ENGLEWOOD, Colo — If at first you don’t beat the Chiefs — or second or third or 10 or 11 — try, try again.
Last year, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway and head coach Vic Fangio devised a logical offseason strategy to beating Kansas City, champions of the AFC West for four seasons running.
Try to outscore ‘em.
Since Patrick Mahomes II became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in 2018, the only teams that were occasionally beating them were those who crossed the 30-point threshold.
And so Elway entered his 10th, and as it turned out, final season as Broncos’ GM intent on rebuilding his offense. His two most expensive signings in free agency were right guard Graham Glasgow at $11 million per year and running back Melvin Gordon, who drew $8 million per.
In the draft, he took receiver Jerry Jeudy in the first round, receiver KJ Hamler in the second round, center Lloyd Cushbenberry III in the third and receiving tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth. Even in the later rounds, Elway added offensive depth with guard Netane Muti and receiver Tyrie Cleveland.
That offensive haul was piled on an already impressive young offensive cast featuring receiver Courtland Sutton and running back Phillip Lindsay, who were coming off their terrific second NFL seasons, and quarterback Drew Lock and receiving tight end Noah Fant, who had encouraging major-impact games as rookies.
It didn’t go as planned.
With scoring up across the NFL, the Broncos only improved from 28th in scoring with 17.6 points per game in 2019 to 27th with 20.2 points in 2020. It didn’t help that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down this young offense from building cohesion with a new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, during the offseason or preseason. It also hurt tremendously that Sutton – by far Lock’s favorite target late in the 2019 season and through training camp of 2020 – essentially missed the entire season, first with a shoulder joint sprain, then a torn ACL.
Kansas City swatted away the Broncos’ keep-up-with-the-Chiefs attempt, beating them in both meetings by a combined 33 points, and extending their winning streak against Denver to 11 games and 5 ½ seasons.
Following some late-season discussions with chief executive officer Joe Ellis, Elway agreed to move upstairs into a football operations consultant role while helping to hire his GM successor, George Paton.
The Broncos’ offseason strategy for 2021 pulled a reversal. Paton used his first free-agency market and draft to rebuild his defense.
It made sense. Paton has a six-year contract. He can remain the Broncos' GM for 20 more years and not find another Mahomes at quarterback. Instead of trying to outscore Mahomes and the Chiefs, Paton is trying to stop them.
“You have to know your division and what you’re up against,’’ Paton said in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS following the draft Saturday evening. “We didn’t do a very good job of stopping them previous years. I don’t know if we’ll be able to stop them but we’d like to contain them.
“And at the same time improve our offense. We don’t want to get in shootouts with Kansas City. Or the Chargers and Raiders. We want to play good defense. Vic is one of the best defensive minds in football. Let’s give him enough pieces to turn this into one of the top defenses in the league.’’
Indeed, it wasn’t just the Chiefs who the Broncos couldn’t stop last year. With star pass rusher Von Miller’s season over before it started because of ankle surgery, and nose tackle Mike Purcell lost early with his own foot injury, the Raiders scored 37 and 32 points in defeating the Broncos twice. The Chargers up 24-3 against the Broncos midway through the third quarter in a midseason game before Lock transformed from pitiful to spectacular while pulling off a 31-30, final play miracle.
In free agency, Paton spent all his big money on defense. He purchased cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller for a combined $19.5 million in 2021 dollars, and committed to 32-year-old Miller, who is to make $19.03 million alone.
Paton did make one major veteran addition to his offense. Not willing to fully commit to Lock, Elway’s hand-picked quarterback, Paton acquired Teddy Bridgewater in a trade from Carolina. Bridgewater’s $17.95 million payout was reduced to $11.5 million, and split up between the Panthers, who took on $7 million and the Broncos, who will pay the backup QB price of $4.5 million.
In the draft, Paton tripled up on his cornerback position by taking Patrick Surtain II, and not quarterback Justin Fields. Inside linebacker Baron Browning, who should play in sub packages, was selected in the third round. As Elway added Muti and Cleveland late in the offensive-heaving 2020 draft, Paton added to his secondary by taking safeties Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson back-to-back in the fifth round, slot cornerback Kay Vincent Jr. in the seventh round and another slot corner Mac McCain III as an undrafted free agent.
Maybe Fangio’s 3-4 system this year will become a 3-8.
The running back duo was adjusted with Lindsay swapped out for second-round rookie Javonte Williams, a bigger back who can break tackles and block blitzers.
So. So, so, so. After two months of roster reconstruction, are the Broncos better equipped to legitimately compete with the Chiefs, maybe even, heaven forbid, end that 5 ½- year losing streak?
“Definitely better equipped to do that than two months ago, for sure,’’ Fangio said. “We’ve added a bunch of secondary players. Our young offense is going to be a year further along and experienced and being developed. It’s the first time in two or three years that’s there been carryover in the offensive system.
“You have a young quarterback in Drew where if he ends up winning the job we think this is the year he really comes alive. And if not, if Teddy wins the job, we have a veteran quarterback. I do think we’re closer. We’ll see what happens when we do play them.”
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