ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos are poised to enter the 2020 season as a contender in the AFC West.
Though the Kansas City Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Broncos have paired momentum to end last season (a 4-1 finish) with a strong free-agency period. At the very least, a wild-card berth should be an attainable goal for this year's group.
In just over a week, the Broncos will try to put the finishing touches on their roster when they assemble the 2020 draft class.
It is not, however, the 2020 class that has Denver poised for success under Head Coach Vic Fangio. Rather, the combination of the 2018 and 2019 draft classes have built a new foundation for the Broncos.
And, to be certain, a retooled roster was necessary.
The core of the Super Bowl 50-winning Broncos was dominant, but it has almost completely evaporated. Following the departure of Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe in free agency, Von Miller remains the only starter on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, the last remaining piece left in the middle of 2019 when Emmanuel Sanders was traded to San Francisco.
In the years after the championship, the 2016 draft class was impactful as six of the eight players started at least 45 games for the Broncos. First-round pick Paxton Lynch didn't pan out, but Adam Gotsis, Justin Simmons, Devontae Booker, Connor McGovern, Andy Janovich and Will Parks all made key contributions at times.
The 2017 draft class, though, seemed to stall that progress. Only three players from that class — Garett Bolles, DeMarcus Walker and Jake Butt — remained with the team entering the 2019 season, and Butt has played just three career games. Bolles, a steadily available player looking to curtail penalty issues, is the most successful player from the group. Second-round pick DeMarcus Walker, meanwhile, has made just one start.
Denver's fortunes seemed to change in the spring of 2018, and it appeared to coincide with a shift in strategy. After a draft in which the Broncos used picks on talented yet raw players like Bolles and cornerback Brendan Langley, Denver chose proven players in 2018.
The Broncos used the fifth-overall pick on Bradley Chubb, a three-year starter who was a two-time team captain. The consensus All-American was just the start on a run of experienced players. Second-round pick Courtland Sutton appeared in 39 games over four seasons, while third-round pick Royce Freeman ended his career as the Pac-12's all-time leading rusher. Cornerback Isaac Yiadom appeared in 48 games during his career, and linebacker Josey Jewell was a three-time team captain. DaeSean Hamilton, meanwhile, finished his career as Penn State's all-time leader in receptions and second in receiving yards. Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted addition, made the team as Colorado's all-time leader in all-purpose yards.
The class made an instant impact, as Chubb recorded 12 sacks, Sutton pushed for the No. 1 receiver spot and Lindsay made the Pro Bowl.
A year ago, the Broncos continued to add seasoned contributors. First-round pick Noah Fant appeared in 36 games over three seasons at Iowa. In the second round, they grabbed Dalton Risner, who started all 50 of Kansas State's games following his redshirt season and was one of five three-time captains in school history. A pick later, the Broncos selected Drew Lock. Also a three-time team captain, Lock appeared in 50 games and took over the starting role as a freshman.
In the process, Elway and Co. built a rock-solid foundation for the future. Over the course of two drafts, Denver added two Pro Bowlers, the potential long-term answer at quarterback, a dangerous edge rusher, the NFL's top rookie tight end in 2019 and a mainstay at guard.
They also gained depth, as Royce Freeman, Josey Jewell and DaeSean Hamilton all appeared in at least 30 games over their first two seasons. Jones and Hollins, meanwhile, played in at least 14 games apiece as rookies.
The Broncos' offense in 2020 figures to rely heavily on these two classes, as Lock, Risner, Fant and Sutton will all be starters. Lindsay will also play a major role, and Hamilton showed at the end of the 2019 season that he could be a receiving option.
Defensively, Chubb figures to be in the running for Comeback Player of the Year, and Jones could push for a starting role on a talented defensive line.
And that brings us to this year's draft. With five selections in the first 100 picks, the Broncos could add a handful of starters or impact players. Denver seems likely to take a wide receiver with one of those picks, and he could line up opposite Sutton in the Broncos' new-look offense. The Broncos could also add an interior lineman that they'd slide in alongside Risner to replace McGovern at center. Or perhaps they'll add a cornerback early on to complement A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan.
Those five selections will be critical additions to a roster that is restocked. After all, there's only one thing better than two solid draft classes in a row.