MERILATT MONDAY

Bills-Chiefs shows that the Broncos aren’t that far from competing

Jan 22, 2024, 4:00 AM


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Watching a classic AFC Divisional Round game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, one question kept popping into mind: How close are the Denver Broncos to being able to play at that type of level?

On the surface, it seems like a ridiculous question. After all, the Broncos haven’t made the playoffs in eight years. Their last appearance in the NFL’s postseason came at the end of the 2015 season, when Denver hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl 50.

But it’s not actually that of a nutty notion. This season, the Broncos ended their 16-game losing streak to the Chiefs, beating Kansas City in dominating fashion, winning 24-9 on October 29 at Empower Field. Two weeks later, they went into Buffalo and beat the Bills on a Monday night, winning 24-22 on a last-second field goal.

Denver beat two AFC heavyweights, in back-to-back games separated by their bye week. That’s pretty impressive.

It suggests that they’re on the cusp of being in the mix. It provides hope that their absence from the postseason could come to an end in the near future.

After all, the Broncos finished this season with an 8-9 mark. Had they beaten the Patriots on Christmas Eve, they’d have been in the mix until the final week of the season, a loss that could’ve gone the other way if they’d had something to play for against the Raiders.

They’re right there. A couple of wins away from being a contender.

Given that they lost early in the season to non-playoff teams like the Raiders, Commanders and Jets, it stands to reason that those bad losses could be turned into meaningful wins with time. In season two under Sean Payton, the head coach’s system would be more in place, providing the opportunity to be better in the first few weeks of the season.

Thus, the smart thing for the Broncos would be to build upon what they did in 2023.

They should add to their defense – a group that gave up a lot of yards, but also generated a lot of turnovers – by bolstering the middle linebacker position and perhaps adding another cornerback. They can continue to improve on special teams, where rookie Marvin Mims was a Pro Bowl selection.

But that’s not where the big improvements can come. Instead, those will occur on the offensive side of the ball.

On the season, the Broncos finished 26th in total offense. That’s not good. They were slightly more respectable in scoring, averaging 21.0 points per game, which was good enough for 19th in that statistical category.

Payton is an offensive-minded head coach. His team shouldn’t be in the bottom third of the league in offense. They shouldn’t be in the bottom half of scoring.

They need to find more playmakers. That’s Denver’s No. 1 problem.

Javonte Williams was a great story this season, returning from a devastating injury that occurred in Week 4 of 2022 to start in the 2023 opener. But the running back struggled, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. The Broncos featured back only had two big plays (20-plus yards) on the season.

That’s not going to cut it.

At tight end, the situation is even more dire. Adam Trautman was Denver’s top receiver in that group, racking up 204 yards on the season. There were 44 tight ends in the NFL with more receiving yards than Trautman in 2023. And he was the best of the bunch in Denver, leading a group that posted three big plays (20-plus yards) on the season.

That’s not going to cut it.

At wide receiver, it wasn’t much better. Yes, Courtland Sutton was a bit of a touchdown machine, finding the end zone 10 times on the season. But the Broncos top receiver only had 59 catches for 772 yards on the season; those are pedestrian numbers in today’s NFL. And he pretty much mirrored his fellow starter, as Jerry Jeudy had 758 yards on 54 catches.

That’s not going to cut it.

Of course, everyone is going to blame this lack of production on Russell Wilson. The quarterback has turned into the scapegoat for all that ailed Payton’s offense in 2023.

But he wasn’t the problem. Playing with a group of relatively mediocre weapons, as outlined above, the QB threw for 3,070 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just eight interceptions. Those are great numbers, but they’re certainly something to build upon.

And that would be the smart route. By a mile.

If the Broncos decide to move on from Wilson, they’ll absorb huge cash and salary cap implications. That’ll impact them for the next two seasons.

Even if they land a quarterback of the future with the No. 12 overall pick, he’ll still have to endure the inevitable rookie struggles. And there’s zero evidence that Payton can develop a young quarterback, or even wants to. He certainly didn’t seem too interested in adjusting his system to fit what Wilson does best.

Not only that, but Denver won’t have addressed their biggest problem. They won’t have added any weapons. They’ll have used their top pick, No. 12 overall, on a quarterback and they won’t have the salary cap space, due to Wilson’s dead money, needed to sign a running back, tight end and/or wideout in free agency.

So they’ll be stuck with a rookie quarterback, being coached by someone who has no track record of success with a young player, surrounded by B- or C-level weapons. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a plan wrought with problems. It’s a path that looks to be leading toward two years of despair, at least.

That’s why the Broncos would be much wiser to build upon what they did in 2023. Keep Russ. Let he and Payton find a middle ground. Use the No. 12 overall pick on a tight end, perhaps Brock Bowers from Georgia. Hope that Tim Patrick can finally stay healthy, giving Denver another weapon on the outside. And find a way to get Jaleel McLaughlin, a rookie running back who averaged 5.4 yards per carry and had four big plays on just 76 carries, more involve in the ground game.

If the Broncos followed that plan, they could compete with the Bills and Chiefs next season. Heck, they already did next year.

Why not take a step forward instead of a step in the wrong direction?

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