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As he introduced free-agent acquisitions Mike Boone and Ronald Darby last week, George Paton sounded a note of caution.
“This is just the start,” the Broncos’ new general manager said. “We have a long way to go to build this football team.”
And the Broncos truly do, when viewed through the prism of the long-term building process. Three moves have come since that statement; two of them were one-year deals to veteran defensive backs: cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Kareem Jackson. Fuller turned 29 last month; Jackson celebrates his 33rd birthday in April.
The defense looks poised to join the pantheon of Vic Fangio’s elite units in San Francisco a decade ago and Chicago in 2018.
But there’s a looming deadline. Five projected base-package contributors and the likely slot cornerback — who will play a majority of the snaps in today’s NFL and is effectively a starter — are in contract years. Fuller, Jackson, slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, edge rusher Von Miller and inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are all set to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the 2022 league year.
So the Broncos could be taking two tracks at the same time. They could be developing for the long haul, while putting together a team that — at least for this year — can restore luster, get the Broncos back to the playoffs nd take the first, crucial steps toward getting the culture back where it needs to be.
The good thing is, there’s a template already out there.
A MODEL WORTH EMULATING: BUFFALO
You think the Broncos have stumbled through the wilderness by missing the postseason five consecutive seasons? The Buffalo Bills would call the Broncos and their fans rank amateurs at dealing with a long, dark stretch.
Buffalo had missed the postseason for 17 consecutive seasons when head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane arrived in western New York four years ago following successful stints with the Carolina Panthers as lieutenants in coaching and football operations, respectively.
Heading into their first season, the Bills had some things going for them: a solid defense, a steady veteran running back in LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor, a quarterback who minimized mistakes. Buffalo started 3-1 by allowing 17 or fewer points in each of its first four games. The team faded at midseason, losing four games in five weeks, but never dropped below .500 and in the end was positioned to waltz into the playoffs when the Baltimore Ravens collapsed.
Buffalo did what few expected in the first year of a new administration’s rebuild. But McDermott foretold the efforts to win right there and then — and the value that an initial burst of success could bring, even though much rebuilding remained.
“Our goals are to win now because winning now helps you sustain success down the road,” McDermott told the Syracuse Post-Standard before that season. “Chemistry doesn’t all of a sudden just show up. Culture doesn’t all of a sudden just show up. Culture is built over time. It changes every year, but when you have the culture, the chemistry comes off of that culture, and that’s the important part.”
But the Bills didn’t get fooled by the outcome. Yes, they were a playoff team. But they also saw enough to know that Taylor was no more than a middling starter. They moved up to take Josh Allen in the 2018 NFL Draft — then took a step back from 9-7 to 6-10 while letting him take his lumps.
SO THE BRONCOS COULD …
… be a playoff team without Lock launching to a level that makes him “the guy” for the long haul. He will determine the ceiling of the 2021 Broncos. If he can become a top-10 or top-12 quarterback, the Broncos could have a season like that of the Chicago Bears in 2018, when Fangio’s defense dominated and Mitchell Trubisky finished third in ESPN’s QB ratings metric. Then it would be a matter of hoping that Lock builds off of that performance, rather than stalling as Trubisky did.
But if Lock settles in the middle tier this season — which would be a leap from his 2020 form — the Broncos could be right where the Bills were after the 2017 campaign.
That could leave Denver searching for a quarterback in the 2022 draft, and needing to trade up to do it. Or, if they love North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, they could take that younger passer next month with an eye toward starting him in 2022 if Lock doesn’t make a huge level jump.
Such an outcome could mean a step back in 2022 before a huge leap forward — just like Buffalo endured in 2018.
But for the Bills, that 2017 campaign remained invaluable to re-establishing confidence and building a culture that took the team to the brink of their first Super Bowl appearance in 27 years.
It’s a template that the Broncos could find themselves following as Paton looks to guide them back to their once-accustomed perch of perennial contention.
Buffalo had a long way to go in 2017, too. But they had a season that altered the landscape in ways that benefit the team to this day. One can only hope the Broncos talk about their 2021 season the way Buffalo looks back it its first year with McDermott and Beane — as the year that changed the culture.