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Broncos offensive needs: Elway's first decision is at quarterback

Scangarello with Keenum? Flacco or Foles? First-round QB? The Denver Broncos' offensive improvement starts with most important position.
Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Denver.

KUSA – Perhaps, instead of throwing away $7 million, and passing on the loss to their ticket holders (although too late for that), the Broncos should see if Rich Scangarello can coach up Case Keenum.

The Broncos’ 16-game starting quarterback in 2018, Keenum does have redeeming qualities that can’t be coached. He battles. Keenum is a competitive son of a gun. If all appears lost, he will connect on a few throws, get a little hot, and bring the Broncos to a point where it’s not quite as certain the game is lost.

If the team is 3-6 and facing the red-hot Chargers and Steelers, Keenum will come through with a final-second drive to beat the Chargers and then open the fourth quarter with a 12-play, go-ahead touchdown drive to stun the Steelers and eventually move the Broncos to 6-6.

Keenum is well prepared, has good accuracy on most throws, and is fairly elusive.

He does have physical limitations. He is short by NFL quarterback standards at 6-foot-1/2 inch and he doesn’t have the strength to prevent those sack fumbles, and his arm is below average compared to the league’s other starting quarterbacks.

And as last season wore on, he developed a tendency to hang on to the ball too long.

But Scangarello is the Broncos’ new offensive coordinator who is bringing in the 49ers system that might be a nice fit for Keenum. And during an interview three weeks ago with 9NEWS, Scangarello seemed ready to roll with Keenum in 2019 if that’s what general manager John Elway and head coach Vic Fangio decide to do.

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“When Case was at Minnesota (in 2017) he was a big part of their success,’’ Scangarello said. “They were very good on defense, but he managed the game, didn’t turn it over, he made the plays when they needed to be made.

“I think any sign of a quarterback is, can they make people around them better? That can be done a lot of ways. Sometimes, it’s pure talent. Sometimes, it’s intangible qualities. Sometimes, it’s a balance. I think he possesses those, and I think it’s our job to put him in a position to do what he does best with his talent and allow that confidence to grow and the players to feed off it and help him make people around him better. And that includes coaches, people in the stands and the guy catching the ball.’’

The Broncos’ offense has more or less stunk the past four years -- since the final seven games of 2014. A historic, quarterback-rattling defense, along with a heavy dash of Peyton Manning savvy, won them a Super Bowl in 2015. Elway is expected to address the offseason during the offseason, starting with free agency.

Here are offensive positions where Elway, Fangio and Scangarello will be looking to improve:

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum (4) dives in for a touchdown as Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Genard Avery (55) pursues during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Denver.


The Broncos are short at this critical position, and we’re not talking about Case Keenum’s stature.

Flacco, Foles or first-round pick? Here is a look at the Broncos’ choices.

Option A is to work out an acquisition for Baltimore’s Joe Flacco or Philadelphia’s Nick Foles. Both will be available either through trade, or possibly free agency.

To me, Flacco, who is 34 and has not played well since Gary Kubiak was his offensive coordinator five years ago, is putting a Band Aid on a Band Aid.

Flacco may be a better playoff-caliber quarterback than Keenum, but not by much and not for much longer. Flacco, though, would be less expensive than Foles. Flacco is due to make $18 million in 2019; Foles will get north of $25 million.

Finances are a consideration as acquiring Flacco or Foles may well mean eating $7 million of Keenum’s remaining salary. Keenum is due $18 million for 2019 with $7 million of that fully guaranteed. In other words, the Broncos pretty much made a two-year commitment in Keenum when they signed him 11 months ago.

Foles, who is 30, has the potential to become a team’s starting quarterback for the next five years. He has come on late in each of the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. But is he a 16-game-a-year starter? He has started just nine regular-season games in the past three years combined and he’s never started more than 11 in any of his seven seasons.

Two other veteran quarterbacks – Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater – would not be better options than Keenum.

Me? The Broncos should stay with Keenum and figure out how to parlay their No. 10 draft pick into either Dwayne Haskins, Kyler Murray or Drew Lock – not necessarily in that order, but maybe. I wouldn’t go two years in a row with a top 10 draft pick and not come away with a quarterback – especially when quarterback has been an issue since Manning strained his quad midway through 2014.

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Elway would have taken Sam Darnold with his No. 5 overall draft pick last year, but he went No. 3 overall to the New York Jets. Pass-rushing outside linebacker Bradley Chubb was more than a nice consolation prize.

But let’s say Elway simply doesn’t believe Haskins, Murray or Lock can maintain the role of franchise quarterback for the next 10 years. In that case, his final option would be to stick with Keenum and backup Kevin Hogan, and draft a developmental quarterback in the fourth or fifth rounds, where the Broncos have two selections each.

And then back it up by taking a quarterback in the first round of the 2020 draft, where the pack of passing prospects is said to be stronger.

Picking from these three options – A. Flacco or Foles; B. Keenum and a first-round kid; C. Stick with Keenum and wait till next year – is an extremely difficult decision. But that’s why Elway is getting paid huge bucks.

Here’s what Elway should do: He should call in new quarterbacks coach T.C. McCartney for a private one-on-one meeting.

Kid, give me your top three free-agent QBs in order and your top three draftable QBs in order. Let’s talk about why. Show me some tape. Thanks T.C.

The next day or so, call in Scangarello. Same thing. Top three free-agent QBs, top three draftable QBs. Explain why with tape.

Then meet one-on-one Fangio on his choices. Then meet with director of player personnel Matt Russell on his QB choices.

Then bring in all four for a full day meeting. Have contract guy Mike Sullivan and trusted administrator Mark Thewes pop in with financial projections.

And then Elway – and only Elway – makes the final decision.

Elway has never lacked for confidence, but he could use reassurance. Paxton Lynch was a swing and a miss. Keenum fouled it off, but the Broncos have two strikes.

The Broncos can’t afford to miss again.

Credit: Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini
Denver Broncos offensive tackle Jared Veldheer (66) looks over the Cincinnati Bengals defense during an NFL football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. The Broncos won the game 24-10.

Offensive line

Elway has already made a major move here by hiring Mike Munchak as his offensive line coach.

Munchak and the offensive line the Broncos had last season would work. The Broncos averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season to rank No. 4 in the league. The 32 sacks allowed was 10th best.

Problem is, 60 percent of the offensive line may leave. Right tackle Jared Veldheer, center Matt Paradis, tackle-guard Billy Turner and left guard Max Garcia are all unrestricted free agents.

Veldheer, who turns 32 in June, has no plans to retire after he finished his ninth season by giving the Broncos a solid right tackle for the first time in years.

Paradis is the most intriguing of Broncos free agents. He was a team captain last year and is considered the glue to the offensive locker room. He had a chance to become the league’s highest-paid center (a status currently held by Fort Morgan-raised Ryan Jensen at $10.5 million a year) until he suffered a fractured fibula near his ankle at midseason.

Paradis is back home in Idaho continuing his rehab and there is belief he is ahead of schedule in his recovery from surgery.

Turner may have been the Broncos’ most valuable offensive lineman last year as he started at both right tackle and left guard, and had a strong leadership presence even when he wasn’t starting. After earning every bit of his $2 million salary last year, he could be in line for a nice pay raise come March.

The Broncos are expected to bring back left guard Ron Leary, though, because of an injury guarantee in his contract. He is coming off two injury-plagued seasons at a combined cost of $18.8 million and he’s scheduled to make $8.344 million in 2019 ($8.15 million in salary, $100,000 in working out bonus, $93,760 in active game day bonuses). Leary did have $5.35 million of his $8.15 million salary for 2019 guaranteed against injury. As he suffered a torn Achilles in mid-October, Leary is injured and likely won't be able to pass a physical by March 17.

At that point, his $5.35 million injury guarantee transfers to a full guarantee. The Broncos are not expected to waste $5.35 million for the purpose of saving $2.8 million 

Where Munchak figures to earn his money is by coaching up left tackle Garett Bolles. The No. 20 overall draft pick in 2017, Bolles has started all 32 games the past two seasons, but he has been one of the league’s most penalized blockers.

Munchak will be Bolles’ third offensive line coach in three years. The Broncos will also return starting right guard-center Connor McGovern and tackle-center Elijah Wilkinson.

Among the free agent tackles the Broncos figure to evaluate are Miami’s Ja’Wuan James, Seattle’s George Fant and Pittsburgh’s Matt Feiler. The best free-agent guards are mostly older types like Rodger Saffold, Ramon Foster, Andy Levitre and Mike Iupati.

Paradis is still the top free-agent center, but the Chiefs’ Mitch Morse and the Steelers’ B.J. Finney will also be available.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Emmanuel Sanders pulls in a touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018.


The Broncos don’t figure to use a top-round draft pick on a receiver as they nabbed Courtland Sutton (second round) and DaeSean Hamilton (fourth round) last year. Sutton and Hamilton finished the season as starters, as Demaryius Thomas was traded away at midseason and Emmanuel Sanders missed the final four games with a torn Achilles.

The Broncos could use a No. 1 receiver, even if Sanders does return healthy. Sanders does represent the biggest question mark at this position. He was having a terrific season in 2018, as he was on pace for 95 catches and 1,157 yards when he went down in practice prior to the Broncos’ 13th game.

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He will turn 32 next month – there’s that age thing again Emmanuel – and he’s due to draw $10.25 million in the final year of his contract this season.

Everything I’ve heard is the Broncos are bringing Sanders back. We’ll get a better idea March 12 – the day before the league season opens – when $1.5 million of his salary becomes fully guaranteed.

As for veteran free-agent help, there’s a chance mega-talented diva Antonio Brown could become available. At this point, the Broncos won’t go there but if they talk their way into becoming interested,  Fangio and receivers coach Zach Azzanni could handle him.

Otherwise, Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, the speedy John Brown, Kelvin Benjamin, Donte Moncrief, Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman could be considered as a potential third piece along with Sanders and Sutton.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman (82) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller (23) during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Denver.

Tight end

Another tough decision for Elway. Standing pat would mean a lot of finger-crossing.

Standing pat would mean re-signing starter Jeff Heuerman. He’s a free agent who broke out last season until he suffered fractured ribs and a bruised lung in game 12 against Pittsburgh.

Behind him, Jake Butt missed most of his first two seasons with separate ACL injuries, and Troy Fumagalli missed his entire rookie season from injuries related to a sports hernia.

Matt LaCosse came on as a legitimate receiver threat so if Heuerman re-signs and stay healthy and if Butt and Fumagalli return healthy, the Broncos could be fine.

But if this is too many ifs, Elway could consider Eric Ebron, Jared Cook or Jesse James in free agency or  using a second-round draft pick on the likes of Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., UCLA’s Caleb Wilson or Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos running back Devontae Booker hauls in a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Denver.

Running back

No need here, providing Phillip Lindsay isn’t negatively affected by his right wrist injury. The concern with the injury would be Lindsay quickly regaining upper-body strength. His speed, quickness, vision and balance should not be bothered. But strength is one of his surprising assets.

Behind him, second-year back Royce Freeman is adequate as is Devontae Booker, who is entering his fourth and potentially final year with the Broncos.

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos fullback Andy Janovich scores a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Denver.


Andy Janovich is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. He doesn’t get recognized as such, probably because the Broncos haven’t reached the playoffs through his first three seasons.

But there is not a better lead blocker/special teams/receiver and occasional plow horse on fourth-and-short.

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