ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos haven’t been to the playoffs in five seasons. They’ve lost at least 10 games in three of those years. The team’s late owner Pat Bowlen said he always wanted to be “relevant,” but recently an analyst on the league’s own network described the Broncos as basically a yawn-inducing operation.
And yet the Broncos powered through free agency, signing one defensive player after another. And those players were more than excited to mention coach Vic Fangio as one of the biggest reason they’ll play in Denver next season.
Cornerback Kyle Fuller: “We just seem to get along well naturally. I like the way he goes about his coaching and the game of football. I like that a lot.”
Safety Justin Simmons: “I was thankful for coach Vic and coach Ed [Donatell]. … Every week, it felt like I was being checked up on mentally when I was away from home and in the facility.”
Defensive end Shelby Harris: “Vic is a cool guy. I always say if he’s not saying anything to you, it’s not a good thing. … Vic is the perfect guy for the job — so smart defensively. You see around the league, there is a Vic Fangio coaching tree coming out. We’re so lucky to have a guy like Vic out there who understands this league and is so respected around the league and in this locker room.”
The work in free agency made it clear defense was a priority for newly-hired general manager George Paton — with Fangio’s blessing.
Fangio, headed into his third season on the job with a 12-20 record, is a fairly large piece of the puzzle. Free-agent additions Fuller and Ronald Darby give the Broncos potential stability at cornerback — the kind they didn’t have last season when they lost five cornerbacks to injuries or suspension (A.J. Bouye) during a three-week span. The re-signing of Simmons and Harris sent a message to the locker room that the team would bring back its best free agents — something it hasn’t always done — and pay them handsomely (Simmons’ deal made him the highest-paid safety in the league).
Exercising the option in linebacker Von Miller‘s contract to keep him for the 2021 season as well as safety Kareem Jackson‘s return — after he was initially sent into the market to gauge interest elsewhere — just adds to the Broncos’ free-agent class.
“We’re set up to make something happen,” Simmons said. “And once again, that’s going to fall on my shoulders as the leader in the secondary and I’m going to make sure that whatever happens week in, week out, the secondary is going to be good to go and we’re going to compete at the highest level.”
Regardless of how good the Broncos’ defense is — and they’ve ridden defense to a Super Bowl trophy before — much of the team’s success will be determined by the quarterback. Until Drew Lock is ready to make a significant jump in his play or the Broncos shake up the quarterback room — in the draft or in what remains of the available passers on the market — the team’s defense will have to be elite for the Broncos to contend.
And that means they’ll need to get better. The Broncos surrendered 446 points last season in an injury-riddled year — their highest total since 2010 (471 points allowed) and the franchise’s third-highest total since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Paton, hired in January, hasn’t specifically said the money would go further in the first weeks of free agency on the defensive side of the ball, but his actions said it loudly.
“We’re very calculated,” Paton said. “We know our weaknesses and our needs, and we try to attack them.”