Five games for the coach to show he’s the right man for the job, the quarterback to show he deserves a starting position in 2021, the cornerback to justify his expensive salary cap, the security to validate he has a of the highest paid, his players have to be on his position and the defensive end to prove he deserves the multi-year contract offer he didn’t get last year.
Even in an extended playoff year (seven teams per conference), the Broncos kick off Sunday night’s game in Kansas City, looking to the final wildcard spot (three games behind Indianapolis) and all the way to the top of the AFC West ( six games behind the Chiefs).
All that’s left for the 4-7 Broncos, a loss from hitting a fourth consecutive non-winning season, is deciding who should stay, who should be relegated, and who should go after the year.
With the schedule changing in December, the pressure is on five people in particular: coach Vic Fangio, quarterback Drew Lock, cornerback AJ Bouye, security Justin Simmons and defensive end Shelby Harris.
This is why:
So far this year: The Broncos are 4-7 and the bespoke excuse is that Fangio has been playing with a short deck of cards due to injuries to Lock, outside linebacker Von Miller, top receiver Courtland Sutton, and his week 1 starting line of defense (Harris / Jurrell Casey / Mike Purcell).
Why he’s under pressure: Two things are said to catch the attention of upper Broncos management – no-show home crowd and blowout losses. The no-show factor is being thrown out this year, but the Broncos have lost four games this year by at least 18 points. The last time they lost more than four games by that margin was way back in 1968 (six games).
Key to the last five games: Don’t get blown away, starting with Kansas City. During their 10-game winning streak over the Broncos, the Chiefs surpassed them by nearly 14 points per game. An equally big key for Fangio is making sure he encourages his largely young roster to run across the finish line.
Quote: “I think he is a phenomenal head coach leading this organization in the right way.” – left tackle Garett Bolles.
Comment: Unless the Broncos are completely outperformed in the last month, it makes sense to give Fangio a third year.
So far this year: Lock is last of the quarterbacks in completion (55.6) and interception percentage (4.1), 31st in passer rating (67.5), tied for second in interceptions (11) and only four quarterbacks have less than his seven touchdown passes. He also missed two games with a shoulder injury sustained in the Week 2 loss in Pittsburgh and last week’s loss to New Orleans (does not qualify as he is a risky close contact).
Why he’s under pressure: Too much turnover. Not enough wins. Period. Since winning the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, the Broncos have changed quarterbacks the way most people change the oil in their cars. General manager John Elway and who was the coach and offensive coordinator at the time made changes after the 2017 (to Case Keenum), ’18 (to Joe Flacco) and ’19 (to Lock) seasons. The four-interception game in Las Vegas last month should have been the first time there was speculation about the status of Lock ’21.
Key to the last five games: Less turnover. More wins. Period. Lock’s 2021 cap of $ 1,912,042 is a steal no matter what his role will be. If he’s showing progress in the last five games, the Broncos should only consider a backup with more experienced experience (due to Lock’s injury history) and not a fresh runway change.
Quote: ‘He is a young player. He’s kind of a ‘rookie plus’ player right now. This is tough competition. You are challenged every week and you need to make sure you play well and improve, especially at the stage of his career that he is in. – offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Comment: Among the Broncos’ last five opponents, only Kansas City is among the top 14 teams with the fewest points allowed. Carolina is 15th, Buffalo 18th, the Chargers 25th, and Las Vegas 28th. The aim of the slot with three points – stay healthy, play and win.
So far this year: Simmons has played all 758 defensive snaps (tops on the Broncos) and is first with four interceptions (tied for third in the league) and second with 68 tackles. He has five run stuffs while playing close to the scrimmage and only two missed tackles. We booked him with four touchdowns allowed in man coverage.
Why he’s under pressure: Simmons has no contract for next year. What does Fangio think of Simmons? Likes him a lot, wants him to be a linchpin to his defense. What does Elway think of Simmons? Likes him a lot, wants him here in the long term … but at what price?
Key to the last five games: Keep intercepting passes while playing the deep middle safety and everyone will help their market when they become available.
Quote: “At the end of the day, am I focused on (postseason honors)? No not really. I am focused on making as many games as possible and looking for ways to win. – Simmons.
Comment: The top of the safety table is Budda Baker of Arizona ($ 14.75 million average) and Simmons’ camp should keep an eye on at least the $ 14 million average of Landon Collins in Washington and Tyrann Mathieu of Kansas City. Simmons should be the Broncos’ top priority.
So far this year: Bouye played 346 defensive snaps in six games and has 19 tackles, no interceptions, and four pass break-ups. He sustained a shoulder injury in the week 1 loss to Tennessee that took him four games and he suffered a concussion in the week 8 win over the Los Angeles Chargers that kept him out of the Atlanta loss. In the three games, opponents are 6-of-11 passes for 67 yards and one touchdown against Bouye in man cover.
Why he’s under pressure: Money. Bouye, taken over from Jacksonville for a fourth round last March, has always been seen as a year-long experiment. Play well in 2020 and stick around for ’21. Bouye currently has a salary cap of $ 13,375 million next year, the third highest on the team. He no longer has any guaranteed money on the contract he signed in March 2017. The Broncos are questionable at cornerback as Bryce Callahan played great before landing on the injured reserve last week and Michael Ojemudia / Essang Bassey have had the usual beginner ups and downs.
Key to the last five games: Stick to football. Bouye’s pass break-up last week led to Bassey’s interception (and the Broncos’ lone points). If he’s right, Bouye is technically sound, capable of playing zone and man coverage.
Quote: “I thought he played better (against New Orleans). Hopefully he gets his playing legs under him and we can see the real AJ ”- Fangio.
Comment: Facts are facts – Bouye comes in on Sunday with just two interceptions since the start of 2018 (33 games). But he’s a good angle and if he ends well it would make sense for the Broncos to add two years to his deal (lowering his ’21 cap number). That would prevent them from having to go into the corner in the first round of the draft.
So far this year: Harris had a productive season when he was derailed by COVID-19 protocols (high risk close contact cost him the Atlanta game) and then a positive test (which kept him out of the last three games). In 293 snaps, he has 10 pass-rush disturbances (including 2 1/2 sacks), 5 1/2 run “stuffs”, three knocked-down passes, and 23 tackles.
Why he’s under pressure: Harris only returned to the Broncos last March because the multi-year contract market he envisioned (and probably the Broncos too) never materialized and he stayed here on a one-year contract (base salary of $ 2 million). Harris, 29, wants long-term security from some team.
Key to the last five games: Pick up where he left off before the coronavirus, which kept him out of the last four games. Effective run stopper. Struck passes. Provides an inner pass rush.
Quote: “He’s a good run defender, probably our best inside pass rusher, and he played a good, complete, solid, all-round game for us – hasty, chasing plays. We are very happy to get it back. – Fangio.
Comment: Defensive end Jurrell Casey counts $ 11.87 million and $ 13.85 million on the 2021-22 salary cap, but the Broncos can free up all that money by cutting him back. Add to that defensive ending that DeMarcus Walker is a free agent, and the Broncos should prioritize keeping Harris.