Can Denver Be This Year's Breakout Offense?

A look at the upside of the Denver Broncos offense

In the first article of this series, we identified the three characteristics that most breakout offenses share. The 2017 Rams, 2018 Chiefs, and 2019 Ravens each massively outperformed expectations and led to league-winning fantasy performances. It is now time to apply that knowledge to our quest of trying to predict which offenses are primed to make a big leap forward this season.

The 2020 Denver Broncos have all of the elements we look for in a potential breakout offense:

  1. A young quarterback with an unknown ceiling.
  2. A major influx of young skill position talent.
  3. A new play-caller and a clear intent to be an offensively oriented team.

We will discuss each of these three elements in-depth below. Then we will acknowledge the possible pitfalls that could keep Denver from making a huge leap. Lastly, we will take a look at what fantasy impact we can expect from Denver’s skill position players depending on how big of a step forward the offense takes.

1. The upside of Drew Lock

Arguably, the three biggest breakout seasons in recent years came from offenses featuring a second-year quarterback who did not see playing time until the latter part of their rookie season. Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II, and Lamar Jackson each started seven games or less as rookies and then made a major leap forward in their second seasons to catapult their offenses to the top of the PPG leaders. Drew Lock enters 2020 in a similar position to what those other second-year quarterbacks found themselves. He played just five games last year and showed flashes of ability that could portend a breakout sophomore season.

With the Broncos sitting at 3-8 and out of contention, Lock finally saw the field for the first time in Week 13. He provided an instant spark and led Denver to a 4-1 finish (with the only loss coming on the road against the Chiefs).

There were flashes of brilliance. In Lock’s second career start, Denver went on the road and crushed Houston. The game was over early in the third quarter when the Broncos jumped out to a 38-3 lead.

Lock has confidence and plenty of physical ability, so there is a realistic chance he ends up being one of the breakout stars of the 2020 season. John Elway has done a great job of providing Lock with a potentially elite group of young pass catchers that could do a lot of the work for him. So Denver does not need Lock to be Superman — he just needs to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers and let them do the rest.

Your level of belief in Lock should weigh heavily in whether you think Denver’s offense can make a big leap forward in 2020.

2. The Weapons

Lock’s weapons could be the envy of the league. This is a young group of pass-catchers with massive upside. If this group matures quickly, it can emerge as one of the best groups of pass-catchers in the entire NFL.

You can envision a scenario where Jerry Jeudy is an instant star, Noah Fant makes a big leap in year two (like Mark Andrews did last year), and Courtland Sutton builds on a strong sophomore season to take his game to another level. In addition to three potential star pass catchers, K.J. Hamler has the game-breaking speed to change the way defenses are forced to defend the Broncos offense. Plus, the one-two punch at running back of Melvin Gordon III and Phillip Lindsay is one of the tops in the league.

Let’s look at the four young pass catchers in a bit more depth and start to imagine what the offense will look like when all four are on the field together.

Courtland Sutton Sutton is the one known commodity amongst the Broncos wide receiver corps. He has already broken out, catching 72 passes for 1,112 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2019. Still just 24-years old and entering his third NFL season, he has the potential to take his game to an even higher level.

In terms of the scheme, Sutton is going to line up primarily outside and should see a lot of single coverage given how much speed has been added across the rest of the offense. Speaking of speed, Sutton’s 4.54-time in the forty-yard dash is nothing to be ashamed of. He has shown himself to be a dangerous deep threat in his own right and Sutton was especially dangerous last season against press coverage.

Jerry Jeudy Aside from Lock, Jeudy is the biggest key to the Denver offense making the leap. Jeudy dominated the SEC each of the past two seasons and is one of the top wide receiver talents to enter the NFL in the last five years. He is already a polished route runner and there is no reason he should not make an immediate impact. Jeudy’s 4.46-speed will force defenses to respect him as a deep threat and help open up the rest of the field. We could see Jeudy make a similar impact that rookie receivers like A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Mike Evans, Michael Thomas, and Odell Beckham Jr did. If Jeudy is the type of talent many think he is, the Broncos will have one of the best one-two punches at wide receiver in the NFL.

Noah Fant Fant had a strong rookie season, catching 40 passes for 562 yards and 3 touchdowns. His production is especially impressive considering he was a 21-year old rookie playing the position that has historically proven to be the most difficult for young players to make an impact. Fant is a physical freak. He has 4.50 speed and a 39.5-inch vertical. He showed flashes of potential stardom as a rookie, especially as a big-play threat after the catch. With Sutton and Jeudy drawing attention outside, Fant should consistently have favorable matchups against safeties that are too small to cover him and linebackers who don’t have the speed to run with him.

K.J. Hamler Of all the rookie wide receivers, Hamler is the early-round guy who is flying the furthest under the radar. It is mostly understandable from a fantasy perspective because the three guys above are going to make it difficult for Hamler to put up big numbers. However, it is easy to envision Hamler having a major impact on this offense. Having that 4.3 guy in the slot is terrifying for opposing defenses and he will help draw attention from the other playmakers who should find themselves in more favorable 1-on-1 matchups.

As Elway said after the draft, Hamler is a key piece to the puzzle. “He just has a different speed than anyone else,” said Elway. “This has become such a speed game. Watch Kansas City. We love Courtland Sutton, we love Jerry Jeudy. Get Hamler in the slot against quarters coverage, releasing upfield at 4.3 or 4.32 speed, and that's going to put a lot of pressure on the safeties, I know that."

It is the cumulative impact of having these four talented pass catchers that is what makes this offense so intriguing heading into 2020. There is deep speed, size, route-running talent, and YAC ability that is going to make matchups extremely difficult for opposing defenses.

3. Offensive focus and a new scheme

Pat Shurmur is the new offensive coordinator. Broncos fans could expect plenty of three-wide receiver sets, a commitment to the run, deep passes off play-action, and utilization of the screen game. John Elway clearly made the calculation over the last two drafts that the only way to really challenge Kansas City over the next 5-10 years is to build an offense that can also score a lot of points.

In the last two drafts, the Broncos have used all five of their top-50 picks on offensive players. Everyone in the AFC West is looking up at the Chiefs and knows that the only chance they have to win the division anytime soon is to put together an explosive offense capable of going blow for blow in shootouts against Patrick Mahomes II.

In addition to the offensive focus in recent drafts, Denver has also let some expensive defenders leave in free agency and used the savings to add offensive free agents like guard Graham Glasgow (4 years, $44M).

Potential holdups

While we believe in Denver’s offensive upside and chances to be a breakout offense in 2020, we also want to make sure we acknowledge some of the issues that might hold back the Broncos offense in 2020.

First, the offensive line still needs some work. In Matt Bitonti’s offensive line rankings, the Broncos rank just 28th. Here is Bitonti's latest breakdown of the unit:

DENVER BRONCOS

Starters: Garrett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Patrick Morris, Graham Glasgow, JaWuan James

Backups: Elijah Wilkinson, Lloyd Cushenberry R, Netane Muti R, Jake Rodgers

Notes: This line will have two new starters compared to last season. Right guard Graham Glasgow was signed from Detroit to replace Ron Leary, and either Patrick Morris or Lloyd Cushenberry (fourth rd pick from LSU) will replace center Connor McGovern. The coaches hope to run outside zone and need a bounce-back season from right tackle JaWuan James for this to occur. James was only available for three games last season.

Second, the lack of a full offseason for the young skill position talent to develop chemistry increases the degree of difficulty. While all teams will have to overcome this lack of preparation time, it could be especially difficult for an offense like Denver’s that has so little experience and time together.

Denver Offensive Projections

We have laid out the case for why Denver’s offense might make a big offensive leap. In recent years, we have averaged three teams per season that scored at least 33% more points per game than the year prior. If Denver is one of those teams in 2020, we can expect them to score at least 24 PPG.

The tool below allows you to look at what the fantasy production might look like depending upon how big of a leap the offense makes (measured in PPG). Use the slider to adjust the PPG and the offensive projections, fantasy points, and projected positional fantasy ranking will adjust accordingly.

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