ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —With four weeks to go in the regular season, we're focused on both the present and the future.
In this edition of "Ask Aric," I took a look at the Broncos' game against the Chiefs, this week's game against the Panthers, how the team needs to finish out the season, next year's draft needs, the quarterback position and more.
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If the Broncos end up in the top 10 picks in the 2021 draft, what position do you think we need to look at the most? - Daniel L.
Daniel, we'll dive more into free agency and draft coverage in the coming months, but at first glance, I think the defensive side of the ball is where I'd add talent. On offense, the Broncos' offensive line seems largely set after extending Garett Bolles' contract, Denver seems set at running back, tight end and wide receiver. The Broncos' defense may have more holes, as the team could have needs on the defensive line, linebacker position and cornerback position. Talent seems to be most at a premium at the cornerback and outside linebacker positions, so that's where — in December, not knowing how the coming months will play out — I'd focus my attention. Of course, if the Broncos decide a quarterback is a priority — more on that in a moment — that obviously changes things.
How come the Broncos don't run any screens?— Eddie Y.
Eddie, the screen game definitely hasn't been a major part of the Broncos' offense this year, but they did feature a couple of screens on "Sunday Night Football" against the Chiefs. They were inches away from having a perfectly executed play toward the end of the first half, as Drew Lock found Noah Fant on a screen pass on a third-and-13 from the Kansas City 44-yard line. Fant adjusted nicely to the pass to make a one-handed grab and had plenty of room to run. Tyrann Mathieu — who had two interceptions on the day — dodged Demar Dotson to make a first-down saving tackle, which led to a six-point swing at the end of the half.
I do think a more prominent screen game could help the Broncos' offense, particularly when defenses send extra rushers at Lock. Teams have sent pressure at Lock to force him into mistakes, and a well-timed screen play could negate that.
Since Christian McCaffrey is mostly coming back to play, what is your game plan to stop him? - Haden M.
Well, he quite simply has to be the Broncos' main focus on Sunday in Charlotte. He's a dynamic player both on the ground and in the receiving game, and I'd definitely be more concerned with his impact as a receiver — either out of the backfield or lined up in the slot. In his last game — which came in Week 9 — he ran the ball 18 times for 69 yards and a touchdown and caught 10 passes (on 10 targets) for 82 yards and a score. The main thing to realize is that McCaffrey is going to make plays. The Broncos must make sure the rest of the Panthers' offensive weapons don't also beat them. That's when things could get dicey.
Any updates on Von, both for this season and in the future? — @mj33jm
M.J., the latest update we heard on Miller was on Dec. 2, when Vic Fangio said that Miller had not yet been medically cleared to return to practice. Fangio said the "timeline is coming soon" to where he may be able to practice, but Fangio has consistently chosen not to comment about Miller playing in a game until he receives that medical clearance. Miller has repeatedly said that he wants to return this year, regardless of whether the Broncos are eliminated from playoff contention. I do think — and Fangio echoed this sentiment — that the Broncos will need to make the smart decision about Miller's long-term health. If he doesn't appear to be 100 percent or there's little benefit to bringing him back for a game or two, it may be smart to keep the franchise's all-time sack leader on the sideline. As for the future, the only thing we know for sure is that the Broncos will have to decide by March whether to pick up the team option for the final year of Miller's contract, according to Spotrac.
Who will be the Broncos' starting QB in 2021? - @Robby_krapfl
Unsurprisingly, many of the questions we received this week were about the quarterback position. There were suggestions of trading for players like Sam Darnold and Matt Ryan, drafting players like BYU's Zach Wilson or signing a free-agent quarterback this offseason. And of course, Lock will be just 18 starts into his career. My honest answer is that it's hard to predict what will happen in 2021. We should get a better idea in a few weeks, when John Elway speaks to the media at the end of the season. If Lock can continue to take steps over the final few weeks of the season, I would expect him to remain the starter next year. With the benefit of an offseason program and preseason reps, Lock should gain an increased sense of comfort in the team's offensive scheme. From an overarching perspective, I think it's clear that Lock has the talent to be the team's quarterback of the future. His struggles have stemmed from turning the ball over, which has been the result of poor decisions at times. To me, that seems like a fixable issue, and the benefit of continuity outweighs the allure of bringing in another starter.
What is Denver's plan going forward? 2020 is a weird year as Denver has been hit hard with injuries and weird freak incidents that it almost feels like you can't judge this team properly going into the offseason. So what are the key areas of improvement you need to see? - @adamthmgamer
I'll mostly be paying attention to the offensive side of the ball, where I'd like to see Lock improve his decision-making, the team continue to run the ball well and increase its scoring average into the 20s. That would show me that the Broncos are making progress despite the lack of a traditional offseason. If Jerry Jeudy could become more involved, that would also be a good sign ahead of next year. Then, of course, there's the matter of being competitive. The Broncos gave the Chiefs a heck of a fight in Week 13, and if they play that way for the rest of the season, there's no reason they wouldn't be able to finish 3-1 or 4-0. That sort of momentum would signal that despite all the injuries and road blocks along the way in 2020, this team is continuing to progress in the right direction.
What is the number 1 thing holding the Broncos back? Is it coaching, QB play, injures or something else? - @lordjohn46
I think injuries have played a major role — the Broncos have lost key contributors in players like Von Miller and Courtland Sutton. The Broncos also have had certain short-term injuries impact them at bad times. For example, both A.J Bouye and Bryce Callahan missed the Broncos' game against a talented Falcons receiving corps, which greatly hurt the Broncos' chance of winning. Quarterback play has also contributed to the lack of success this season, but again, I think that's somewhat tied back to the overall youth of the offense and the lack of time ahead of the year to implement the system. That should be somewhat mitigated next year. I actually think coaching has been a strong suit, as the Broncos' defense has largely remained stout despite losing a slew of starters.
If Denver can continue to grow on offense and maintain its strong defense, it should be able to overcome injuries in the future and return to playoff contention.