2019 NFL preview: Replacing Peyton Manning has been tougher than Broncos expected

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The Denver Broncos have struggled to replace a legendary quarterback before. Funny enough, the first time also centered around John Elway.

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When Elway retired after the 1998 season, the Broncos had a hard time finding someone to take his place. Brian Griese was OK, for a while. So was Jake Plummer. Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow had their moments. But none of them was Elway. The bar was very high.

Then came Peyton Manning. Elway helped land him in his new general manager role, and Manning was great. He had three phenomenal individual seasons. Manning hit the wall and struggled badly in his fourth season but the football gods paid him back for some tough luck and he went out as a Super Bowl champion. Manning retired and the next phase started for Elway and the Broncos.

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Sometimes Brett Favre retires (for a minute, anyway) and Aaron Rodgers steps in. Joe Montana gets replaced by Steve Young. Those teams are lucky. The 2016-18 Broncos were not.

Elway’s succession plan was Brock Osweiler, but he left as a free agent and it’s clear he wouldn’t have been the answer anyway. Then the Broncos scrambled. They whiffed badly on first-round pick Paxton Lynch. They tried tricking themselves into believing Trevor Siemian would work out. Last year they paid Case Keenum on the chance he could replicate what he did with the 2017 Vikings. None of it worked. And, if we’re being honest, it’s hard to imagine Joe Flacco changing who he is at age 34 and making people forget about Manning. Flacco isn’t bad, but other than a great playoff run with the 2012 Ravens, he has never been great either. It’s hard to start 11 years with the same team and not make one Pro Bowl, but Flacco did it. Maybe rookie Drew Lock will be the answer, but second-round quarterbacks have a low success rate and if the Broncos really thought Lock was great, they wouldn’t have drafted a tight end and offensive lineman before getting to him.

Elway has been ripped for his inability to find a quarterback, and he has made mistakes. It’s also really hard to find a quarterback. Some teams spend decades trying. Replacing a legend makes it even harder. It’s not like Griese and Plummer were terrible in the post-Elway era, but good luck living up to Elway. Manning has an argument as the greatest quarterback ever, and a big part of that is what he did in Denver. It’s not like the Broncos have even had a Plummer or Griese since Manning retired, but anyone is going to be in a heck of a shadow.

Quarterback gets all the attention, but the truth is that the Broncos had an expiration date as a great team. It’s not like this team is as good as the 2015 version, just waiting on a decent quarterback. The defense is still good, but not great. The offense around the quarterback has taken a step back. Some horrific drafts by Elway have taken a big toll on the roster.

It’s hard to say if Vance Joseph was a bad coach or was dealt a bad hand, but that hire didn’t work out and it also set Denver back in its post-Manning world. Now former Chicago Bears coordinator Vic Fangio comes in. While the rest of the league is sifting through the sand to find any young offensive mind with a connection to Sean McVay, the Broncos hired a 60-year-old defensive guru who is finally getting his first shot to be a head coach. There’s nothing wrong zigging as the rest of the league zags.

Very little has gone right for the Broncos since Super Bowl 50. The beauty of the NFL is that can change fast. Last year’s Broncos draft was good, and this year’s looks pretty good too. The defense isn’t what the legendary 2015 unit was, but it’s still good. It might even be great again very soon, with edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb as the foundation. Fangio hasn’t been a head coach before, but his résumé speaks for itself. The man knows football and maybe he’s another Bruce Arians, who just needed a shot and didn’t get one until he was 60.

The Broncos will need something from the quarterback to break their streak of losing seasons, which is at two in a row for the first time since 1971-72. And they’ll need to settle on a real quarterback of the future, whether it’s Lock or someone they draft down the road. Those challenges have been a lot tougher than expected.

Joe Flacco is the latest attempt for the Broncos to fix their quarterback issue. (AP)
Joe Flacco is the latest attempt for the Broncos to fix their quarterback issue. (AP)

We’ll get to the Joe Flacco trade a little more in a moment, but let’s say it was uninspiring. The Broncos paid right tackle Ja’Wuan James $51 million over four years, with $32 million guaranteed, to fix the line. That’s a lot, but he’ll help. Kareem Jackson (three years, $33 million, $23 million guaranteed) and Bryce Callahan (three years, $21 million, $10 million guaranteed) were signed to bolster the secondary. The Broncos were aggressive in free agency, but that’s nothing new for John Elway. They surprisingly let center Matt Paradis leave without much of a fight, and they lost other veterans like guard Billy Turner, cornerback Bradley Roby and linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Brandon Marshall. The draft does look like another winner, with Denver trading down and grabbing tight end Noah Fant, then getting offensive lineman Dalton Risner and quarterback Drew Lock in the second round.

GRADE: B

The Broncos had what looks like a productive draft in 2018, especially if you factor in Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay, who was undrafted. The centerpiece was pass rusher Bradley Chubb. Chubb was overshadowed a bit because there were a few impact rookie defenders, but he had 12 sacks and looked like every bit of the prospect he was projected to be before last year’s draft. Von Miller is still a star as well. Most teams struggle to find one top-flight pass rusher, and the Broncos have two. Vic Fangio will be able to get quite creative with Chubb and Miller.

The Broncos have some interesting options in the passing game, but individually they all have uncertainty. Courtland Sutton is intriguing, but didn’t do much with a bigger role following the trade of Demaryius Thomas last season. Emmanuel Sanders is a fine player but is 32 years old and coming off a torn Achilles. It’s still uncertain if he’ll be ready for the start of training camp. DaeSean Hamilton could be a productive slot receiver but doesn’t seem to have huge upside. Noah Fant is talented but almost every rookie tight end struggles. We might look back at the end of the season and be very excited about this group of pass catchers — clearly there’s potential here, specially with Sutton and Fant — but a lot of questions need to be answered first.

What was the point of trading for Joe Flacco? Even if we say Flacco is better than Case Keenum, it’s not by much. And Keenum was already on the roster. Flacco cost a fourth-round pick, and a team coming off back-to-back losing seasons can’t just give away mid-round picks. Flacco hasn’t had a passer rating higher than 84.2 since 2014. He has never made a Pro Bowl (he was invited twice as a replacement but declined). Flacco is nine starts from passing Joe Ferguson for the most starts by a quarterback in NFL history without one Pro Bowl appearance. Flacco has had a remarkable playoff career, but it’s hard to bank on getting that Flacco when the larger body of work says he’s a middle-of-the-road quarterback. It’s unlikely that changes at age 34. Maybe John Elway has the last laugh and Flacco has the best years of his career in Denver but it seems like a strange trade, settling for mediocrity when the Broncos already had mediocrity at the position.

The way the Broncos handled the Chris Harris situation this offseason was curious. They had to know when they signed Kareem Jackson to a deal worth $11 million per season that four-time Pro Bowler Harris would want a raise from his base salary of $7.8 million. Harris asked for a new deal or a trade. The Broncos didn’t trade him, but didn’t give him an extension either. Harris got a raise to a little more than $12 million, but can be a free agent next offseason. The Broncos balked at Harris’ price for an extension, reported to be about $15 million per season, and maybe that’s the prudent move considering he is 30 years old. But it also means the Broncos risk losing one of their core players next offseason. At least the Broncos get at least one more season out of Harris, one of the best cornerbacks in football, and he should be motivated to have a big year.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Most teams offer some utility in the passing game, but there’s no guarantee the 2019 Broncos will. Joe Flacco has been a below-average quarterback for four straight years, and is now stepping into an age-34 season.

“If you have to dip into this receiver pool, Courtland Sutton makes the most sense. He made some splashy plays as a rookie (42-704-4, 16.8 YPC), but he only caught half of his targets and struggled with drops. With the notable exception of the 2014 season, rookie wideouts are usually in learn mode more than play mode. Sutton wasn’t a home run as a rookie, but he got on base.

“Sutton isn’t exactly a giveaway at the table — his ADP is 89 in early Yahoo drafts (it’s 18 slots cheaper in recent NFFC runs). If you want to go a cheaper route, perhaps second-year slot man DaeSean Hamilton is your target. Hamilton wasn’t used as much as Sutton last year, but he did snag 25 catches in the last four weeks, albeit they went for a modest 182 yards. His ADP is cheap in Yahoo (153), a little pricier in NFFC (129).

“Emmanuel Sanders is the X-factor, a former Pro Bowler coming off a torn Achilles. He’s 32, entering his 10th season. Generally I’d rather be a year early than a year late with this type of player. On average, he’s going about a round before Hamilton.

“We’ll spend the rest of the summer trying to judge who Flacco seems to be clicking with. But we’ll also stay open-minded to the reality that some questions ultimately have no quality answers.”

Phillip Lindsay became the first undrafted offensive rookie in NFL history to make a Pro Bowl. It’s surprising that had never happened before, but Lindsay earned it. He rushed for 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns. It will be interesting to see how the Broncos use Lindsay going forward. They still have 2018 third-round pick Royce Freeman, a fine talent who had to play through a high ankle sprain as a rookie. We could see Lindsay get fewer carries but more receptions (he had 35, which seems low for someone with his skill set) and still be a quality producer for the Broncos.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH DREW LOCK?

A lot about the Broncos’ pick of Lock was logical, but parts of it made no sense at all. Denver didn’t have to pay a heavy price for Lock, considered by many a potential first-round pick. They need a quarterback and maybe he pays off. That’s fine. At the same time, the Broncos aren’t in a position to be wasting second-round picks. Either they believe Lock is a future starter — in which case they shouldn’t have been waiting until No. 42 to pick him — or they don’t believe he’s that good and they wasted a top 50 pick. Lock has a great arm but decision-making is an issue (read Eric Edholm’s draft profile for a full rundown). He has some promise but more than a few warts. Perhaps this is the rare case in which a quarterback selected beyond the first round benefits from sitting behind a veteran and becomes a star, but go find recent examples of that happening. Spoiler alert: There aren’t many. There’s also the potentially uncomfortable situation of Joe Flacco being mediocre or worse, and fans clamoring for Lock by midseason. Broncos fans acted like Chad Kelly was the savior last season before Kelly stumbled into a house uninvited and got himself cut; they’re sure to be impatient if Flacco isn’t great. Perhaps Lock will be a great starter for the Broncos but it’s all a little weird, though weird might be the best way to describe the Broncos’ ongoing quarterback search.

Clearly the Broncos think they just need an improvement in quarterback play to be playoff contenders. If not, they wouldn’t have traded a fourth-round pick for a 34-year-old quarterback. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else believes that, or believes that Joe Flacco is the guy to give the Broncos that improved quarterback play, because John Elway obviously believes it.

“He’s played in a lot of big games and he has a lot of good football left in him at 34 years old,” Elway said, according to the team’s site. “We feel like he’s just really coming into his prime.”

So let’s roll with that for this section. If Flacco plays well and the Broncos defense is a clear top-five unit — let’s not forget the Vic Fangio factor here — then Denver could be much better. That might not solve everything, but Broncos fans aren’t patient and they don’t want another losing season. Winning the AFC West probably isn’t happening, but a run at a wild card? Maybe.

Let’s say John Elway is wrong and 34-year-old Joe Flacco isn’t “coming into his prime.” And maybe there’s good reason Drew Lock was bypassed by every team, and we see by the end of the season he was just another DeShone Kizer-level second-round prospect. Then what, the Broncos just let Elway try to pick the next quarterback? The Broncos have looked like a team that should go for a rebuild, but that’s not Elway’s style. So they’ve basically been stuck, not good enough to be in the playoff race but not bad enough to land a top prospect at quarterback. Yet again this season, they don’t seem good enough to be in the playoffs or bad enough to be in position to land a top-flight 2020 quarterback prospect. Then next year’s preview will read a lot like this one. Being stuck in NFL mediocrity is the worst.

I’m not sure why this Broncos team will be much better than last year. The upgrade in quarterback play probably isn’t much of an upgrade. Maybe Vic Fangio is an instant head-coaching star, but other than that, it looks a lot like the team that went 6-10 last year. It’s really hard to concoct a scenario, with a tough schedule (second toughest in the NFL, according to Warren Sharp, who calculates strength of schedule based on Las Vegas projected win totals), in which the Broncos make a leap up to double-digit wins. An 8-8 record seems to be the realistic ceiling. What fun.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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