The Denver Broncos are no longer a rebuilding team

Denver Broncos TE #87 Noah Fant. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Broncos TE #87 Noah Fant. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos are not a rebuilding team. Not anymore, at least.

This may come as a shock to fans of the team who have been critical of John Elway’s drafting ability (or inability, depending on how you see things) over the last four years, but the Broncos’ roster is no longer in a place where “rebuilding” is a viable part of the vernacular.

The Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50. As crazy as it seems, that was not yet five years ago. Any fan five years ago, if presented with the options, would have traded a win in Super Bowl 50 for five years of playoff drought.

From 2016-17, the Broncos remained sort of “status quo” with the way they built the team through free agency, but John Elway finally used his top picks in the NFL Draft those years on offensive players — quarterback Paxton Lynch and offensive tackle Garett Bolles.

Those two post-Super Bowl years were not “rebuilding” years for the Broncos, but the team was legitimately trying to salvage what it could from that Super Bowl 50 defense. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t pull its share of the weight, and the Broncos hit rock bottom in 2017 with five wins in the first year of the Vance Joseph era.

From 2013-17, the Broncos hadn’t drafted well, and something needed to change about their philosophy there. And it did.

The Broncos’ 2018 NFL Draft was regarded as one of the best in the league at the time, and even in hindsight, it looks very good. Not only because the players the Broncos selected in the draft (Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Josey Jewell are all starters, Chubb and Sutton have Pro Bowls), but the guys they got after it was over (Phillip Lindsay, Alexander Johnson).

Denver’s strategy clearly had changed and philosophy shifted, and the team started targeting high-character players who were almost all team captains in college as well as players with a good amount of experience and consistent production.

That 2018 NFL Draft class represented the official beginning of the Denver Broncos’ “rebuild” which has been ongoing now for three years and counting.

Case Keenum was signed in 2018 to be the bridge player between the rebuild and whatever idea John Elway had of a new era, but it didn’t work out. The Broncos tore down the Keenum bridge and put up another temporary bridge with Joe Flacco when Vic Fangio was hired as the team’s head coach.

The team coupled the Flacco signing with the drafting of Drew Lock as the young player with upside at the position, but it was clear as of 2019 that the Broncos were still in the midst of a rebuild which now had a quarterback part of the rebuild crop of prospects.

In 2020, it continued.

The Broncos committed to seeing what they had in Drew Lock, come hell or high water, and they continued to put pieces around him. Following the model being set by the Kansas City Chiefs offensively, the Broncos added Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler atop the 2020 NFL Draft to an offense that already had some blossoming players in the passing game like Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant.

At this particular point in time, the Broncos have a new GM in George Paton and the 2018 NFL Draft class is entering their collective contract year. The 2019 class is heading into year three and the 2020 class has a very difficult year under their belt.

The pieces that remain from 2016 and 2017 are really just Justin Simmons and Garett Bolles at this point, but those two have proven to be cornerstone pieces of the franchise.

No NFL roster is perfect, but the Denver Broncos have so much talent on the offensive side of the football that it is impossible to ignore the truth — this team is ready to compete.

The expectation going forward is no longer going to be for the team to endure through difficult learning experiences. The expectation going forward is for the team to compete. The “rebuild” is into year four. There now must be some tangible results before players assembled in the rebuild window start to move on and play on second contracts elsewhere.

The Broncos’ strategy of building an offense loaded with fast, athletic, cost-controlled weapons was a smart one considering the goal at this point is to outscore the Kansas City Chiefs. The huge question from this point forward for new GM George Paton is going to be — how does he wake the roster he believes is a “sleeping giant”?

The answer is at the quarterback position. This is the number one area Paton must address as general manager of the team.

If everything remained the same heading into the 2021 offseason for the Denver Broncos, I think the team would almost assuredly be moving forward with Drew Lock at QB, even as tempting as some of the other options might be. With a new general manager coming into the building and bringing a fresh perspective, the situation at quarterback is a lot different, no matter if we like it or not.

Paton could stick with Lock at quarterback, keep assembling talent through the NFL Draft, and see if everything can click in 2021. It wouldn’t be wrong for him to come to the determination that Lock is worth building around based on the upside Lock has shown and the improvement he showed on tape down the stretch of the 2020 season.

What Paton must now determine is whether or not Lock is the guy that can help the Denver Broncos be competitive now. Paton said there will be no shortcuts in his team-building philosophy, but acquiring a player you believe can bring stability at quarterback and make you competitive there for the foreseeable future is not exactly reckless to do.

The Broncos’ defense, a shell of what it was supposed to be on paper going into the 2020 season, held the Kansas City Chiefs to 22 points on their home field. There is no doubt that head coach Vic Fangio is capable of making lemonade with whatever personnel he has to work with, but if Denver Broncos fans think that the answer to beating Patrick Mahomes and now Justin Herbert every year is in assembling another Super Bowl 50 caliber defense, they are mistaken.

Having talent defensively is critical, but player development is even more important. The Kansas City Chiefs have cut some character corners when building their roster, but the philosophy has worked for them. They found what clicks offensively, they are dominant on that side of the ball, and their defense plays well despite not having a single first-round pick in the starting unit.

The Broncos have the skill position talent offensively. They have a vastly improved offensive line going into year three with Mike Munchak coaching them up. They have some aging veterans on defense, sure, but they also have guys out there who can play at a high level and young players who should take another step forward in 2021.

When the topic of shelling out draft picks for players like Matthew Stafford or Deshaun Watson comes up, there are many Broncos fans who will chime in that this team is “not a Matthew Stafford or Deshaun Watson away from contention” but how would you really know?

When the Broncos added Peyton Manning to the 2012 roster, there were very few generic NFL fans who had any idea how good Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were capable of being. Nobody knew who Julius Thomas was going into the 2013 season outside of Denver.

When the Broncos looked at their roster going into 2012, they didn’t see a group that needed to add cornerbacks, off-ball linebackers, safeties, and defensive linemen before it added a player like Peyton Manning. They looked at the roster and knew that if they got the best of Manning, they could contend because he raises all boats.

Is Matthew Stafford Peyton Manning? No. Is Deshaun Watson? No.

But both players bring their own level of experience, talent, savvy, and ability to elevate the rest of the team.

I’m not saying the Denver Broncos should take the first exit off of the Drew Lock highway, but George Paton has to seriously consider how to wake up the sleeping giant he inherited for a roster as soon as possible.

If he is convinced that Lock could be the guy to do it, then by all means he should dive headfirst into building the team accordingly. If he doesn’t see Lock ultimately becoming the guy that can keep pace with the likes of Kansas City and Mahomes or Justin Herbert and the Chargers, then he’s got to get a new five-year plan going at quarterback.

Welcome to Denver, George.