_ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —_The Broncos' rookies, quarterbacks and rehabbing players reported to UCHealth Training Center on Thursday for COVID-19 testing, which means football is officially back. Denver's veterans are scheduled to begin the testing process Tuesday, and before you know it, the Broncos will be back on the field.
As we look ahead to an unusual preseason and the start of football, I took a look at how committed the Broncos are to Drew Lock, how the lack of a preseason could impact Denver and how the Broncos' salary cap situation compares to Kansas City's.
As always, if you have a question for a future mailbag, click here to submit your thoughts.
It's very clear that John Elway believes he has found his man in the form of Drew Lock, and I, for one, am pulling for Lock 100%. However, if Lock gets off to a rough start and cannot regain his rookie magic, how much patience can we expect from Elway, say after the first six games, if Lock is struggling? - Glenn R.
Glenn, this is interesting, because while we've all talked about Lock as a player who could explode onto the scene in 2020, not many around Denver have talked about this less desirable outcome. I think we all agree that we hope Lock and the Broncos get off to a strong start, but it's certainly not out of the question that the team could struggle early against a series of tough opponents. Denver faces Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and New England within the first five weeks of the year, and all four of those teams should compete for a playoff berth in 2020. With a new offensive system, it's possible the Broncos go through some growing pains early in the season. Still, I think barring a complete collapse from Lock, the Broncos are going to ride it out with him through at least this season. Denver must give Lock enough snaps to get a true evaluation of him, even if that happens as the team's record is less than ideal. Whether or not Denver makes the playoffs, Lock must play enough for the Broncos to have a clear direction moving forward — whether that's sticking with Lock, pursuing a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft or signing a veteran signal caller. They should get that evaluation, because I don't suspect the team would replace Lock with Jeff Driskel except in the most severe of circumstances. For better or for worse — and I lean toward better as we approach the 2020 season — the Broncos seem likely to ride with Drew Lock.
Aric, I believe you touched on this in the Good Morning segment, without preseason games, will there be more contact during training camp? Does that have to be negotiated with the NFLPA? - Mark J.
Mark, according to reports about the NFL's agreement with the NFLPA, teams will have an acclimation period from Aug. 3-11 that includes strength and conditioning and a few walkthrough sessions. Then, from Aug. 12-16, teams will be allowed to have non-padded on-field practices. Finally, beginning Aug. 17, teams can have 14 padded practices ahead of Sept. 6, which would lead in to teams' game-week preparation. That won't be more contact than in previous years, but it will likely be close to the same amount. In 2019, the Broncos were scheduled to have 22 training camp practices, and Head Coach Vic Fangio later canceled a pair of them. Including the acclimation period, Denver will have a similar number of practices and will likely be able to be in pads for a similar amount of time. The bigger question will be if teams introduce more live tackling periods, as they won't get those reps in the preseason. Fangio held a couple of those periods by the goal line in 2019, but they weren't frequent. We'll have to see if he implements more in 2020.
Hi Aric, Dutch Broncos fan here, with the NFL proposing zero preseason games how much will it affect the Broncos playoff chances if this will be the case? Beforehand I was quite positive (don't think as highly of both the Raiders as the Chargers as some experts) of the Broncos getting to the playoffs. But with such a young team and no preseason games, this could be an issue. Kind regards! - Jan B.
Jan, thanks for following along from overseas. I think the Broncos will still be in the playoff conversation for a couple of reasons. First, the addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference increases every team's chances. In previous seasons, a 9-7 record would give you an outside chance at a playoff berth. This year, I suspect teams will have higher than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs with a 9-7 record. In each of the last four seasons, at least one nine-win team would've made the playoffs under the seven-team format. I also am bullish on the Broncos' playoff chances because while Denver has a tough early schedule, it's likely the Steelers (returning Ben Roethlisberger from injury), Buccaneers (new quarterbacks) and Patriots (new quarterback) would all love more time to install their systems, too. The lack of reps is going to be a challenge for teams around the league, so I don't think the Broncos will be unfairly impacted. If the Broncos can survive the first five games of the season — a Week 4 "Thursday Night Football" game against the Jets just got easier after they traded Jamal Adams to Seattle — they should be in the thick of the playoff race for most of the season.
Will the Broncos be able to stop the run? It seems like the 3-4 defense bends too much. Also can you make a push for light blue helmets with the same logo? Love the 70's and 80's Bronco fans alive and well here on Maui - John B.
John, a helmet change is above my pay grade, but I'll take on your question about the run defense. Once Mike Purcell, Alexander Johnson and Kareem Jackson were all on the field together in 2019, the Broncos' run defense improved to seventh in the league over the final 12 weeks of the season. I think most coaches would tell you that the 3-4 vs. 4-3 designation is probably overplayed, as teams spend so much time in their sub-packages. When the Broncos are in their base defense, though, I think they're more than capable of stopping the run. Von Miller is a strong run defender at outside linebacker and Jurrell Casey should also provide a boost on the defensive line. I also think Fangio has instilled a toughness and hard-nosed attitude that manifests itself in the team's run defense. After the switch to include Purcell and Johnson — and Jackson's return from injury — the Broncos held the Chargers to 35 total rushing yards, Tennessee's Derrick Henry to 28 rushing yards and the Vikings to 37 rushing yards. Denver may not be the top rushing defense in the league, but I don't think the Broncos will lose games this season because of their inability to stop the run.
Where is all the Broncos' salary cap money being spent? No big contracts for QBs, WRs, TEs, only Gordon at RB. On defense, outside of Miller, Jackson and Simmons, who has a huge cap number? How is it teams like the Chiefs have very highly paid players at almost every position on both sides of the ball yet both teams (Broncos and Chiefs) are in similar salary cap situations? Just trying to figure out where all the money is going and how can the Broncos possibly be competitive with teams that actually take care of their players and compensate them fairly? - Thad B.
Thad, it's a good thing the Broncos have so much young talent on offense that is playing on rookie contracts, because it has allowed Denver to invest quite a bit in their defense. According to Spotrac, the Broncos currently have 59.3 percent of the salary cap invested in their defense, which ranks first in the NFL. Conversely, Denver ranks 31st in how much of the cap they have committed to their offense, as just 35.2 percent is directed to that group. On offense, Ja'Wuan James, Melvin Gordon, Graham Glasgow and Jeff Heuerman are the only players who make more than two percent of the salary cap. On defense, Miller, Casey, Bradley Chubb, Todd Davis, A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, Jackson and Justin Simmons all fall under that category. In fact, Miller, Casey, Bouye, Jackson and Simmons are all above five percent.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, still only rank 12th in terms of the percentage of the cap devoted to the offense and 27th in the percentage devoted to the quarterback position. Despite his new contract, Patrick Mahomes is still slated to play the next two years under his rookie deal. The Chiefs have the most money in the league devoted to wide receivers and the second most to their defense line, but while Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Eric Fisher and Travis Kelce are all making more than five percent of the cap, the Chiefs rely on a lot of young, drafted players.
In many ways, the Broncos aren't far off from replicating the same blueprint. If Denver can take advantage of the next few years while Lock, Sutton, Chubb, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner, Jerry Jeudy and Co. are on rookie contracts, the Broncos will be able to supplement that talent with more costly veteran additions. That's the key to roster building in the Denver — and the Broncos should soon ride that to being a very competitive team.