DENVER -- In 2020, the Broncos failed to beat a team that made the playoffs, a reminder of the ground required to cover on the road to relevancy.
Denver owns a five-year playoff drought, tied for second longest in the NFL. The Broncos have not had a winning season in four years, matching the longest drought since 1963-72. Broncos Country remains frustrated, jarred by the spiral from the zenith of Super Bowl 50 to the lonely echoes of the AFC West basement.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio provided a compelling argument for the 5-11 record which landed the ninth overall draft pick. The Broncos were not good enough to overcome injuries -- that's fair -- though his own game management issues did not help. Fangio has to get better in his third season, even if that means making someone available in the booth he trusts to help with the clock. You can't talk about death by inches and have multiple issues with minutes and seconds at the end of games.
With better health, Denver should improve, and it will benefit from a last-place schedule. There are reasons for hope, but there are multiple issues that must be addressed and areas that require massive spikes after Denver finished six games back for a postseason berth this year.
It starts at quarterback. Monday, Drew Lock admitted he believes he will be "The Guy in 2021." He remains confident, a necessary trait for a leader, and points to his jump after the four-interception Raiders debacle in Las Vegas. Over the final seven games, Lock threw 11 touchdowns with five interceptions, and he ended his 11-game turnover streak on Sunday.
"I am going to be my biggest critic and say I could have done a lot of things better. I will always be that way. Truthfully, as far as growth wise and making plays this year, taking care of the ball was the biggest thing," Lock said. "Without a doubt I feel like I can be the guy here. It's a weird question to answer, but I know how comfortable I got with this offense."
So how do the Broncos get back into the playoff conversation? My Denver7 areas where they must get better.
Better quarterback play
Drew Lock made progress over the final seven games and will benefit from having the same coordinator in back-to-back seasons. His quarterback rating improved from 66.5 to 85.7. He brings leadership, humility and a strong work ethic. However, he has to dive into film study to fix mechanical issues and pierce the fog over the middle of the field. He must refine his footwork -- there's no reason to throw off balance with a dropped arm angle with no pressure -- and understand how defenses are baiting him. His completion percentage needs to be around 67 percent.
Playing quarterback is about making correct split-second decisions consistently. Lock has shown potential. He requires a significant leap in Year 3. Anything less than a 2.5-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio will make it impossible to contend.
Better competition at QB
Lock insists he will win the job. I like that. But competition is not a bad thing. Signing somebody like Andy Dalton or acquiring Jacoby Brissett or Gardner Minshew provides insurance for ineffectiveness and injury. Even if Lock wins the job -- and he's the favorite -- the Broncos need a backup who can come out of the bullpen to save a game, if necessary.
Better play calling
With seven games remaining, offensive boss Pat Shurmur seemed to figure out who the Broncos were offensively -- a ground-based team. Everything spun off that. If the Broncos continue to run well with Melvin Gordon and a new backup -- I'd love to see Phillip Lindsay return, but believe he would benefit from a fresh start elsewhere -- it can set up the passing game. There will be plenty of weapons with the return of Courtland Sutton. His presence and production will help Jerry Jeudy, and still allow Noah Fant to develop into the third target. That leaves Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler as terrific options. Anything less than 25 points per game will be a huge disappointment. But remember, Denver averaged only 20 this season. The challenge is real.
Fangio runs a read-and-react system that plays into the IQ and discipline of his players. As such, injuries hurt his scheme more than most as the Broncos allowed eight more points per game in 2020. There were way too many breakdowns and missed tackles. The reality is the Broncos require a battery of playmakers. It starts at corner. They need to add two starters, possibly one with the ninth pick overall with Patrick Surtain II. Bryce Callahan is good when healthy, but has played 10 games in two seasons. He cannot be counted on, and obviously A.J. Bouye will not be back.
Better coverage inside
Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are tackling machines. But they don't complement each other well. Jewell is a liability in coverage. It's why Penn State's Micah Parsons name must be filed away. He has rare versatility. Could he be a difference maker inside or wind up outside? Regardless, the Broncos need to diversify their linebacking corps. The Broncos finished minus-16 in takeaway margin, worst in the NFL. They finished with 16 takeaways, fourth worst. It's time to start rebuilding the defense with younger, faster players at key positions.
Better decisions with money
The Broncos have not hit the lottery in free agency. They guaranteed $32 million to right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who has played 63 snaps in two seasons. They guaranteed $26 million to right guard Graham Glasgow, who was just OK in his first season in Denver as he battled injuries. They paid Bouye more than half of his nearly $12 million before his six-game suspension. My point? Don't be afraid to reward in-house impact players. They did that with left tackle Garett Bolles, which means free safety Justin Simmons should be the top priority. Monday, he didn't sound particularly interested in playing on the franchise tag for a second-consecutive season. Simmons bet on himself and produced a career-high five picks, his first Pro Bowl berth and a third season without missing a snap. He is a leader on the field, in the locker room and in the community. A homegrown product, he's exactly the type of player a franchise should want to reward. While they are at it, see if it's possible to land Shelby Harris on a reasonable multi-year deal. All he does is make plays.
Better special teams play
The Broncos cannot continue to sabotage themselves in the game's margins. Too often, the special teams botched a coverage on punt and kick returns. The Broncos are not good enough to not be good at special teams. If that requires a change in who coaches the unit, so be it. For Denver to make significant gains, they must iron out wrinkles across the board.