ENGLEWOOD — In the warm sun and under a hazy sky, Von Miller stepped out to practice with orange hair and a smile. The ribbon was cut on training camp, and the odorous scent from the previous four playoff-free seasons seemed to dissipate.
Von was healthy, hungry and hulking at 260 pounds. He vowed to become a better leader, and would affirm his stance over the next three weeks. Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye brought attitude, edge and stability. Offensively, quarterback Drew Lock entered his first camp as the starter, and looked the part in every way. He also had intriguing weapons with Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton, rookie blurs Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler and talented tight end Noah Fant.
The promise of hope was tangible. The Broncos appeared poised to reap the rewards.
Then MRIs replaced talk of TDs and INTs. The Broncos lost Sutton (torn ACL) and Casey (torn biceps) for the season, and Miller (dislocated ankle tendon) until December, if not the year. Bouye has not played since the first half of the opener after hurting his shoulder, and might return Sunday, but is no lock. And Fant is likely to miss at least one more week with a high ankle sprain. For a team that was a borderline playoff contender, these injuries proved devastating.
NFL opponents don't care. They are as sympathetic as a photo radar ticket. Fair or not, the Broncos' record is who they are: 1-3, hanging on by dental floss. Fortunately, Lock should return this Sunday — I expect it — from a rotator cuff strain sustained after getting smashed to the turf at Pittsburgh in Week 2. So, reasons to watch closely remain, but things need to change for this team to flirt with relevance over the final three months.
My look at important team and individual statistics a quarter of the way into the season:
Lock receives an incomplete after missing the past 11 quarters. He has completed 23 of 38 passes for 260 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. No sense in projecting those stats. But one good sign is that he's been sacked just six times in seven career starts. He owns a 4-3 record. Nine quarterbacks have started since Peyton Manning retired. Lock, Trevor Siemian (13-11) and Brett Rypien (1-0) are the only ones with winning records.
Rypien triumphed his lone chance against the Jets. He is 27-for-40 for 295 yards, two scores and four picks in five quarters. Jeff Driskel (35-for-64, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) looked terrific in relief against the Steelers, then bottomed out in a benching against Tampa Bay. He was sacked 11 times in seven quarters. When Lock returns to this starting role, I would keep Rypien as the backup and put Driskel or Blake Bortles on practice squad if they clear waivers. Overall, the Broncos have completed 59% of their passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions, which ranks 28th. The yards per game (214.3) rank 27th. The totals project to 3,852 yards with 24 touchdowns and picks.
That won't work if Denver wants to rebound. It's on Lock to post a 2-to-1 TD-to-pick ratio the remainder of the season for this team to execute a U-turn. And availability is critical. He must learn from his injuries, be cautious of pressure, and provide a good read on his future by season's end.
One player who has married hard work with perfect timing is left tackle Garett Bolles. After learning from focus groups, who disdain penalty-filled games, the NFL chose not to emphasize holding calls this season. As a result of this development and improved technique, Bolles has improved as much as any player in the league. He has been penalized twice for holding with one accepted. And he's allowed dramatically fewer pressures. It's quite the comeback for Bolles, who was the Broncos' most penalized player in his first three seasons. Even though his fifth-year option was declined, Bolles has put himself in line for a contract extension given the issues at right tackle and the uncertainty with Ja'Wuan James' level of play when he returns after logging 63 snaps in his first two years in Denver.
Kids are all right
Tight end Noah Fant set franchise rookie records for his position in receptions and yards. He was the Broncos' best offensive player this season before suffering an injury against the Jets. He leads the team in catches (19) and scores (two) and ranks second in yards (219). Even though he's expected to miss this week, his season numbers project kindly: 76 receptions, 876 yards and eight touchdowns. That will put him in the conversation for a Pro Bowl alternate berth.
Against the Jets, Jerry Jeudy became the sixth rookie since 1970 to post 50-plus receiving yards in his first four games. He projects to 60 catches for 934 yards and four touchdowns. It's not hard to see him reaching 1,000 yards with Sutton out. K.J. Hamler has shown bursts in three games -- six catches, 78 yards -- but is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that could sideline him Sunday.
Tank running near empty
Coordinator Pat Shurmur's offense works best when it spins off a solid running game. The Broncos have been underwhelming. Melvin Gordon is coming off his first 100-yard game, an encouraging sign. And Phillip Lindsay will return Sunday, allowing the Broncos to create mismatches by lining them up together. Overall, the Broncos are averaging 92.5 yards per game on the ground, 29th overall. They averaged 103.9 yards last season. I can excuse the line's sack issues because of Driskel. The run blocking, however, has been disappointing. Rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry has the talent, but needs to show dramatic improvement.
Where's the defensive uptick?
In year two of Vic Fangio's defense, a boost was predicted. It has not materialized. Injuries have played a significant role since there was no replacing Von Miller, and the loss of Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye stung. Bradley Chubb has regained traction after 2.5 sacks against the Jets, leaving him projected to reach 10 for the season. Denver is decent on third down (13th) and in red zone touchdown percentage (third). But the takeaways, same as last season, remain a glaring problem. Denver has two. That ranks 31st, and projects to eight for the season.
Denver ranked 25th with 17 takeaways last year. Perhaps, they have found the right mix with De'Vante Bausby returning to nickel, while shifting Bryce Callahan to slot coverage. They need to produce additional turnovers, and it starts with significantly more big plays from Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson.
My way-too-early-awards at the quarterpole:
Offensive MVP: TE Noah Fant (19 catches, 219 yards, two touchdowns).
Defensive MVP: DE Shelby Harris (2.5 sacks, 6 QB hits, 3 tackles for loss, 1 pass deflection, 1 forced fumble).
Special Teams MVP: K Brandon McManus (6-for-7 on field goals, including three from 50-plus yards).