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ESPN's Mike Clay projects Broncos will earn wild-card berth in 2020

The 2020 season remains months away, but at least one projection for the upcoming year should leave Broncos fans feeling encouraged.

ESPN's Mike Clay, who releases a series of projections each year on how teams may perform in the upcoming campaign, believes the Broncos will return to the playoffs in 2020 for the first time since winning Super Bowl 50.

"It's a combination of building a system to project rate stats as well as some subjective area where you have to project who's going to be on the field, who's going to get the touches," Clay said of his system. "Once it all kind of comes together, you can tabulate the totals, see where the players fall on both sides of the ball and of course at the end of the day, you can also come up with win totals for all these teams as well."

Clay projected the Broncos would win 8.3 games, which is the 14th-highest total in the league. That would qualify Denver for the sixth seed in the AFC and set them up for a road matchup with Philip Rivers and the Colts.

"The way I have things projected with the Broncos coming in with a middle-of-the-pack schedule, I have them just inside the playoffs," Clay told "… I think they're very much in the mix. I think there's plenty of competition for those last couple of wild cards. You have Tennessee there, perhaps Houston, Cleveland. I actually don't have the Patriots in the playoffs right now. I have them at 8.2 wins, right behind Denver. Maybe the Chargers based on their defense can hang in there, and maybe they'll draft a quarterback that makes an impact.

"There's a lot of teams fighting for those spots. [I'm] a little worried about the offense, love the defense. I think that's going to be enough to keep them in that seven-to-nine-win range. If they can get a little over the top, they can sneak in."

Clay believes the Chiefs (11.1 projected wins) will grab the first-overall seed in the AFC. He foresees Baltimore hosting Tennessee and Buffalo hosting Pittsburgh in the other wild-card games.

The Chargers (7.9 wins) and Raiders (6.2) are projected to miss the playoffs.

More of Clay's Broncos' projections:

QB Drew Lock: 15 games, 316-of-497, 3,491 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 32 sacks

"He flashed a little bit as a rookie, but the sample is very small," Clay said. "The efficiency, not really good. It was below average. Again, that's not necessarily a knock. He's a rookie. Rookies aren't generally going to light it up. Kyler Murray had a pretty successful season and his YPA was poor. It's just part of the process. But at the same time, we don't know for sure if Lock is going to be good or not. I think there's optimism there, and that's fine. But there's been a laundry list of optimism for quarterbacks going into their first full year as a starter, and a lot of them do not pan out. It's even worse when a guy's not a first-round pick. So you can't just look at the ceiling. You can't just assume Lock is going to be solid or spectacular and build projections that way. That's irresponsible. … If Lock is the real deal, I'm going to be low on him. If he's a bust, I'm going to be too high on them. I tend to meet in the middle. If you're setting a baseline for these players, that's really the only way you can do it."

OLB Von Miller: 8.5 sacks, 52 tackles; OLB Bradley Chubb: 7.7 sacks, 69 tackles

"Sacks are very hard to project," Clay said. "I don't actually use sacks to project sacks, I use other categories that are more predictable. For example, our pass-rush win rate that we have at ESPN that our stats and information department developed, [is] a lot more predictable of sacks going forward. That's what I utilize and that's what I'll lean on for guys like Chubb and Miller. Obviously it's a really good duo, but I'm also a little bit conservative in terms of playing time. I do have these guys playing a lot of snaps. I have Miller at 85 percent, Chubb [at] 90 percent. That's actually really high. These guys will still rank in near the top of the league in sacks. You can't just assume they're going to be fully healthy for 100 percent of the snaps. Guys always miss some time here and there, so keep that in mind if you're thinking about it on a per-game basis."

The rest of Denver's defense:

"I love this unit," Clay said. "It is stacked. It's no surprise that Vic Fangio has addressed that side of the ball since he's come over from Chicago. Remember, that last year in Chicago, they had the most-talented defense on paper, and it showed that season. And they've kind of fallen off since he left. He goes to Denver, they already had a decent core in place. Then they brought in a guy like Jurrell Casey, who is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. You have Shelby Harris there, as well. You like what they're doing on the interior of that line. Of course, you have Miller and Chubb on the edge. A.J. Johnson, what a find he was last season to go with Todd Davis at linebacker. I think that's an above-average group. I think I'm higher than Broncos fans seem to be on that duo, but if A.J. is the real deal, that is a good duo. Then, of course, they need depth at the cornerback position. A.J. Bouye, we'll see what they get out of him. He's had his ups and downs with the Jags. Finished poorly last season, but I think he's going to be a solid presence there. Bryce Callahan, if he's healthy, is a solid starting corner, as well. After that, though, obviously [they] need to address the position. A pretty good one-two punch there — one of the best in the league with [Justin] Simmons and [Kareem] Jackson — at the safety position. Honestly, it's hard to find weak spots here. You need to address some depth here. You certainly need to get another option at the cornerback position. We'll see if they address that in the draft or sign someone, but I really, really like this unit. I think it's one of the best in the league."

To hear Clay's evaluation of Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, the Broncos' wide receiving corps and more, click here.

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