Every year, ESPN releases its future power rankings of the NFL, which is supposed to reveal how teams are shaping up in the coming three-year window. Three years is a lifetime in todays NFL and is a big reason why these power rankings can vary so much from year to year.
Last year, the top team on ESPN’s future power rankings was the Indianapolis Colts believe it or not. There is no way ESPN could have known that not long after it released its list that Andrew Luck would choose to retire.
On that list, ESPN had the New England Patriots ranked second, and yet again, it’s a situation where the quarterback changes have drastically changed the outlook of a roster and future prospects moving forward. One team that has not seen a huge change from it’s ranking year-over-year is the Denver Broncos.
ESPN ranked Denver No. 22 last year and this season, the Broncos are now ranked 24th. You read that right. ESPN has Denver ranked lower this year than at this same time last summer.
Before I break down why ESPN leans that direction for the Broncos roster moving forward, I’m going to talk about the network’s formula for these rankings. ESPN has what it calls a ‘panel of experts’ rank each team based on five categories.
Those categories are quarterback, non-quarterback roster, coaching, draft, and front office.
Each category is weighted into the final ranking with roster representing the highest percentage at 30% of the evaluation, with draft and front office representing the lowest at 15%, respectively. Coaching and quarterback both receive 20% of the final grade.
The Broncos came in with a final grade of 72.3. ESPN ranked the Broncos on the individual categories as No. 16 in overall roster (minus quarterback), No. 24 ranking at quarterback, No. 28 at coaching (last year the coaching ranked 13th), draft No. 17, and front office No. 21.
It’s understandable how ESPN could arrive at some of these rankings, but others just are so far off.
ESPN did have the panel of experts give some rationale behind the rankings, but even those fall a bit short. A great example is Louis Riddick, under the heading of ‘biggest worry’, says this:
John Elway is all-in on [Drew] Lock, evidenced by the amount of speed and playmaking ability he added to the team via the draft in WR’s Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. The question is whether the offensive line, ranking 24th in sacks per pass attempt allowed in 2019, has been improved enough to allow Elway’s bet on Lock to pay off.
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The Broncos have shown they’re all-in on Lock. In todays NFL, the teams that are successful with a young quarterback do just that. Kansas City already had a great nucleus of players in place for Patrick Mahomes when he took over in 2018 and Baltimore this past year did everything to build the offense around the skill-set and talent of Lamar Jackson.
Riddick’s question about the Broncos’ offensive line isnt unfounded as plenty of articles have been written about that unit’s struggles. Where it falls a bit short is his remark about the sack rate per pass attempt.
Drew Lock proved this past season that one area where he proved to be elite was the ability to stay upright and avoid taking sacks. He had a pretty good feel for pressure and got through his reads quicker than Joe Flacco or Brandon Allen, who preceded him under center. A big part of what OC Pat Shurmur brings to the table is a quick-hitting offensive system.
I also question the grade ESPN gave the Broncos for their 2020 draft haul. ESPN did not give any rationale on why Denver’s draft class is ranked so low. If anything, dating back to the immediate aftermath of the draft, ESPN’s commentary on Denver’s haul had been complimentary.
The truth is, the Broncos were also lauded and received plaudits from around the NFL for their 2019 draft class as well, so for ESPN to rank them this low just seems a bit misguided. If this was the 2018 offseason, I could understand a bit more skepticism in this department as the Broncos did have a long stretch of bad drafts.
The one final ESPN position ranking that surprised me was that of the coaches. I can’t see how the Broncos go from the No. 13-ranked coaching staff in 2019 to 28th in 2020.
The only meaningful change to the coaching staff was the substitution of Shurmur replacing Rich Scangarello at offensive coordinator and Mike Shula taking over for T.C. McCartney at QBs Coach. That should represent a big upgrade on the offensive side of the ball to any objective analyst.
It might be that ESPN is questioning the long-term viability of Vic Fangio in Denver, but that hasnt really changed from last season to the present. Denver’s coaching staff also showed quite well in keeping the team focused in and winning after getting out to an 0-4 start last year which destroyed almost all hope that the Broncos would have a shot at the playoffs.
ESPN’s Field Yates does hit it out of the park with his analysis of the Broncos roster when he said this:
There’s plenty to like about the offensive nucleus in Denver, as the tight end and receiver group is littered with youth, speed and upside. Quarterback Drew Lock showed well in his five starts as a rookie last season and will play an integral part in Denver’s forecast: If Lock cements his status as the quarterback of the present and future, Denver will soar in these ranks in a hurry.”
As with most NFL rosters, it mostly boils down to the quarterback. The Broncos showed in 2016 that the roster can be filled to the brim with talent around the quarterback, but without a good one at the helm, the train is going to have trouble leaving the station.
The Broncos did go all-in on Lock as the team’s future and if he can prove to be just that, by this time next year, I wouldnt be surprised to see the Broncos power-ranked in the top-10 at ESPN. I dont blame ESPN for still not believing Lock is the guy.
A five-game sample size is just too small for any quarterback to draw bulletproof long-term conclusions. The 2020 season will tell the tale of the next five years for the Broncos.
Either Lock soars and the Broncos compete for Super Bowls and make ESPN and other Doubting Thomas national pundits look bad, or they go back to the drawing board and try to solve the quarterback dilemma once again.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen and @MileHighHuddle.