There is little doubt that the Broncos’ roster looks much improved from this time a year ago, but as is always the case in the NFL: it’s all relative. With that in mind, I thought it’d be a good time to take a look at the 2020 opponents. Who improved? Who didn’t? How does Denver stack up? We know who they’ll play, even if the order remains a mystery. With the bulk of the off-season in the rear view, I thought it a good time to take a look at each opponent’s key additions and subtractions, plus share some musings. They’re presented Power Ranking’s style as I see them.
No group of decision-makers in the league had a more perplexing off-season than Matt Rhule, Marty Hurney, and the Panthers. Right around the time of the Trai Turner for Russell Okung swap, it looked like Rhule’s long contract and the job security it offered would give him a chance to strip the roster bare in time to chase the number one pick and a choice between Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence.
On the other side of the ball, questions remain. Like or hate James Bradberry, he was the number one corner a year ago. He and Gerald McCoy’s departures look like they’ll be a blow to the pass defense. While I liked the decision to draft Troy Pride and Jeremy Chinn, the secondary is very green. Both could see significant playing time because the guys ahead of them are completely unproven, or even bad.
There’s going to be enormous pressure on the pass rush to produce, and that group is leaning heavily on Brian Burns in year two. Both Brown and Gross-Matos should help, but neither look like the kind of difference maker Phil Snow will need to protect the secondary from Pat Shurmur and the Broncos’ weapons.
The Dolphins lost no significant free agent of note because they stripped the roster to the bone in front of 2019 in order to land Tua. With their southpaw passer in the fold, as well as a number of free agents and four other draft picks from the top two rounds, the roster looks much improved. Tanking behind them, the Dolphins can take a step forward and be a really bad team in 2020.
Like the Patriots under Bill Belichick, Miami’s defense has been built from back to front. One strength Brian Flores should be able to lean on early and often is a loaded cornerback group with Jones, Howard, and rookie Igbinoghene. The safety group is solid and should give Flores an ability to scheme up a pass rush to compliment Shaq Lawson.
Offensively, things are still a huge work in progress. Austin Jackson was a project who won’t have much ground to cover in order to emerge as the best left tackle on the roster, but he’ll line up next to Ereck Flowers. There’s a really good chance that’s one of the worst left sides in football this season. If Tua gets his opportunity to start, some of those issues are mitigated by the fact he’s a lefty, but Jesse Davis or Robert Hunt at right tackle are hardly better.
Miami’s skill positions shouldn’t scare anyone, even accounting for the fact Devante Parker embarrassed Stephon Gilmore last year. Allen Hurns, Albert Wilson, and Mike Gesicki are mostly names at this point and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t realize they played in South Beach. Combine all that with the fact Denver plays the Dolphins at home and I like their chances in this matchup unless Tagovailoa comes in and looks like a phenom.
Another team that almost has to be better in 2020, because they had a perfect storm of awful luck to start the Adam Gase era. Sam Darnold contracted mono in early September and by the time he returned, New York was 0-4 and dead in the water. An easy schedule with the AFC and NFC East helped them to finish on a high note, but the dysfunction and general unease over Gase remains.
From an overall power rankings type of perspective, I’ll admit I’ve had a tough time with these next couple teams because their opponents will have such a huge impact on their overall records. It’s a bit more simple to decipher how I think they match up against the Broncos, however.
The Jets have some pieces and a division that could make them a surprise team in 2020. They also play the Broncos in the Meadowlands. However, it’s easy to imagine Von Miller embarrassing a rookie Becton for a critical sack fumble. Unless Mims hits the ground looking like my best 3-year projection for him, I don’t think Darnold will be able to do enough to win this kind of game. The Jets’ defense still lacks a reliable edge rusher, so Garett Bolles isn’t as big of an X-factor.
For how much I liked the Justin Herbert selection for the Broncos, it’s easy to see how he can fit into Anthony Lynn’s scheme and be hidden by a run heavy approach with a lot of play action. This weaponizes his mobility and takes advantage of his arm talent to push the ball vertically. Also keep an eye on Joe Reed to surprise if LA starts to incorporate a lot of the screen plays Herbert rode to success with the Ducks.
Where that outlook gets murky is I still don’t know if that offensive line is anything close to good enough to keep them out of long yardage. Those situations would expose both quarterbacks to dropback passing, where it will be much more hard on them to stay ahead of the sticks.
Where the Chargers will present a number of issues is defensively. Even as they lost Phillips and Davis, they added Harris Jr. Broncos fans have spent the better part of the last 6 months convincing themselves he’s washed up, but he’s moving back to a scheme that allows him to shine for his career. Being in the slot will also hide some of the long speed he may have lost. Add to that other pieces like Derwin James, Nasir Adderly, Desmond King, and Casey Heyward with Ingram and Bosa up front, and LA’s defense will be one of the best in football if they can stay healthy.
Denver will likely need to win both these games to keep pace in the AFC West, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it comes down to a split. Lose one when Tyrod Taylor is the quarterback and the Broncos’ young pieces are still finding their way, win one late when Herbert poops his pants and Jerry Jeudy or K.J. Hamler break free for a long gain in the fourth quarter.
9. New England Patriots
+ Adrian Phillips, Brian Hoyer, Marqise Lee, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche
It feels like the Patriots are still waiting to sign a few key parts that won’t count against the compensatory formula that really gives shape to their 2020 roster. Because of that, I feel like there’s a decent chance they wind up far more of a challenge than I see them right now. Minus that, here are a few thoughts I can’t get over:
If you put a ton of weight on preseason performances, Jarrett Stidham looked a lot better in New England than he did at Auburn.
The Pats are rumored to have been in on Jalen Hurts.
That secondary remains from the 2019 season. Even if an inevitable regression occurs, they’re probably too good on defense to properly tank into a top 5 pick barring a tear down.
Josh Uche is the kind of designated pass rusher who could really surprise people with Bill Belichick scheming him into optimal situations. I love that fit from a scheme/talent perspective.
Because the Broncos were so deep into the QB market back in 2019, I did work on the Auburn Tiger and wasn’t at all impressed. That said, if Stidham hits or the Pats add a Cam Newton or Andy Dalton type, the matchup in Foxboro will be a bear as it always is. New England will have the matchup weapons to give Courtland Sutton and the receiving corps plenty of issues. The game could come down to Noah Fant. In the past, Patrick Chung has been Belichick’s tight end defender, but he’s 32 and Dugger is unproven.
Much like the Patriots, there’s a decent chance Tennessee isn’t done adding talent to the roster. They have a little over $20 million in cap space and rumors abound that there is a plan to add Jadeveon Clowney to the mix. It’s a move that’d make a ton of sense, as Harold Landry, Vic Beasley, and Jeffrey Simmons don’t currently look like enough to compete with the top offenses in the AFC.
The bigger problem with the Titans and why I can’t move them any farther up these rankings is the question marks on their offense. Ryan Tannehill returns and will almost certainly crash back to earth this season. Last year’s run was a perfect storm of career performance in an offense that was so good at creating optimal looks through play action that it’d be foolish to count on more of the same. Conklin’s exit for the Browns leaves the right tackle position in flux, and unless Wilson can step in early without a drop off, there will be more of a need for more dropback passing this season.
While A.J. Brown had a remarkable rookie season after falling to the second round, the complimentary weapons around him leave a lot to be desired. Adam Humphries is a solid slot option, but Corey Davis isn’t going to keep opponents up at night. The same bodes true for the tight end group, so unless the Titan’s defense can smother the Broncos’ offense, I like the matchups here.
The Falcons went into the 2020 off-season with one of the most difficult situations in the league. With the cap strangling their flexibility and a winning stretch to end 2019, Arthur Blank elected to keep Dan Quinn rather than tie a new coach to a roster he can’t retool. They found a way to splurge on former Rams. Dante Fowler looks like he’ll be an upgrade on Vic Beasley, while Todd Gurley looked like a flier to stir up some interest among the fanbase. The former Georgia Bulldog’s knees were shoddy enough that Sean McVay limited his carries even as LA was starving for offense.
A.J. Terrell will probably need to play early, which could be ugly because he needs to get stronger and improve at the catch point. Davidson will factor into the defensive line rotation and Hennessy could wind up beating out James Carpenter for a starting guard job. It’s debatable if this roster is better than last year’s Falcons, but if they can stay more healthy, it’s hard to count them out.
What makes them a tough matchup for the Broncos is that Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Matt Ryan could prove tough for the Broncos’ secondary while Atlanta has a difference-maker at each level of their defense. I like Drew Lock’s odds against a mostly iffy secondary, but it could be close.
The Steelers were on the doorstep of the playoffs with guys like Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph under center for the vast majority of the season. For that reason, it won’t be a surprise to see most push them up a rung or two on this list because Ben Roethlisberger looks slated to return. I’m not so sure he’ll be a substantial upgrade.
The last time we saw the now 38-year-old, he was completing less than 60% of his passes. You have to turn the clock back to 2018 to see the last Roethlisberger touchdown. Now he’s recovering from major elbow surgery and the Steelers did try to bring in Jameis Winston, only turning back to Rudolph and Hodges after they were spurned for the Saints.
If Big Ben can shrug off Father Time, this has the makings of a playoff contender. The line isn’t as sturdy as it was under Munchak with Ramon Foster’s retirement, but should be decent. Most of the receiving corps should improve due to a year of experience, most notably Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Juju Smith-Schuster had a down 2019, but remains dangerous.
If Roethlisberger pulls a Duck, the defense does have the pieces to make them a scary opponent, especially away from the more friendly confines of Mile High. Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt both had arguments for Defensive Player of the Year last season. Both Stephen Tuitt and Cameron Heyard should be healthier. Devin Bush should look more consistent in coverage in his sophomore season, and Bud Dupree returns on the franchise tag. Depth could be an issue, but even with Joe Haden looking a little long in the tooth, there could be a ton of potential issues for the Broncos’ young offense.
- Jordan Phillips, Frank Gore, Kevin Johnson, Shaq Lawson
I’d be surprised if Josh Allen isn’t the new QBWin king of the NFL after this year. After coming into the league as an abysmal passer in 2018, he looked bad last year. If he can jump from bad to so-so this year, it could be enough to make a serious push in the playoffs.
Give Brandon Beane a lot of credit, he took a boring approach to free agency last year and built for a 2020 window. The Bills’ general manager threw a ton of money at the offensive supporting cast to really build up the depth and saw it mostly pan out. This year was more about making a couple of big moves in order to capitalize on Tom Brady’s exit from the AFC East. Stefon Diggs is a gamble, but a really talented one and bringing him in pushes the rest of the receiving corps down a rung where they now look quite good. John Brown in particular should benefit from less attention, and the threat this boundary pair presents vertically will only help Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and the power running game thrive.
Losing Kevin Johnson for Josh Norman does bring with it a few questions because the former Panther looked done last season, but if anyone can help him squeeze out one more year, it’s Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier. If Ed Oliver makes the leap in year two, it should take the sting away from losing Shaq Lawson after his career year. Mario Addison and rookie A.J. Epenesa will also soften the blow.
Playing the Bills in Denver should get rid of the nasty weather factor that completely derailed the Brandon Allen passing attack last season. Add in that Vic Fangio should have Bradley Chubb logging the majority of snaps instead of Malik Reed and it will be harder for Josh Allen to create off broken plays.
On this side of the season opener I like the Bronco’s chances, but if Allen becomes a real quarterback this year, it is going to be a really tough matchup.
Jon Gruden isn’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of his quarterbacks, and so it came as no surprise that the Raiders sniffed around the Tom Brady market. I was in the vocal minority rooting for it to happen. I saw a team with all of the cap space Denver had with more draft capital and loved the chance that Mayock would blow a ton of it paying a 43-year-old and burning picks to build around him for a single window.
Instead, Derek Carr returns with a backup breathing down his neck on one of the most vastly improved rosters in football. It wouldn’t surprise me if the former second round pick finds his way to the bench for being too conservative this year if Chucky thinks he can squeeze more out of Mariota. It also wouldn’t surprise me if the former Heisman winner has a career year with the best supporting case he’s ever had in the NFL.
While I think Henry Ruggs was a peculiar choice as the first receiver taken in the NFL Draft, I fully expected Elway to do the same thing. He fits the Raiders offense as a do-it-all threat who can use his speed to present as a deep threat or terrorize opponents after the catch. That dynamic should make things easier for Darren Waller and take numbers out of the box for Josh Jacobs and the bruising offensive line to operate.
On defense, the Raiders were a hot mess in 2019, especially their secondary. Damon Arnette was rich in the first round, but should be an upgrade over Daryl Worley. Trayvon Mullen returns at the other boundary spot after playing 675 snaps as a rookie. Jonathan Abram’s return from Injured Reserve and Damarious Randall should vastly improve the safety group. Amik Robertson will push LaMarcus Joyner for playing time in the slot. At least on paper, this back end is far deeper and more talented than anything that saw the field last year.
In front of them, the linebacker position got a ton of money thrown at it. Kwiatkoski isn’t a household name, but he filled in admirably for Danny Trevathan in Chicago and will pair with Cory Littleton to give Vegas two backers who can run and hold up in coverage. Maliek Collins and Carl Nassib join an underrated front seven and create a deep rotation with a lot of pass rush potential. Maurice Hurst is a bear inside.
The jokes will never grow old about Clelin Ferrell, but Maxx Crosby is no laughing matter. I’ve watched the Raiders-Broncos games from last year five or so times now and he only looks better each viewing. Barring something unforeseen, he’s going to be a stud.
It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that Tom Brady would choose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After all, the NFC road to the Super Bowl isn’t as littered with young passers who can take over games. Florida has no income tax and the warm weather should hide a declining arm and be a little easier on a 43-year-old’s aching bones.
Seriously, though, the roster is also pretty darn stacked. Bruce Arians couldn’t fix Winston in his first year at the helm, but Todd Bowles turned the defense from a laughingstock into a true force. Shaq Barrett got most of the noise because of his surprise run at the sack king title, but it’s the 2019 investment into the secondary that should most help Tampa prevent comebacks this year. Devin White flashed serious promise as a rookie and the arrow is pointing up. Vita Vea, William Gholston, and Ndamukong Suh make for an intimidating front.
For the first time since 2017, Brady will have a full arsenal of weapons around him in the passing game. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were the best duo in football last year and Tyler Johnson has all of the tools to be an early contributor running the slot. Rob Gronkowski may not be able to get back to his Hall of Fame level production after a year of doing Gronk things, but pairs with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate to make one of the best tight end groups in the league. Vaughn and Ronald Jones aren’t going to be stars, but should serve as viable complimentary pieces to the passing game. We’ve seen a few Calais’ before back in New England: small, speedy, all-purpose player who Brady turns into a weapon.
If they can stay healthy, this roster doesn’t have a ton of holes. Barrett probably doesn’t repeat his sack numbers and the edge rush behind him isn’t great. The offensive line was shaky enough that Jason Licht tried to trade away his draft for Tristan Wirfs, who some thought was better inside. Outside of a precipitous decline from 12, that’s really it.
Tom Brady the Patriot left Foxboro with a losing record against one team in the NFL. Time will tell if Tom Brady the Buccaneer can throw a winning record against the Broncos on his resume, but his supporting cast makes this matchup one of the toughest Drew Lock will have in his first full season at the helm.
Last year Tom Brady and Drew Brees fought for the total passing yardage mark. This year, they’ll fight for the NFC South. The Bucs are the upstarts with an all-time great QB joining a stacked offense and surprisingly good defense. The Saints saw their all-time great stave off retirement (for the last time?) to come back to a loaded roster from top to bottom.
Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, and Cameron Jordan are the big names. Throw in Brees, Sean Payton, and the arguments over Taysom Hill and it becomes easy to underestimate how talented the team is. The offensive line is both immensely talented and deep, a combination no team in the NFL has to the same degree. Jared Cook caught nine touchdowns a year ago.
On defense, it’s more of the same. Marcus Davenport’s quietly been a really good piece for them across from Jordan and Sheldon Rankins should be healthier than he was in 2019. Across from Lattimore, Malcolm and Janoris Jenkins pair with last year’s fourth round steal Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to give them a strong nickel set.
The biggest questions facing this roster are the complimentary weapons and Drew Brees’ age. Emmanuel Sanders was a nice addition, but he’s 33 and signed until 9 retires. After him it’s a long list of guys the coaching staff likes more than anyone else does, and perhaps that’s enough. In the end, the fact that Payton’s calling the shots leaves me convinced they’ll be dangerous until the former Boilermaker’s arm falls off.
Let’s just say I’m glad Fangio gets them at home, because this one could be a nightmare for the rebuilt secondary.
In an off-season dominated by the fact that continuity will provide an inherent advantage, the Chiefs are bringing back the lion’s share of their Super Bowl team from a year ago. Let there be no doubt: this team is the heavy favorite to make it to Tampa.
There aren’t a lot of words I can say about Patrick Mahomes you haven’t heard before. He’s in a tier of his own in the league. No other quarterback brings the same combination of arm talent, athleticism, and savvy that he does. The fact that he’s paired with arguably the best offensive play caller in the league is almost unfair. Throw in Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and the best right tackle in football and it’s dang near criminal. It should speak volumes that one reason I liked the CEH pick in this past draft is that it opens up a remote possibility that Reid takes the ball out of Mahomes’ hands too much.
If there’s one area where the Chiefs could have a real hangover this season, it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Chris Jones and Frank Clark remain a dangerous pair up front and Willie Gay Jr. could really elevate that second level, but the corner situation is in flux with Fuller gone and Breshaud Breeland facing legal issues. Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme and the talent of the safety pair is enough that they could survive it, but the better passing attacks in the league may be able to exploit this.
One of the reasons why I loved the Broncos’ draft class so much is, without a real way to slow down KC’s aerial circus, the best strategy is to do what it takes to keep up with them. That weakness in the secondary isn’t insignificant so long as Drew Lock shows the ability to efficiently attack it.
With the NFL expanding the playoff pool to seven teams in each conference, it’s entirely possible for Denver to make the dance without ending their losing streak to the Chiefs in 2020. But if they want to do more than serve as a speed bump in January, they’ll need to find a way to win in Arrowhead.