in many areas in the offseason, here are the three positions that they must address in order to make a playoff run next season.
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle
While Denver’s pass defense somehow became better than the 2015 Super Bowl championship team, the run defense went the opposite way. After finishing as the third-best rushing defense in 2015—only allowing 83.6 yards per game on the ground—Denver regressed significantly in 2016—falling to the fifth worst defense against the run, giving up an average of 130.3 yards on the ground. A major reason for this was the play at defensive tackle.
Although Sylvester Williams didn’t have a terrible year in the middle of the defensive line, it was clearly not enough for what this defense needs. Williams will enter free agency this offseason after the Broncos declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, but they could still look to resign him. Whether or not they do bring Williams back doesn’t change the fact that they will need to add more talent to the position.
Outside of Williams, Denver only has one other nose tackle on the roster: second-year player Kyle Peko. If Denver wants to return this defense to top-notch form, upgrading the talent in the middle of the defensive line will be an absolute must, whether or not Williams returns.
Offensive Tackle OR Offensive Guard
As crazy as it seems, Denver only must upgrade one of these two positions with talent not currently on the roster. While it is very plausible, and possible, that Elway could bring in two to three new starters among this group of four, he really only has to upgrade one of the positions.
Outside of center Matt Paradis, Denver’s offensive line was among the worst in the league last season. One of the main reasons that there may not be massive turnover between these two positions is because three of the four starters from last year’s group are under contract for at least one more year: guards Michael Schofield and Max Garcia and tackle Donald Stephenson. The only player not under contract is tackle Russell Okung—whose team option of $11.7 million for the 2017 season was not exercised, thus making him a free agent.
If Denver decides to bring in another right tackle, instead of cutting Stephenson they could try moving him to guard, a position that he has played in the past. By doing so, the Broncos would essentially shake up 40 percent of the offensive line by just bringing in one player.
However, it is also very possible that Elway and company will bring in two or three other starting offensive lineman. The only near certainty about what will happen with the offense line is that there will be at least one change.
This position can, and should, be taken many different ways. Not only do the Broncos need a specialist in the return game, they also need a specialist on offense. While many local fans want the Broncos to draft former Stanford University star, and Colorado native, Christian McCaffrey—and he fits this bill to a tee—there are other players that can address this—from rookies to free agents, such as Cordarrelle Patterson.
On the offensive side of the ball, Denver lacked a unique playmaker. Even with wide-receiving talents such as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos' offense was rather stagnant. This player would add an entire new dimension to Denver’s offense by lining up as a receiver out wide, in the slot and even in the backfield.
As in the definition, this specialist would be used sparingly and not necessarily as an every-down player. While this position would be a big upgrade for the offense, it isn’t absolutely crucial that Denver addresses this in the offseason. On the other hand, a specialist on special teams is a must.
The Broncos' returners, both kick and punt, were nothing special in 2016 to say the least. In the kick return game, Denver averaged 22.9 yards per return, falling 2.1 yards short of where they would have received the ball if they didn’t return the kick at all.
After Super Bowl 50, Denver thought they had found their punt returner of the future. After 2016, they are still searching for that man after Jordan Norwood fumbled multiple punts and nearly lost all confidence from his teammates.
As is Tyreek Hill with the Kansas City Chiefs, this specialist can fill the opening on special teams and on offense. While Denver may not be able to find or add that type of player in the offseason, they will almost certainly try to find a specialist in the return game.
Keep it locked to BSN Denver to find out how the team addresses these needs.