1. In 2016, Bill Musgrave coordinated a young Raiders offense to 12 wins. He superbly blended his running game and passing game. He kept Derek Carr comfortable with a “safety first” approach, featuring extra blockers on deeper dropbacks or quick throws from spread formations. Despite his success, Musgrave was not retained when his contract expired at season’s end. The Raiders offense went on to flounder in 2017, while Musgrave coached quarterbacks in Denver. There he worked in an unfamiliar Mike McCoy system and sorted through a QB controversy between two young but blemished choices: Trevor Siemian, with his physical limitations, and Paxton Lynch, with his glaring inexperience. It was a frustrating year, even with Musgrave being promoted to the fired McCoy’s post in December. (By that point, Musgrave had to keep McCoy’s scheme.)
This season, Musgrave should feel refreshed, like he’s just taken a hot shower. He’s had a chance to fully implement HIS system, and GM John Elway went out and got him a viable QB, Case Keenum. The former Viking cost $18 million a year—$10 million less than Denver’s originally presumed target QB, Kirk Cousins, who took Keenum’s old job in Minnesota.
Keenum, 30, will need the run-pass balance that Musgrave struck in Oakland. That doesn’t just mean committing to running the ball, but also throwing on early downs and out of running formations. With just so-so physical tools, Keenum needs the system to work for him.
This isn’t to say Keenum is a system-dependent quarterback. He made several big-time throws in Minnesota’s scheme. And fascinatingly, he consistently made “second reaction” plays, finding receivers when things broke down. This was where Denver’s offense most struggled under Siemian, who—small world—is now Cousins’s backup in Minnesota.
2. If Keenum is to build on his 2017 success, Denver’s O-line must play better. Last year it was embarrassed by quality gap-shooting 4-3 defenses like Philadelphia and Miami. It’s mostly the same front five this season, only with ex-Cardinal Jared Veldheer hopefully fixing the turnstile right tackle spot. A lot comes down to the other tackle position; 2017 first-round pick Garrett Bolles needs to strengthen his pass-blocking anchor.
3. Besides overloading protections with extra blockers or featuring quick throws, another way to help your offensive line, especially the tackles, is to move the quarterback by design. A better athlete than what the surface reveals, Keenum is comfortable outside the pocket, where his lack of height does not create vision issues.
4. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders still form a quality 1-2 punch, though they’ve been notably less consistent (especially Thomas) since Peyton Manning’s retirement after the 2015 season. Even if Sanders and Thomas settle in with Keenum, Denver’s rookies, second-rounder Courtland Sutton and fourth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton, need to play meaningful roles. The Broncos lack potency at tight end; their interior passing game must come from the slot.
5. Fullback Andy Janovich deserves to play at least 25 percent of the snaps. Besides his productive lead-blocking for Devontae Booker and third-round rookie thumper Royce Freeman, especially on zone runs, Janovich’s presence creates more dimension in the ground game. That makes the defense more predictable, allowing Musgrave to manufacture specific coverage-beating aerial designs.
6. Denver’s defense might not be as talented or experienced as it was in 2015, but it’s still one of the league’s best. It has the two things every team covets: cover corners (Chris Harris and Bradley Roby) and edge rushers (Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett.)
7. Of course, it IS worth asking: Can Bradley Roby fill Aqib Talib’s vacancy? Roby’s on-ball playmaking puts him ahead of many starters, but he tends to run hot and cold. More importantly, since he’s moved up to No. 2, the Broncos are looking for a new No. 3. Brendan Langley was drafted in the third round last year to be that player, but he had a miserable rookie season, lowlighted by his fill-in performance at Oakland in the game where Talib got ejected early for fighting Michael Crabtree. Perhaps tacitly second-guessing this pick, Elway invested another third-round selection at corner this year on Boston College’s Isaac Yiadom. There’s also former 49er Tramaine Brock. A $4 million contract suggests he’ll be in the mix, though Brock is coming off a poor 2017 season in Minnesota.
8. Given Denver’s questions at corner, Chris Harris right now might be the league’s most valuable defensive back. Harris can play man or zone out wide or in the slot. He can also match up against bigs (like tight end Jason Witten last year) or littles (like a T.Y. Hilton or Julian Edelman). His boundless versatility masks other players’ deficiencies.
9. Quietly, this run defense ranked first in fewest yards allowed per attempt last season. A legion of unsung heroes were to thank, and all are back in 2018. Up front are nimble pluggers Adam Gotsis and Derek Wolfe, with Domata Peko, a strong lateral mover and master technician, between them. At linebacker is a classic thumper with between-the-tackles instincts, Todd Davis, and a quality backside chaser, Brandon Marshall. And, at the third level, besides corners who are willing to tackle, safeties Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart are sturdy run-fillers and high-impact hitters. A strong run defense creates the long-yardage situations that maximize Miller’s and Chubb’s pass rushing.
10. This defense has struggled in coverage out of base 4-3 and 3-4 personnel. Todd Davis’s limitations in space are a big reason why. In lieu of base, expect more three-safety packages from coordinator Joe Woods. No. 3 safety Will Parks is developing into a nice all-around cover guy who can match to tight ends and even certain slot receivers. Plus, if his personal matters stay righted, there’s newly acquired Su’a Cravens, whom Washington drafted in the 2016 second-round to fill these demands.
BOTTOM LINE: This is still an upper echelon defense. If the offense can be sustainable, a wild card is not out of the question.
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