What do you get when you combine the retirement of a Hall of Fame quarterback, the desertion of his heir apparent, some strategic Instagram cropping, and a couple of bullet wounds? If you figure it out, please let us know. (We’re sure John Elway wouldn’t mind being let in on the answer, either.) In the meantime, we’ve come up with 18 predictions—from a still-dominant defense to less-than-stellar QB play—for what could happen during the Broncos’ 2016-17 campaign.
Prediction 1: The Broncos’ 2016-17 regular-season record will be…
12-4: If Denver fields the NFL’s mightiest defense for the second straight year and Mark Sanchez buys into head coach Gary Kubiak’s quarterback-limiting, mistake-mitigating, run-heavy offense.
9-7: If linebacker Von Miller proves he deserves to be the richest defender in the NFL by carrying the Broncos’ D to a top-five ranking but Sanchez (or Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian) can’t spur an inept offense.
5-11: If injuries ravage the Denver defense, the Kansas City Chiefs play even better than they did last year, and the Oakland Raiders’ combo of young talent and veteran free-agent pickups pushes them into the playoffs.
Prediction 2: The Broncos’ QB will be incredibly average, and that’s just fine.
The last defending Super Bowl champion to lose its top two signal callers bears a striking resemblance to today’s Broncos. The Baltimore Ravens rode a punishing defense to a 2001 Super Bowl victory with journeymen Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks doing just enough not to sink the whole enterprise (Dilfer had 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; Banks had eight of each). The following season, both were replaced by Elvis Grbac, who performed even worse than his predecessors; still, the Ravens leaned on their D again to make the playoffs. In other words, whoever inherits the Manning-Osweiler mantle just needs to turn in a so-so season—say, 18 TDs and the same number of INTs. Which, wouldn’t you know it, pretty much matches how Mark Sanchez has performed his entire career. That might sound like a pessimistic goal, but remember that such Sanchez-ian stats would be a marked improvement over Manning’s nine touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and countless dead ducks last year. Yes, we realize that in today’s NFL, a franchise can’t succeed for long without a stellar quarterback.
Case in point: The Grbac era launched a seven-year stretch of yo-yoing play as the Ravens cycled through a bunch of has-beens and never-weres before finally drafting Joe Flacco. The Broncos believe they’ve found their Flacco in Paxton Lynch, but if the raw first-round pick plays much in 2016-’17, it will more likely be due to unexpected setbacks than to premature brilliance. If the Broncos’ D continues to perform at an elite level, the mantra for whoever ends up directing the O this year should be simple: Average is OK! The slogan might not make a great T-shirt, but it does offer the best chance the Broncos have of defending their title.
Prediction 3: Shane Ray will get a Denver tat to offset his Kansas City ink.
During the offseason, the Kansas City native had the Royals, Sporting Kansas City, and Chiefs logos etched into his back—which feels like a slight to Denver. But all shall be forgiven with some Colorado ink. Here, some ideas:
Denver Broncos logo: Extra points for using the old-school “D” version.
Colorado flag: There’s no better way to fit in—everybody has one.
Rockies logo: Like your Royals, only without success, history, a savvy front office—actually, you know what? Skip this one.
Marijuana leaf: You seem to have an affinity for pot. Colorado definitely has an affinity for pot. This makes a lot of sense.
Illustrations by Sean Parsons
Prediction 4: Cornerback Aqib Talib will get tossed from the first game of the season.
In a day-late-and-a-dollar-short bid to make pro football seem more gentlemanly, the NFL has a new rule this year stipulating that any player who collects two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a single game will be automatically ejected. You could probably call this the “Broncos Rule.” The Denver defense was among the league leaders in 2015-’16 for unnecessary roughness and roughing-the-quarterback penalties. And the most intense member of this ill-humored crew was the fiery Aqib Talib, who committed two 15-yard infractions in Super Bowl 50 and was flagged several times during the season for unnecessary roughness—and, of course, there was that unfortunate eye-gouging incident. Expect the revenge-minded Carolina Panthers to goad the cornerback (whose leg will have recovered from an offseason gunshot wound) into an early exit during the opening night rematch on September 8.
Prediction 5: The Broncos’ defense won’t be as stout, but it will rank in the top five.
Typically, the “defense wins championships” cliché is just something we tell the D so they don’t feel bad about not getting as much glory (or money) as offensive players. Not last year. The Broncos’ five defensive touchdowns tied for third in the NFL. However, no team’s D posted more meaningful scores than Denver’s. In week one, cornerback Aqib Talib’s 51-yard interception return gave the Broncos their final lead over the Baltimore Ravens. A week later, cornerback Bradley Roby scored on a fumble recovery with 27 seconds remaining to eke out a 31-24 victory over the Chiefs. And three weeks after that, cornerback Chris Harris Jr.’s 74-yard pick-six provided the margin of victory over the Oakland Raiders. Without these plays, Denver is 2-3 (0-2 in the AFC West) and tailspinning toward catastrophe. Even if the defense can’t replicate last season’s scoring explosion, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ squad has too much talent to not be among the most feared (and productive) units in the NFL this season. Is that enough to win a championship? Pundits answer that question with a resounding maybe.
Prediction 6: By the end of 2016, Wade Phillips will be halfway through his tenure with the Broncos.
A keen defensive mind and downhome Texas charm—what’s not to love about the Broncos’ defensive coordinator? But while other eminent DCs of his era have maintained long residences, the 69-year-old has bounced around like buckshot in a can of Diet Dr. Pepper (which Phillips credited with helping him shed 40 pounds when he was the head coach of the Cowboys). During his 34-year NFL career, Phillips’ average stay in a city is four seasons, and his longest is only six. Why? Let’s call it the Phillips Law of Diminishing Returns. As the graphs above show, Phillips tends to lose his effectiveness—not to mention his job—rather quickly.
Prediction 7: Von Miller will win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Between his Dancing With The Stars stint and the other trappings that come with being a Super Bowl MVP, this has probably been Miller’s busiest offseason. Now saddled with the franchise tag, the all-world pass rusher faces a contract year in 2016-’17, meaning the Broncos should expect his best (unless, of course, he decides to forego the season entirely). We wouldn’t be as high on Miller if he hadn’t sidestepped Johnny “Football” Manziel, who in April told TMZ he was living with his fellow Texas A&M University alum. Manziel, it seems, was being less than truthful. (We’re shocked too.) It’s not clear how Miller avoided having Manziel as a roommate, but we imagined a text thread that might provide a clue.
Prediction 8: DeMarcus Ware will make $7.75 million this year, his last with the Denver Broncos.
We don’t want to recall a time when Ware wasn’t a Bronco. But the linebacker was 32—that’s 64 in NFL years—when he arrived in Denver, and he’s got a young first-round pick in Shane Ray pushing him for playing time. Ware, the leader of Denver’s top-ranked D during its Super Bowl run, restructured his contract during the offseason and will earn a $6.5 million guaranteed salary plus $1.25 million more if he notches eight sacks in 2016-’17. He tallied 7.5 sacks last year but played in just 11 games due to a back injury. And with Wade Phillips slotting his old Cowboys running buddy into a mostly pass-rush role this season, Ware can count on that extra dough—and put it toward moving expenses when Elway sends him packing next year.
Prediction 9: The Broncos will play at “TBD” Field at Mile High.
Well, Broncos, at least you didn’t have as rocky an offseason as Sports Authority. Still, the sporting goods retailer’s bankruptcy means your stadium’s naming rights are up for grabs, and while we’re so over the corporate branding of our venerated sports complexes, we realize the practice isn’t going anywhere. At the very least, we’d like to see a name with (even loose) local ties emblazoned across our field. So we came up with a few candidates based on the likelihood that they could scrounge up the approximately $6 million in annual payments.
The Pennsylvania-based retailer has expressed interest, and it’s hard to ignore the giggle-inducing potential of having “big” (where the Broncos play) and “little” (where the Rapids play) Dick’s stadiums in town.
Based on the price of lift tickets, the ski bums in Broomfield could afford the outlay. They wouldn’t even have to come up with a new tagline. “Vail Resorts Field at Mile High: Like nothing on earth” sounds downright majestic, doesn’t it?
Englewood billionaire John C. Malone’s media company already owns the Atlanta Braves. Why not make it rain closer to home? Bonus: Liberty Field at Mile High evokes a regalness befitting the Super Bowl champs.
The NFL has for years made America forget that football-related concussions lead to brain disease, so just imagine what Sunday Night Football could do to restore faith in this Denver burrito bar after recent E. coli and norovirus outbreaks.
This Denver vaporizer and cannabis-oil company claims the publicity would help promote its nonpsychoactive cannabidiol products. We’re just worried about fans losing their rowdiness on vaporizer giveaway day.
It might be a stretch for this Boulder burger company to shell out upward of $6 mil a year (its 2015 revenue was just over $44 million), but Good Times at Mile High sounds absolutely friggin’ awesome.
An Open Letter to Phil Anschutz
We sure would appreciate you peeling a few million from your billion-dollar bankroll to restore the facility’s God-given moniker: Mile High Stadium. Sure, you’d have to forgo seeing your name on the field, but thanks to your myriad other contributions around town, you’re probably sick of that, anyway. This is the one act that’s sure to get you sainted—or at least a free beer at any tailgate in town.
Prediction 10: Denver will finally come to terms with the fact that it will never host a Super Bowl.
The NFL brain trust won’t bestow a Super Bowl on our beautiful burg because—they say—it’s too cold and snowy. Well, we did a little research, and you know what? They’re probably right.
63.7 degrees: The average high temp in the last 10 Super Bowl cities on the day the game was played.
37.9 degrees: The average high at Denver International Airport on the dates of the last 10 Super Bowls.
Prediction 11: Gary Kubiak’s offense will actually resemble a Gary Kubiak offense.
Year one of the post–Peyton Manning era might not inspire much fan confidence at quarterback, but believe us when we say no one is happier to see the backside of the Sheriff than head coach Gary Kubiak.
Typically, Kubiak’s offenses are a study in coach control. He calls the plays; the quarterback runs them. There’s a simple brilliance in Kubiak’s approach, a run-heavy plan that incorporates play-action and bootlegs to keep defenses off-balance. Every dump, dink, and downfield pass has already been dialed up—each option dependent on whichever formation the defense deploys. Kubiak’s system has led to some pretty prolific seasons, not just for Hall of Famers like Steve Young and John Elway, who had their best runs under Kubiak’s tutelage, but also for less acclaimed signal callers. Remember Brian Griese? Nineteen touchdowns. Four interceptions. Pro Bowl in 2000. #Nufsaid.
The strategy never took off with Manning, perhaps the control-iest of control freaks in pro sports. This season, you can bet “Omaha, Omaha” will be a thing of the past (see prediction number 17)—and not only because neither Mark Sanchez nor Paxton Lynch carries Manning’s clout. During the offseason, Elway signed tackles Russell Okung (a former Pro Bowler) and Donald Stephenson, boosting an offensive line that should be better than what Elway jury-rigged last year. Bigger holes for running backs and not being immediately sacked on pass plays will provide stability to whichever man earns the quarterback job. And if history provides any hint for the future, Kubiak will take it from there.
Prediction 12: C.J. Anderson will rush for 1,157 yards.
The Broncos spent a chunk of their cap space to prevent the team’s second-leading rusher—not first, mind you!—from taking his talents to South Beach. In 2016-’17, Anderson will be one of the five best-paid running backs in the NFL. To justify that outlay, the five-foot-eight-inch, 224-pound Cal alum, who rushed 152 times for 720 yards last season, needs to become not only the team’s featured runner, but also one of the five busiest ball carriers in the league. (The Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 327 carries and 1,485 yards last year.) Taking that as a given, we did a little math to determine how productive Anderson should be in 2016-’17.
Prediction 15: The Broncos will suffer their first bad snap on special teams in four years.
In March, Denver cut long snapper Aaron Brewer—who had signed a four-year, $4 million contract the previous year—to free up cash. We know what you’re thinking: $4 mil to fling a ball between your legs? Good riddance! But let’s think about this, shall we? Brewer didn’t commit a single bad snap during his four-year tenure with the team, and like when you spent $32 at Walgreens for a flu shot, sometimes peace of mind is worth paying for.
Prediction 16: The Broncos’ most important rookie will be Devontae Booker.
Devontae Booker RB, University of Utah, fourth round
Projected rookie ranking: 1
Why: The prolific college runner (almost 2,800 yards in two seasons) will see plenty of snaps thanks to Gary Kubiak’s penchant for rotating backs.
Adam Gotsis DL, Georgia Institute of Technology, second round
Projected rookie ranking: 2
Why: Drafted to provide depth at both defensive tackle and end, the Aussie should slide right into the team’s regular D-line rotation.
Justin Simmons FS, Boston College, third round
Projected rookie ranking: 3
Why: An underrated playmaker—he led the Eagles last year with five INTs—Simmons will line up all over the field against pass-happy teams (like the dreaded Patriots).
Riley Dixon P, Syracuse University, seventh round
Projected rookie ranking: 4
Why: Defense and field position will be key to the Broncos’ offensive success, and incumbent punter Britton Colquitt ranked among the worst in the league in 2015-’16 in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard lines.
Connor McGovern OG, University of Missouri, fifth round
Projected rookie ranking: 5
Why: The versatile interior lineman will plug the hole if Denver’s rebuilt (but still thin) O-line springs a leak due to injury.
Paxton Lynch QB, University of Memphis, first round
Projected rookie ranking: 6
Why: The Broncos are one of just a few teams that don’t need—or want—immediate contributions from their first-round picks.
Andy Janovich FB, University of Nebraska, sixth round
Projected rookie ranking: 7
Why: Fullbacks are dinosaurs in today’s NFL—unless your coach is Kubiak, whose run-heavy system needs lead blockers who can catch passes in the flat.
Will Parks S, University of Arizona, sixth round
Projected rookie ranking: 8
Why: Two words: Practice. Squad.
Prediction 17: Nebraska’s largest city will no longer reside in Denver.
Why Peyton Manning selected “Omaha” as his favored audible call remains a mystery. What is certain, however, is that the word came to define the QB, not only because he said it all the time, but also because the man is a bit like the city itself: hardworking but boring. So which cities should Denver’s current signal callers employ as audible indicators? We have some thoughts.
Mark Sanchez: Vegas!
Like the former USC standout, Sin City is super enticing—until you actually get there and realize it’s (at best) not that great and (at worst) sort of a nightmare.
Paxton Lynch: Pittsburgh!
Like the 26th pick of the draft, the Steel City seems to be on the verge of turning into something special. Then again, it could just be hype.
Trevor Siemian: Northgate!
Like the second-year pine-rider, this northern North Dakota community exists—it just isn’t on most maps.
Prediction 18: Steve Atwater will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Terrell Davis didn’t play long enough, and John Lynch isn’t really a Bronco. No, the next (and third overall—we don’t count Willie Brown or Tony Dorsett) Denver player to enter Canton should be Atwater. The safety made the Pro Bowl eight times and twice was All-Pro. But what separated Atwater was the punishment he delivered, such as the you-shall-not-pass slam the 220-pounder laid on the Chiefs’ 260-pound Christian Okoye (Google it immediately) in 1990. Atwater, who retired in 1999, was a finalist for the first time in 2016. Next year, voters will quit teasing ole number 27.