ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For all the shakeups upstairs, most notably George Paton replacing John Elway as general manager.
For all the upgrades through free agency, most notably cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller.
For all the tantalizing infusion of young talent through the draft, most notably another cornerback, Patrick Surtain, and running back Javonte Williams.
For all those changes, the Broncos prospects in 2021 will primarily depend on two of their returning stalwarts, Von Miller and Courtland Sutton.
Miller, the No. 1 pass rusher in Broncos’ history, and Sutton, the team’s No. 1 receiver in 2019, are still the best Broncos players on their respective side of the ball. Both are coming off major, season-ending injuries that crippled the Broncos’ hopes in 2020 before the season began. So critical are Miller and Sutton to the 2021 Broncos, it is among the biggest of the 9 questions that 9News has been asking of this team with the first full-squad training camp practice on Wednesday.
2. Can Von Miller and Courtland Sutton not only return from injuries, but to peak form in 2021?
Issue: Miller missed every snap last year because of an ankle injury that required season-ending surgery. He is 32 and entering the final year of his six-year contract that will pay him $19.03 million this season.
Sutton missed all but one half of one game last year because of a torn ACL. He is also entering the final year of his contract he received after he was the Broncos’ second-round draft pick out of SMU in 2018.
Background: Miller was having an outstanding training camp as he got himself in tremendous physical condition following a bout with COVID-19 during the 2020 offseason. But after the 53-man roster was set, the Broncos were having their first regular-season practice on a rainy Tuesday, forcing the workout to be held indoors in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse. Near the end of practice, Miller went down with a torn tendon in his ankle. The season-opener was six days away against Tennessee and yet Miller was finished for the season.
Two days later, Sutton went up to make an unguarded catch of a Drew Lock pass early in practice. Sutton fell awkwardly, spraining his shoulder joint and missing the opener against Tennessee. Initially considered a two- to three-week injury, Sutton returned early to play in game 2. Unable to raise his arms without pain, Sutton had an eye-level pass from Jeff Driskel bounce off his hands and into the arms of a Steeler defensive back Joe Haden. Mad at himself for the drop-turned-pick, Sutton raced to chase down Haden, only to suffer a torn ACL while making the tackle. A classic example of injury-to-insult.
Sutton had three catches for 66 yards for his one half of play against the Steelers – just enough to remind Broncos Country what they would miss the rest of the season.
Resolution: Miller, who has always been unique in attitude and mindset, says he is 94 percent recovered from his ankle injury. The other 6 percent will come from playing. That’s just it with these series injuries. There is getting healthy enough to play. And there is regaining peak performance. There will be rust for both the older Miller and the younger Sutton, who won’t turn 26 until the Broncos’ fifth game at Pittsburgh.
Snaps should be monitored for both players through the first half of the season. It might be easier to spell Sutton because the Broncos have good receiver depth behind him in Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler.
Miller says he wants to keep playing for five to seven years. For that to happen, he will probably have to eventually pare to a third-down pass rushing role. He’s too valuable to settle for that this year but a 70 percent workload instead of 85 percent would help him stay fresh for the final month of the season, when the Broncos’ schedule toughens.