The Denver Broncos season ended with a 24-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders that capped their season with a 9-7 record and a third place finish in the ultra-competitive AFC West. This is the first time that the Broncos have not qualified for the postseason since John Elway took the general manager job in 2011, so Denver will have some work to do in order to return to their Super Bowl contending ways. Denver will go into the off-season armed with around $35 million in cap space along with ten selections in the NFL Draft, so Elway will have ample opportunity to bolster the roster. If the Broncos just do the four things on this to-do list, they will without a doubt return to the top of the AFC West and be right back in the Super Bowl discussion next season.
Denver Broncos Off-Season To-Do List
Find a Young Head Coach With Potential
Gary Kubiak‘s sudden resignation caught his team by surprise, and finding a capable successor is without a doubt the top offseason priority for the team. Kubiak did a masterful job with the many personalities on this team last season, and handled a potentially dicey quarterback situation all the way to a Super Bowl victory. This season, he fell victim to health concerns, poor offensive line play and young quarterbacking which resulted in the team’s 9-7 record.
His successor will have big shoes to fill after the example that Kubiak set in being a leader of this team. Denver needs to find a young, imaginative coach that can grow with the team and be the head coach for a long time. John Fox only lasted four years from 2011-2015, and Kubiak decided to step down after two years, so the Broncos are in need of some stability in their next head coach. The next coach must also drastically improve the offense, which was the primary reason why this team did not make the playoffs. This defense will not be elite forever, so Denver cannot afford to waste another year of excellent play from the defense due to lackluster offensive performance.
Editor’s note: the Broncos named Vance Joseph as their next head coach on Wednesday.
Fix the Offensive Line
This was number one on the list before Kubiak decided to step down and for good reason. Denver’s offensive line this season was…well, offensive. The only guaranteed starter for next season is center Matt Paradis, who is Pro Football Focus’ number one rated center in the NFL despite playing through hip injuries all season that will require offseason surgery. Russell Okung, Max Garcia, Michael Schofield, Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo all could lose their spots next season. Sambrailo gave up eight sacks this year despite only starting four games.
Luckily, the Broncos will have the cap room necessary to make major upgrades all across the line, and releasing Stephenson and potentially Okung could free up $15 million more should the Broncos elect to go that route. Denver has neglected to make significant upgrades to the offensive line for too long, and it caught up to them this year. They will need to address this position group heavily in the offseason if they expect to be able to protect whoever starts at quarterback next season.
Bolster the Defensive Line
Denver really felt the departure of star defensive end Malik Jackson this season, particularly in the run game. Jackson departed for Jacksonville in free agency and Denver was simply unable to replace his production. His would-be replacement, Vance Walker, tore his ACL in training camp and that was essentially the death knell to Denver’s run defense this season. Jared Crick was signed to be a rotational player, meant to come in and hustle for about 15 plays a game, not to be the starting right defensive end.
Due to the thinness of the defensive line, most teams had plenty of success running the ball right down the Broncos’ throat. Denver’s defense is indeed elite, but mainly as a passing defense. Most of their elite defense players are either pass rushers or defensive backs, with Derek Wolfe being the lone defensive player that is known for his ability to stop the run. Having the best pass defense in the NFL is wasted when teams do not really need to pass the ball against you because they can run it whenever they want. Denver must address this issue in the offseason, both in free agency and the draft.
Nail the Draft
Lastly, the Denver Broncos must have a successful draft this season in order to be able to develop capable and cheap players that can contribute early. The departures of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan certainly left a dent on the defense, but the bright side is that Denver is projected to get two third round compensatory picks as a result of their new contracts with other teams. This will leave Denver with five top 100 selections in the upcoming draft, picks that can be used to bolster the roster significantly.
Elway will use free agency to plug the major holes on the roster so that Denver will be in a position to truly take the best player available without having to draft for need. That being said, I highly doubt that Denver will be able to fix both the offensive and defensive lines solely through free agency, so I expect them to address the trenches on both sides of the ball heavily with a few of those selections.
Potential Options: Cam Robinson (offensive tackle, Alabama), Montravius Adams (defensive lineman, Auburn), Ryan Ramczyk (offensive tackle, Wisconsin)