What are realistic expectations for the Broncos’ defense?

Zac Stevens Avatar
September 10, 2020

DENVER — The Broncos’ offense has been the talk of the town. Drew Lock and all of the new shiny toys have stolen the offseason spotlight in Denver and have received all of the attention nationally, from a Broncos perspective at least.

But money is what does the real talking.

And by John Elway’s spending, it’s the defensive side of the ball that should carry the Broncos in 2020.

While the offense has the flash and splash, the defense quietly leads the league in salary cap spent on that side of the ball.

Not only does Denver’s $111 million allocated to the defense lead the league in 2020, but it’s over 30 percent more than the league average of $80 million. That’s nearly equivalent to adding Justin Simmons, Jurrell Casey and Kareem Jackson to an average defense. Needless to say, Elway has a massive commitment to the Denver defense.

Between Simmons and Jackson, the Broncos have the highest-paid starting safety duo in the league, accounting for over $25 million in 2020 cap space. Thanks in large part to those two, Denver also has the highest-paid starting secondary in the NFL, costing nearly $45 million in cap space.

The investment is certainly real on the defensive side of the ball.

The financial commitment to the defense alone should make the expectations for Denver’s defense a mile high.

But, of course, there’s more.

During the offseason, Elway quietly replaced a Pro Bowl corner with another Pro Bowl corner. Although there was nothing quiet about Chris Harris Jr.’s departure to the division-rival Chargers, the trade for A.J. Bouye didn’t bring in nearly the same spotlight for the player he could be in Denver.

Not only has Bouye been to a Pro Bowl — although not nearly as many as Harris Jr. — the new Bronco profiles to actually fit Vic Fangio’s defense better than the former Bronco as Bouye is a true outside corner who thrives in zone.

A similar, potentially more impactful, move was made along Denver’s defensive line this offseason as well. In a similar fashion, the Broncos let long-time Bronco Derek Wolfe walk in free agency, much as they did with the beloved Chris Harris Jr.

But with Wolfe, they actually replaced him with a significant upgrade, at least in terms of stats and Pro Bowls. While Wolfe, an eight-year veteran, hadn’t been to a single Pro Bowl in his career, Casey, a nine-year vet, has five to his name.

Casey’s 51 career sacks to Wolfe’s 33 suggest the Broncos landed a significant upgrade on the defensive line.

Additionally, the Broncos are counting on getting Bradley Chubb and Bryce Callahan back from major injuries. Chubb’s ACL injury cost him most of the 2019 season and Callahan’s foot injury cost him the entirety of the season.

Chubb, of course, is a large part of Fangio’s plans. Not only is he a top-five pick, but leading up to last offseason people in the organization believed he was set for a monster season. He may not start the season 100 percent, but the season-long expectations for the No. 5 overall pick are still very high.

Callahan won’t just be counted on as a starter, but he’ll also be Fangio’s chess piece that he can use at any cornerback position. His $6 million cap hit will be the team’s eighth-biggest hit in 2020.

On top of all of this, this season will be the second year under Fangio’s scheme. Last year, players preached how the more comfortable they became with the new defense, the more they were able to fly around and play instinctually. Well, with another year under most of their belts, there should be even more flying around the field in 2020.

Saying all of that, however, the Broncos likely lost their highest-paid and most decorated player for the year when Von Miller suffered a dislocated peroneal tendon less than a week before the start of the season. A loss like this shouldn’t and can’t go overlooked.

Instead of expecting the Broncos’ defense to be among the NFL’s best, if not the best, with Von healthy, the expectations certainly drop without having the eight-time Pro Bowler on the field in 2020.

In 2019, the Broncos’ defense ranked as the league’s 10th-best defense, giving up an average of 19.8 points per game. That defense didn’t have Chubb for 12 games of the season. The 2020 defense could be looking at not having Miller for all 16 games, which would equate to a similar loss.

Without Von, it wouldn’t be fair to expect the unit to be the best in the league, as they very well could have been with Miller. But with a defensive mastermind leading a unit that’s been upgraded from last year, there’s no reason why the expectations shouldn’t be higher than what they were last year.

To finish as a top-six defense, according to last year’s numbers, the Broncos would have to allow less than 19 points per game and to be in the top three, less than 17.6 points per game.

Those, especially the latter, could be too tall of a task without their highest-paid player. But finishing in the top 10, as they did last year, still should be very attainable.

Before Miller’s injury, the expectations for Denver’s defense, not offense, was a mile high for 2020. Without Miller, the expectations understandably drop, but still remain high.

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