DENVER • This is when the results start to turn. This is when the Broncos get good again.
Right here, in 2021.
It’s on these guys to transform four productive draft classes and a solid free agent haul into wins. These guys are the Prove It guys. They have the responsibility and ability to prove the team’s worst four-year stretch since the 1960s is over and the arrow is pointing up.
Team Prove It begins with:
• Vic Fangio. “We have a good team,” the third-year coach said in August. The analytics folks agree. Pro Football Focus tabbed the Broncos as the sixth-best roster in the NFL: “Denver would be even higher if we removed the quarterbacks from the equation.” But will Fangio be removed from the equation? Vegas oddsmakers stuck Fangio with the second-best odds to be the first coach fired, trailing only Mike McCarthy of the Cowboys. There’s no doubt George Paton prefers if Fangio wins enough to stay put. The new general manager provided Fangio an expensive secondary, first-round cornerback Patrick Surtain II and the rights to choose his quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Locker room leaders hope Fangio proves it and sticks around.
• Garett Bolles and Justin Simmons. What has four thumbs and signed $129 million in contract extensions? These guys. Time to prove the Broncos’ money was well-spent. Neither Simmons, a veteran safety, nor Bolles, the veteran left tackle, helped the Broncos to the postseason. “Holding, No. 72” and “Broncos blow a late lead” (when the secondary broke down) have been common laments at Empower Field at Mile High. But with that that kind of money, much more is expected of the vets.
• Courtland Sutton. Paton referred to Sutton as “a core guy” and said the Broncos will retain their core guys. At what price? One of the most popular Broncos — in the stands or the locker room — is a free agent after this season. Coming off a painful rehab from a knee injury, Sutton can name his price with a big season. Ten wide receivers make north of $17 million per season. What gets Sutton there? Eighty catches, 1,000 yards? Yep, that would do it.
• Drew Lock. When Fangio named Bridgewater the starting quarterback, the book was closed on the Lock era ... right? Not so fast. Bridgewater’s injury history, and the Broncos’ quarterback history, suggest it’s a matter of weeks before Lock is starting again. Bridgewater has played 15 or 16 games twice in six seasons. Plus, Denver used three starting quarterbacks in each of the past two years — and hasn’t used the same starter for an entire season since Peyton Manning in 2014. “I’ll be ready,” Lock said. Stay ready, young man.
• Kareem Jackson. The safety wasn’t the hot commodity he expected to be. After testing free agency, Jackson returned to the Broncos to play in Fangio’s system again. That was his take, anyway. He also didn’t find much of a market, ultimately re-signing here for $5 million and one year. Remember, it was Paton who initially declined the option on Jackson’s contract.
• John Elway. Yes, this marks No. 7’s final season as a Broncos executive. Yes, the franchise legend has stepped out of the spotlight. But it was Elway’s and Matt Russell’s front office that drafted most of the good players on this roster, from Simmons (2016) to Bradley Chubb (2018) to Noah Fant (2019) to Jerry Jeudy (2020). If the Prove It guys do their job, Elway’s job as GM rises another level.
• George Paton. His grade as GM, at least for now, largely depends on the players he passed on. Paton passed on promising quarterbacks Justin Fields, who looked awfully good in Chicago’s preseason, and Mac Jones, who already won the starting job for Bill Belichick in New England. If Fields and Jones develop into Pro Bowl quarterbacks even as the Broncos wander through a quarterback desert, Broncos Country will be left wondering what could’ve been. Tough gig, Broncos GM. But it pays well.
• Von Miller. Is this it for the hero of Super Bowl 50 in Denver? He’s still the people’s champ. During the celebrity softball game at the MLB All-Star Game, Vonnie Football came to bat to a standing ovation at Coors Field. Now he’s on a one-year deal with the only team he’s known. Now he’s a dad. Now he must outperform his idol, Demarcus Ware. At age 31, Ware totaled six sacks. If Miller hits double-digit sacks, it says here, the Broncos reach the postseason.
And the Prove It Broncos will have Proved It.