2017 NFL Preview: Broncos GM John Elway betting on same QBs ... for now

Shutdown Corner 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 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

John Elway’s reputation is set. He’s the relentlessly aggressive player at the poker table of NFL general managers.

He earned that rep when he went on a spree and built a championship team with some high-profile free agents. He landed Peyton Manning, a franchise-changing move. He signed difference-makers like T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders. He practically stole Sanders from the Kansas City Chiefs, the kind of move you rarely see in the often too-friendly world of NFL front offices. It doesn’t even matter that Elway’s two biggest signings the last two years, by far, were solid football moves but yawn-inspiring: offensive tackle Russell Okung and guard Ronald Leary. Nobody is rushing out to buy an authentic Leary jersey in Denver this offseason, let’s say. But we wait for Elway’s big splash move because that’s what we expect from him.

That makes the post-Manning Broncos interesting, especially at quarterback. Because there hasn’t been a big headline out of Denver since Manning retired.

Every remotely available big-name quarterback has been linked to the Broncos the past two offseasons. Even though the team insisted they never really had interest in Tony Romo this year, adding Romo seemed like an Elway power move so it didn’t matter what the Broncos said. You expect Elway to turn up with a new star quarterback, somehow.

The problem is, it’s not that easy to find a quarterback. Not even for the great John Elway. Trevor Siemian has been excellent for a seventh-round pick, but it’s still tough to see him becoming a top-10 quarterback. Moving up a few spots to draft Paxton Lynch in the first round last year was a somewhat aggressive move by Elway, but late first-round quarterbacks aren’t sure things, and everyone figured Lynch needed some time to develop.

For the second straight year the Broncos head to training camp with a very good roster and a big quarterback question. Unless you really like the Houston Texans, the Broncos are the best team in the NFL that has an unsettled quarterback situation. Maybe it works out. But, as we saw last season when Denver missed the playoffs despite one of the best pass defenses you’ll ever see, it might not work out.

Siemian and Lynch will battle for the starting job in camp. Some observers believe Lynch might have a small edge heading into camp. But Siemian is the incumbent and last year he won the job in camp because he was good in a controlled practice environment. And he wasn’t bad in 14 starts (3,401 yards, 18 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 84.6 rating). He did well for a first-year starter.

Lynch drew strong reviews in OTAs, which is promising. He has a great arm, good athleticism and has a higher ceiling than Siemian. If the Broncos have a path to a franchise quarterback that doesn’t involve a crazy trade or a fortunate free-agent signing, it’s through Lynch. Lynch also has a lower floor than Siemian. Lynch got two starts last season and didn’t play great in either. An extremely conservative game plan against the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t put him in a position to look good, and he didn’t. Lynch could thrive in a more shotgun-based attack with new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, but nobody knows yet if he’s the answer.

We do know what to expect from Siemian. He’s not exceptional in any area, but he is tough and knows how to run an offense. He had some very nice moments last season – go rewatch Denver’s Week 3 win over Cincinnati or the thrilling home loss later in the season to the Kansas City Chiefs – but does Siemian seem like the type of quarterback you can win big with?

Rather, let’s put it this way: Does Siemian seem like the type of quarterback the ultra-competitive Elway would be content with the next few years? But we don’t know if Lynch can be that guy either.

It seems like practically the same team from last season, with an unbelievable pass defense that went 9-7. However, there was a huge change in the offseason. Coach Gary Kubiak stepped down at the end of last season, saying he couldn’t handle the grind anymore. The staff experienced a lot of turnover, most notably losing great defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Vance Joseph, a first-time head coach who has only been a defensive coordinator for one season, was given the reigns to a team just one season removed from a Super Bowl title. That’s pressure.

Denver is confusing. They’re not far removed from winning it all, and a lot of the key pieces from that title team are still in place. They still have a dominant defense with perhaps the best defensive player in the league, edge rusher Von Miller. But the biggest piece for any NFL team is either coach or quarterback, and the Broncos have big questions at both spots. If the Broncos don’t get back to the playoffs this season, perhaps Elway will get back to his free-wheeling aggressive ways and maybe pull a new star quarterback out of his hat. That’s what we’re all waiting for, isn’t it?

Broncos GM John Elway is hoping his team can get back to the playoffs in 2017. (AP)

The Broncos had to fix their offensive line this offseason, and there weren’t many viable ways to do so. Free agency was light when it came to o-linemen, and the draft wasn’t strong either. But Denver did pretty well. Guard Ronald Leary comes from Dallas at a $9 million-a-year price tag. That’s pricy, but the market was out of control and Denver had to spend big. The Broncos will try to resurrect former second-round offensive tackle Menelik Watson, who was often injured with the Raiders. And first-round pick Garett Bolles might start from day one at left tackle. There wasn’t a lot of other activity. Denver hopes defensive tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr can help a run defense that was surprisingly vulnerable. Running back Jamaal Charles was the biggest name added, but it’s unclear how much he has left. Grade: B

In some ways, an NFL coach can be a bit overrated. A team’s coordinators and top assistants, depending on how much a head coach delegates, can be the real lifeblood of a team. To that end, Denver put together a very good staff. Mike McCoy comes back to Denver as an offensive coordinator after his head-coaching tenure with the Chargers was filled with heartbreaking losses. Bill Musgrave, who has nine seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator (and two more in college at Virginia), was hired to work with the quarterbacks. Respected Jeff Davidson was hired to coach the offensive line. And while Joe Woods has a tough job replacing Wade Phillips at defensive coordinator, he is a favorite of Broncos players and Denver wasted no time promoting him. Vance Joseph is a rookie head coach, but he has a lot of good, experienced assistants around him. And maybe Gary Kubiak, beat down from the grind of the job, hurt the Broncos last season more than we realize.

Denver’s schedule is absolutely brutal. According to analyst Warren Sharp, who uses Las Vegas over/under win projections to determine strength of schedule, the Broncos have the NFL’s hardest schedule. That’s no surprise. Here are the opponents:

Home opponents: Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Giants, Bengals
Away opponents: Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Bills, Dolphins, Eagles, Redskins, Colts

The Jets game is a gimme. How many of those other 15 games look like sure wins? The Broncos probably should beat the Chargers and Bengals at home, but they aren’t pushovers. Denver has to travel to face solid teams like the Bills, Eagles, Redskins and Colts, and those are some long trips for the Broncos. It’s hard to find 10 or more wins in that schedule.

Since we spent plenty of time on the top two in the intro, it’s worth mentioning Chad Kelly here. Kelly wasn’t your typical Mr. Irrelevant. The last pick in the draft, Kelly slipped due to off-field concerns and an injury history. A lot of draft analysts liked Kelly heading into last season, but he didn’t play great his final season at Ole Miss and tore his ACL. Still, there’s some raw talent there. Because Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch aren’t can’t-miss stars, it’s worth keeping Kelly in the back of your mind for the future.

Von Miller is the Broncos’ best player, but he’s no mystery. The most important player to Denver’s fortunes this season might be receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas wasn’t bad last season (90-1,083-5) but he was far off his career norms. From 2012-15, Thomas averaged 101-1,447-10. So last season was a big step back. A quarterback change didn’t help. Neither did a hip injury he suffered early in Denver’s season opener. The same quarterbacks return, but the return of coordinator Mike McCoy could help. McCoy was Denver’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12, Thomas’ first three seasons. McCoy will presumably focus on getting Thomas the ball on short screens, plays that are tailor-made for Thomas’ skill set. The Broncos’ mundane offense needs Thomas to return to his normal production level.

From Yahoo Sports’ Brad Evans: “Emmanuel Sanders’ name may not carry the same weight compared to Demaryius Thomas, but the second fiddle usually doesn’t lag far behind. Five spots is the widest disparity separating the two in single-season fantasy points scored since they joined forces in 2014 (Final WR rank 2014 – DT: WR4, ES: WR7, ’15 – DT: WR13, ES: WR18, ’16 – DT: WR18, ES: WR21). Despite their minimal year-to-year differences, owners continue to shell out much higher draft picks for Thomas. Unwise. Considering the thin discrepancy, the shrewd investor always chases the better value, in this case Sanders (DT average draft position: 28.3, ES: 58.4). Likely to draw another 130-plus targets, he’s a good bet for 75-1050-6 this season. Bargain shop, #TeamHuevos.”

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Broncos]

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Denver’s passer rating allowed in 2016 was practically impossible to believe: 69.7. Among all quarterbacks with 250 attempts last season, only Ryan Fitzpatrick finished with a rating that low, at 69.6. The Broncos basically turned every quarterback they faced last season into 2016 Ryan Fitzpatrick, on average. Denver had more interceptions (14) than touchdowns allowed (13). The Broncos’ 55.4 completion percentage allowed was three points better than any other team. They allowed just four 40-yard passes last year, best in the NFL. The 5.8 yards per attempt allowed was 0.8 better than any other team. The 2016 Broncos had a historically incredible pass defense, and it didn’t get the attention it deserved because Denver didn’t make the playoffs.

CAN THE BRONCOS’ RUNNING GAME GET BACK ON TRACK?

The solution to the Broncos’ quarterback situation last year seemed easy: run the ball and play good defense. The defense part came through. The running game never did. Denver was 28th in yards per run last season. The Broncos had four 20-yard runs (tied for worst in the NFL) and finished 27th in total rushing yards. C.J. Anderson injured his meniscus, which didn’t help, but it was in line with Anderson’s long injury history. Devontae Booker, a rookie last season, didn’t play well. There will be a scheme change, from the Gary Kubiak zone-based scheme to a power-running scheme. That might better suit Anderson and Booker. With additions to the offensive line, Anderson and Booker should fare better in 2017. That would certainly help Denver’s quarterback, whoever it ends up being.

Denver’s defense is still among the best in the NFL. The Broncos didn’t stop the run well last season, but it’s a passing league and nobody is better against the pass than Denver. Assuming the Broncos have an elite defense again, it’s easy to talk yourself into coordinator Mike McCoy improving the offense with a better running game and a step forward from the quarterback position. If you want to get really optimistic, Paxton Lynch wins the job and proves he’s the quarterback of the future. If the pieces come together, the Broncos are one of the few teams you can imagine knocking off the Patriots, because the defense is capable of playing at a rare level.

Given the schedule, it’s easy to see the Broncos missing the playoffs again. With how good the AFC West is, it’s possible they finish in last place. Denver really didn’t do anything at a high level last season except stop the pass (which, granted, is a great foundation). If the offense isn’t better, and Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch don’t look like the long-term answer, it’ll be an interesting offseason in Denver next year. The problem is, it’s still tough to find a quarterback when you don’t have one.

Seriously, take a look at the schedule. Denver plays seven road games in a 10-game stretch, and the easiest one is probably at Indianapolis, which might win the AFC South. Even if Denver is a very good team, with a strong defense and a competent offense, it’ll be a challenge just to survive the schedule. Then you add in questions about the quarterback and even the run defense, and it’s hard to invest in the Broncos. Though I think they’re probably one of the six best teams in the AFC, it’s probably 50-50 they make the playoffs.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!