It figures to be a busy offseason for Broncos general manager John Elway.
What has felt like an endless season for the Broncos ends Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Did the Broncos really start 2-0? Were they really leading undefeated Kansas City by 10 points in Week 4 only to lose? Do they really enter this weekend after three consecutive losses as the betting favorite?
Yes, yes and yes. The encouraging start especially feels like eons ago.
On the other hand …
“It goes really fast,” coach Vance Joseph said during a similarly quick 68-second post-practice briefing on Friday. “It’s a mental grind. Before you know it, it’s Week 11 and Week 12. These Sundays come by quickly so you have to max (out) every week as far as (preparation) and play your best. When it’s over, it’s over. You can’t get those games back.”
No, the Broncos can’t put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. There is no going back.
But general manager John Elway should be looking back to formulate a move-forward plan. Assuming he fires Joseph, it will be the first box checked in a lengthy to-do list. Here are just five items:
1. FUTURE QUARTERBACK
Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum (4) passes to wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 2, 2018.
Why it’s an issue: There isn’t one on the roster, period.
Once Elway finds a coach, his chief prerogative should be identifying a quarterback worth a first- or second-round pick.
The Broncos should not wait beyond the middle of the second round for their future passer who can eventually succeed current starter Case Keenum. And so what if Elway and Co. struck out with Paxton Lynch in the 2016 first round? The best way to find a quarterback is keeping taking kicks at the can, hoping the next choice will be the solution.
Among the top 30 passers in terms of yardage, only six (Keenum, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick) were not chosen in the first two rounds. Twenty-one were first-round picks.
Despite Oregon’s Justin Hebert deciding to stay in school, multiple quarterbacks will go in the first round because teams will trade into the back part of the round to make sure they get one. Trading down with a team that is pass rush-needy could allow the Broncos to still get the quarterback they want and gain them an extra Day 2 pick (and maybe more).
There is nothing wrong with keeping Keenum. He currently has a 2019 cap number of $21 million (save $11 million if cut before June 1). A veteran upgrade doesn’t appear to be in the offing. He can start the season leading what could be a still-young offensive team.
“He’s a ‘Steady Eddie’ fella,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “It’s hard to get him flustered, thankfully. He’s adapted and mended his game to fit the guys around him. He’s done a really good job of keeping us all buoyant.”
2. MULTIPLE CORNERBACKS
Chris Harris (25) of the Denver Broncos with the ball after an interception during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018.
Why it’s an issue: The Broncos are allowing a whopping 50.7 more passing yards per game this year, falling from fourth in the NFL (200.6) to 22nd (251.3).
The good news is the Broncos have a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in Chris Harris so Elway can concentrate on younger free agents who he feels are ready for a Nos. 2-3 role. The cornerback market appears thin — the top available player could be Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby, who tore his ACL this year.
It would be surprising if Bradley Roby is asked back unless his market crumbles and he has to settle for a one-year deal. That puts Elway’s focus on needing current rookie Isaac Yiadom to develop and maybe using a Day 2 pick on a player like Texas’ Kris Boyd or Notre Dame’s Julian Love.
The goal for the Broncos should be to build enough cornerback depth that Justin Simmons can stay at safety instead of shuttle all over the field, putting out fires caused by injury or ineffectiveness.
“Just playing the free safety position,” should be Plan A, defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. “He’s tall (6-foot-2) and he’s rangy. Based on who we’re playing, maybe match him up on a tight end. We had to ask him to do a lot.”
3. VETERAN RECEIVER
DaeSean Hamilton (17) of the Denver Broncos with the ball during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.
Why it’s an issue: The ages of the four receivers who will be active on Sunday are 23 (Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton), 24 (River Cracraft) and 25 (Tim Patrick).
The Broncos drafted Sutton and Hamilton in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, last spring and they have shown flashes.
“They grow every day in practice,” Musgrave said. “During the game, they give us good insight and feedback. Both of those guys have grown a bunch from way back when we got them in early May.”
When the Broncos traded Demaryius Thomas to Houston at mid-season, it was viewed as a sign Emmanuel Sanders (31) would be the veteran No. 1 in 2019. But Sanders tore his Achilles on Dec. 5, putting his status in doubt. He has a $12.9 million cap number next year and he may not be ready for the season (if he returns to the Broncos at all).
It would serve the young receivers to have a veteran presence that doesn’t need to be a No. 1, but is productive and versatile enough to play often.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE
Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis (61) in 2017.
Why it’s an issue: Injuries and age have made this a position group to watch.
The Broncos’ Week 1 starting line: Left tackle Garett Bolles, left guard Ron Leary, center Matt Paradis, right guard Connor McGovern and right tackle Jared Veldheer.
The starting line on Sunday: Bolles, left guard Billy Turner, McGovern at center, right guard Elijah Wilkinson and Veldheer.
Only Bolles will have started all 16 games.
So many questions. Who plays center if Paradis leaves in free agency? Will the Broncos re-structure Leary’s contract (2019 cap hit of $9.2 million) if he has shown progress recovering from a torn Achilles? Do they like Wilkinson as Veldheer’s replacement at right tackle? Do they like McGovern as a right guard or as Paradis’ replacement?
5. SPARK THE RETURN GAME
Adam Jones (24) was one of five punt returners used by the Denver Broncos this season.
Why it’s an issue: The Broncos are last in punt return average (4.6 yards) and have used five players. The NFL average is 8.5 yards per return.
“Sustaining blocks (is needed) and then the other thing is we have to make plays back there,” special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said. “The returner’s got to make plays and I’ve got to do a better job of scheming it up. We’ve got to make a play when you get the ball in your hands.”
Elway used a 2017 draft pick on Isaiah McKenzie, who flopped and was eventually signed by Buffalo off the Broncos’ practice squad earlier this year.
Elway should prioritize finding a way to stabilize the return game, chiefly a player who can handle both kicks and punts.