ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' Week 1 matchup with Seattle is just around the corner, which means it's time for another edition of Ask Aric.
Ahead of the Broncos' season-opener, I'm taking stock of where the Broncos stand in the AFC West, how Denver's special teams and offensive line could look in Week 1, what to expect from the defense and more.
For now, let's get to your questions.
Honestly, what are the Broncos odds to win a stacked AFC West? - Michael
While the national perception is that the Chiefs and Chargers have a better chance to win the division, I think the Broncos will be right in the mix. Denver benefits from playing a fourth-place schedule in 2022, and the slate sets up nicely for the Broncos to rack up some wins early in the year. The key for Denver is to be better in division games. The Broncos haven't beaten the Chiefs since 2015 and haven't won a road game against the Raiders since that same season. If the Broncos earn seven to eight wins in non-division games and then split their division slate, that should be enough for a playoff bid. But for Denver to win the division, I'd guess the Broncos are going to have to go at least 4-2 in their six games against the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders. That's no easy task, but it shouldn't be easy to win a division that's billed as the toughest in NFL history. I'd guess the Broncos will need 12 or 13 wins to take the AFC West, and that is only likely to happen if Denver can secure a winning record in the division.
What will you be looking at from special teams? What will success look like for them? - Shaun C.
The Broncos' special teams haven't been talked about nearly as much as the team's offense and the defense, but it will play a critical role in determining the Broncos' season. With such a difficult schedule, the Broncos will likely be in a lot of close games — and special teams could help swing the game in either direction. Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne Stukes has noted that he hopes the return unit can score at least one touchdown this year and potentially more, so that would be a good starting point for the unit. Montrell Washington has shown the ability to create separation, and if he can average north of 10 yards per return, it essentially gives the Broncos' offense a free first down for each drive. The more important area to watch may be the coverage units. Denver gave up the most yards per kickoff return in 2021, and they'll need to be better in 2022. I'm encouraged by how the units looked in the preseason, and Stukes has brought a new energy to the group. We'll need to see how that translates to game action, but the potential is there.
Biggest concern on the OL? Will Cushenberry make a leap forward? Will Bolles fall into bad habits because of Wilson's scrambling? - Dean
I don't think there's much reason to worry at all, to be honest. The Broncos' offensive line grades out as the fifth best in the league, according to The Athletic's Ben Baldwin's projections, and they return four of five starters along their line. The biggest question may be how free-agent addition Billy Turner fits into the equation, but he's proven to be a capable player over the last few seasons in Green Bay. In all likelihood, this will be the best offensive line Wilson has played behind in quite some time, if not the best in his career. I do expect Lloyd Cushenberry III to take strides, as his coaches and teammates have praised his ability to master the system. And while there may be an occasional growing pain with Wilson's ability to scramble and extend plays, that talent also helpsoffensive linemen in many circumstances. Let's also not forget the Broncos will aim to get the ball out quick in Hackett's system. There are still a couple of questions to answer on this team. I'm not sure the offensive line is a major one.
If the offense struggles to begin the year, will the defense be strong enough to win games for us until the offense gets rolling?IF IF IF the offense struggles. I don't think they will but that's the side of the ball that I'm more concerned about. - Matt C.**
I wouldn't blame the defense if they reacted to the addition of Russell Wilson by thinking, Well, we don't have to be perfect anymore. We can relax a bit.That couldn't be further from their perspective. Every defender I've spoken with this offseason — including big-name players like Justin Simmons and Bradley Chubb — has said that's the complete opposite of their perspective. Now that they have a great quarterback, they're motivated to be even better on the defensive side. Simmons has spoken at length about the three or four games the Broncos let slip away in 2021, and he's determined not to let that happen again. The defense is set on rising to the occasion, and I think there's good reason to believe they'll do so. They return a ton of talent — Pat Surtain II, Dre'Mont Jones, Josey Jewell and Kareem Jackson are just a few of the other key contributors — and beefed up their front with the addition of D.J. Jones and Randy Gregory. The Broncos will have to adjust to life without Vic Fangio calling the plays, but the Broncos' system is based on the same principles and should ease the transition. New Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero must find his rhythm as a first-time play-caller, but he's earned high praise from his players. With an enhanced pass rush and a strong secondary, the Broncos should be able to thrive early, so long as they improve against the run.
Do you think the D-line will be able to produce enough pressure alone so our secondary can enforce its will? Especially since the Seahawks have young linemen playing significant snaps for them? - Colton
I think between Dre'Mont Jones, Chubb and Gregory, the Broncos should be able to get plenty of pressure. All three players have elite pass-rushing traits, and Chubb and Gregory could be working against two rookie tackles. Evero has spoken about how critical it is to get pressure, so I won't be surprised if he sends extra rushers, but the Broncos would obviously be better off in coverage if they can get home without sending an additional defender. The key, in my eyes, is to jump ahead early. All offseason, we've talked about how this Broncos defense can make plays if it is given a lead. If the Broncos can do that in Seattle, theirdefense should have an edge.
What do you think the Broncos offense will focus on against the Seahawks defense? - Ryan B.
I'm not 100 percent sure, to be honest with you — and that's because we haven't seen this offense work outside of practice or implement a game plan. Anyone outside of Hackett, Wilson and the rest of the Broncos' offense is simply taking a guess at what they'll run on Monday night. My best guess? A healthy dose of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III and some well-timed play-action shots down the field to Courtland Sutton. Those are the staples of the offensive system Hackett wants to implement in Denver, and I think we'll see the first signs of that in Seattle.
There is so much hype around the Broncos and their new QB. I think everyone is so excited waiting for it to really get going, as it now has begun. I just wonder how much hope is too much. As with most of Broncos Country, I think, my expectations are pretty high. The last six years we have had our hopes dashed rather early in the season. New owner, new staff (and associated schemes), new QB, and a few new players. What a situation. Should we temper our expectations or just let them run amok? What really is the appropriate level of expectations? - William L.
William, I can't sit here ahead of Week 1 and promise the Broncos will win the Super Bowl. No team in the league truly knows what the season holds in store, and that's part of what makes the NFL so much fun to watch. What I will say is that the Broncos have a chance. The Broncos have added a top-tier quarterback that will give them a chance to win any game, they feature solid offensive playmakers and they have plenty of talent on defense. So, lean into that. Part of being a fan is that you get to have — sometimes unrealistic — expectations for your team. You get to live and die with the team's results each week, figure out where they fit in the playoff picture and maintain high hopes. That hasn't always been possible the last few years for the Broncos, but the team should be back to a place where they have a chance to win every game and have realistic playoff aspirations. No one knows quite what will happen, but you might as well enjoy the ride.
Go inside the Broncos' week of practice ahead of their season opener vs. the Seattle Seahawks.