After Bills' debacle, Fangio seeks improvement over final two weeks

Evaluation ongoing as questions about key positions persist
Posted at 7:52 PM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 21:53:11-05

DENVER — After another defeat, after another losing campaign—the fourth straight, last accomplished five decades ago—after becoming the first Super Bowl champion team to fail to reach the playoffs in the following five seasons, the easy clickbait story would be to rank the 10 quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired.

That sounds like an offseason project.

For now, the Broncos' issues run deeper than Drew Lock, though his development remains a primary focus with two games remaining against the Chargers and Raiders.

Lock followed up his Fed-Ex Air Performance of the Week by plummeting back to earth with a thud. He completed 20 of 32 passes for 132 yards, including three yards in the third quarter against the Bills. He was not the reason the Broncos' lost—Josh Allen shredded the defense—but he was not good enough to keep them in the game.

It creates the lingering question: is Lock the man moving forward?

There are arguments for running it back next season with the same coordinator and largely the same personnel—right tackle remains a mystery with no one knowing what to expect from Ja'Wuan James. Lock is 8-8 in 16 career starts. Only two quarterbacks have a winning record since Manning: Trevor Siemian (13-11) and Brett Rypien (1-0).

Lock shows swagger, confidence and leadership, all admirable traits for a quarterback. However, he has turned the ball over in every game this season, save the opener. Will he improve or be defined by inconsistency, making his outings against Houston and Carolina appear as outliers?

If you learn toward the latter, it makes sense to bring in competition for Lock this offseason, put him on notice and provide protection for injury. Someone like Jacoby Brissett, Gardner Minshew or Mitchell Trubisky might work. The Broncos could swing even bigger for Detroit's Matthew Stafford, though his contract and acquisition price create large hurdles.

The idea of trading for Clemson's Trevor Lawrence isn't worth discussing at length in this post because it remains unrealistic. The Broncos own the 13th pick overall as of Monday, and even they lose out, it would be around 10th. Good luck selling Jacksonville on that pick and several like it over subsequent years to pass on a generational talent.

The Broncos could stay put and take a quarterback among the group of Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask. Again, this is a fluid situation.

What is certain. The Broncos' "total team failure," as coach Vic Fangio put it, is a reminder of the gap between Denver and Super Bowl contenders.

"I just want to see winning football," Fangio said of his focus over the next two games. "We're all being evaluated—players, coaches, everybody. We're just looking for improvement from each and every player individually, each and every unit offensively, defensively and the various phases of the kicking game. We need to improve, and we want to keep improving.”

My quick look at two areas that require evaluation, if not upgrades:

Playmakers apply
The defense, for much of the season, has kept the Broncos in games. But there is no getting around the lack of playmakers. Denver has 12 takeaways in 14 games, tied for 31st.

Part of the issue is that the Broncos rarely lead. But 12?

The Broncos rank last in turnover margin at minus-18. The next closest team is San Francisco at minus-11. That is a huge problem. The Broncos turn it over too much, and don't take it away enough. There are reasons for this. But it is unacceptable for a team that aspires to return to relevancy. By comparison, last season the Broncos finished with 17 takeaways and 16 turnovers.

My point: The Broncos' defense needs more playmakers. I would sign free safety Justin Simmons to a long-term deal and bring back strong safety Kareem Jackson and defensive end Shelby Harris. The Broncos must add a starting corner—Bryce Callahan was terrific in 10 games this season, but has never played a full season—and a coverage linebacker. There needs to be more competition at positions, leaving starting-caliber players as reserves and reserves as contributors on special teams.

QB connection with Jeudy
If Lock is the guy, which remains undecided, better rhythm with Jerry Jeudy is required. As The Athletic pointed out, Lock completes 42% of his passes to Jeudy, 30-for-71, the worst in the league between a quarterback and a rookie receiver. Their timing appears off, especially on deep balls. It can be traced, in part, to no offseason and no preseason. That is fair context.

Still, it must improve dramatically. Jeudy boasts seven catches for 105 yards in his last five games, a nosedive tied to teams defending him with top corners, a quarterback-free offense vs. the Saints and the inability to stay in concert with Lock.

Jeudy remains on pace for 47 catches, 749 yards and three touchdowns. That would rank the former Alabama star fourth in Broncos' history in receptions by a rookie and second in yards behind Eddie Royal. Solid. But there's money left on the table.

Even with the return of Courtland Sutton next season from knee surgery—his leadership in the room should help Jeudy work through frustrating times—Jeudy should eclipse 1,000. No excuses.