ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos remain in the midst of the virtual voluntary offseason program, many members of Broncos Country are eager to look ahead to the season.
In this edition of "Ask Aric," we have questions about finalizing the cornerback position, who will lead the team in sacks, rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns and how the Broncos will handle Derrick Henry in Week 1.
There's plenty more, too, so make sure to read on. If you have a question for a future mailbag, you can submit it here.
When will the Broncos begin signing the 2020 draft choices? I see the hated Pats are close to having all their choices signed. - Randy J.
Randy, I'm guessing you're counting the days until the Broncos play the Patriots on Oct. 11?
You're right that there haven't been any reports of Broncos draft picks signing their rookie deals yet, but that's not at all a reason for concern. The draft picks are all participating in the virtual meetings, and it's truly just a formality for them to get their contracts done.
There was a bit of intrigue last year, as Drew Lock signed his deal at the 11th hour. He missed the initial team meeting, but the contract was finalized before the Broncos' first training camp practice. That was a unique situation, as Lock's representation reportedly seeked a "quarterback premium" for the young signal caller. That kept Dalton Risner, who was drafted one spot above Lock, unsigned for a bit longer than normal. Both players, though, were on the field for the first practice.
There are usually very few issues, as the current collective bargaining agreement has made the pay scale relatively standardized. The two exceptions are for players at the very top of the draft and for third-round picks. We'll focus on the latter, since it's applicable to the Broncos. While the scale is relatively set, there is more room for negotiation for third-round picks. The Broncos made three third-round selections in 2020.
Since Callahan is truly a nickel CB, it seems that we need to sign a CB2. Why haven't the Broncos signed Logan Ryan or Prince Amukamara? What are your insights? - Todd B.
A few notes here, Todd.
First, the coaching staff's perspective: Head Coach Vic Fangio has said on several occassions that the team believes Bryce Callahan can man the outside cornerback position. Fangio saw Callahan do it in practice and in preseason when the two were together in Chicago, and last year the plan was for Callahan to start on the outside. We're not sure if that's still the plan, but if it is, that would mean the Broncos need a different player to fill the nickel spot. Fangio said after the 2020 NFL Draft that he felt good about the team's cornerback depth, as Isaac Yiadom, De'Vante Bausby, Davontae Harris, Duke Dawson Jr. and Michael Ojemudia could all fill the role as the third corner.
Personally, I believe most of those role players are better suited to playing the outside cornerback position. That's why I suspect undrafted free agent Essang Bassey, who has extensive experience playing slot corner, has a decent chance to make the roster.
If I were manning the roster — and believe me, I'm not — I'd try to keep Callahan at the nickel cornerback position where you know he excels when healthy. And while I have belief that some of the young players can develop, I worry about the youth at the position. That's why I'd inquire about some veteran options. Amukamara has reportedly agreed to sign with the Raiders, but Ryan, Dre Kirkpatrick, Eli Apple, Darqueze Dennard, Brandon Carr and several others all remain on the open market. We'll get to the rest of the defense in a moment, but I'd feel better with a proven player back there when the likes of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders come to town later in the year.
Who do you think will lead the Broncos in rushing touchdowns? What about receiving? - Bob. T.
Bob, I think Melvin Gordon III is a pretty safe choice there for rushing touchdowns. That's not to take anything away from Phillip Lindsay, but Gordon has a nose for the end zone and has the body type to shake off tackles around the goal line. He's the only player in the NFL to rush for at least eight touchdowns in each of the last four seasons, and he did that last year despite holding out for four games. Gordon should have a couple of receiving touchdowns, as well.
As far as receiving touchdowns, I'm torn between Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. I think Sutton will surpass his six touchdowns from last season, and I predicted in an earlier mailbag that Sutton and Fant would each have seven. That's kind of a cop-out by me (sorry, it's only May!), but I'd like to see who the offense funnels through in practice before making a final prediction. The more I think about it, though, the more I think Fant is going to have a breakout season.
Since lock down I have been watching some games from the 70s through 90s and I after this years off-season I believe we could see the re-emergence of the 'Orange Crush' defense. As much as I was a fan of the No-Fly Zone we saw during the Manning era, I am more excited by the defense we have put together this year. My question for you is, how do you think this years defense will compare to some of the great squads we have seen previously in Broncos Country? And secondly who do you think will lead the team in sacks this year? - Scott O.
Scott, on paper, this defense should be relatively improved from a unit that already ranked 10th in points allowed in 2019. Most starters now have a season under their belt in Fangio's system, Bradley Chubb and Bryce Callahan should be healthy, they've added A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey and the depth is better at several positions. The front seven, in particular, seems like it will be a headache for opposing offenses. I strongly doubt the Broncos will go another three weeks to start the season without a sack. I feel the same way about turnovers. The Broncos didn't record a takeaway until Week 5 last year, but I wouldn't count on that to happen again. The pass rush should get to quarterbacks, which would give Bouye, Callahan, Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons the chance to make plays.
I'm not ready, though, to say this defense will rank among the best in franchise — and frankly, league — history. I still have questions about the cornerback position, as I mentioned above. If that group plays to its potential, this could be one of Fangio's patented dominant defenses. But in a passing-centric league, the cornerbacks will have to prove they're up to the task.
Von Miller seems as motivated as ever to rebound and chase the NFL sack lead. In 2018, however, Chubb was right on his heels, as Miller finished with 14.5 sacks and Chubb finished with 12 sacks. In a Comeback Player of the Year-worthy season, I suspect Chubb will take over the team sack lead for the first time in his career.
Aric, first game is against Titans. What's the best way to stop Henry and who was successful at doing so in 2019 and what was most effective scheme? - Bill K.
Bill, as you seem well aware of, it's no easy task to stop Henry. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back is an absolute bruiser. Just watch this 99-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville to see how difficult it is to stop him.
The good news? The Broncos have a blueprint for stopping Henry. Denver was by far the most successful team in 2019 at slowing him down. They held him to 28 yards and 1.87 yards per carry in a 16-0 Week 6 win over the Titans. The Jaguars held him to 44 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries a few weeks earlier, but otherwise no one kept him below 60 yards. He had seven games of at least 100 yards over the final nine games of the year and recorded 1,273 yards over an eight-game stretch.
I don't necessarily believe that a certain scheme is the answer to stop Henry, I just think you have to dedicate the proper resources and have players with the right mentality. Does that mean having eight men in the box whenever Henry is on the field in running situations? Perhaps.
From a personnel standpoint, the Broncos have the right pieces. The run defense struggled last year — particularly in the second half of a Week 4 against the Jaguars — and ranked 30th in the league through the first four weeks after allowing 149.3 yards per game. But then nose tackle Mike Purcell and linebacker Alexander Johnson began to start, and safety Kareem Jackson returned from injury. The physicality of those three players turned the running defense around almost instantaneously. In their first game together — Week 5 against the Chargers — the Broncos allowed just 35 total yards on 16 carries. Over final 12 games of the season, the Broncos' defense allowed the seventh-fewest rushing yards per game (98.8).
All of those factors lead me to believe that the Broncos should be able to corral Henry again — but here's the one difference. Instead of Marcus Mariota, the Titans now have Ryan Tannehill under center. Mariota was 7-of-18 for 63 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions against the Broncos last season. Quite simply, he wasn't very much of a threat, and the Broncos could focus their attention on Henry. Tannehill, meanwhile, had a 117.5 quarterback rating over the rest of the season after he replaced Mariota in Denver. He also was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. Tannehill will obviously demand more attention in Week 1, which leads to this question: Faced with two options, will the Broncos dare Tannehill or Henry to beat them?
When do single-game tickets go on sale? - Shawn D.
We've received this question several times, and the short answer is that the Broncos haven't yet announced that date. Last year, the date to buy single-game tickets was announced on June 21, and they became available to purchase on July 16. Keep your eyes on DenverBroncos.com — we'll let you know as soon as we do.
With the history of undrafted rookies, whose is the name to watch to make the 53-man roster? - Mark S.
You're right, Mark — there is a long history of undrafted players finding success in Denver. In 15 of the last 16 seasons, at least one undrafted rookie has made the initial 53-man roster. Chris Harris Jr., C.J. Anderson and Phillip Lindsay all became Pro Bowlers during that stretch.
This year, I'd keep my eye on three players: CB Essang Bassey, S Douglas Coleman III and RB LeVante Bellamy.
Bassey can play slot corner, which could provide assurance in the Broncos' secondary behind Callahan. Coleman joins a position group that is relatively thin behind Simmons and Jackson, and he had a knack for the football in college. Finally, Bellamy put up crazy numbers at Western Michigan, as he rushed for 1,472 yards and 23 touchdowns in his final season. The level of competition and the 617 total career carries likely scared some teams off, but he could potentially push Royce Freeman for a roster spot.