This article is part of our Team Previews series.
GM John Elway took another crack at his "win from now on" mantra by going with an aggressive approach in free agency, bolstered by a second straight quality draft class. How it clicks depends on hard-boiled new coach Vic Fangio revamping the defense and whether questions under center have been solved.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
LOCK, FLAC' AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS
The bandages are ripped off, and the Broncos will open 2019 with a new look at quarterback. Joe Flacco will be captaining the ship, at least for the time being. The 34-year-old has a big arm and Super Bowl pedigree, but probably isn't more than a slight improvement over the jettisoned Case Keenum. Flacco has been a low-level starter for years now, but there are some reasons for optimism. He'll be returning to a version of the West Coast offense similar to the one he flourished in under Gary Kubiak in 2014 and will benefit from throwing to a talented young receiving corps. Flacco is coming off of a season in which he had the second-most passing yards per game of his career and posted the league's sixth-best interception rate. He's a good fit for a team that will look to run the ball often, take calculated shots downfield and rely on its defense. Denver didn't plan to take a quarterback early in the draft but jumped when their top-rated passer, Drew Lock, slipped to Day 2. Lock left Missouri ranked in the top three in SEC history in completions, yards and touchdowns, and has the arm and athleticism that John Elway has consistently chased. However, Lock's footwork, short accuracy and struggles against top teams pushed down his stock. Being a second-round pick takes pressure off Denver to play him early so long as Flacco avoids the icebergs.
NEW KIDS WITH THE ROCK
Montee Ball, Cody Latimer, Jeff Heuerman, Carlos Henderson – the list of John Elway's early-round misfires in search of young offensive firepower reads like a Billy Joel song. That seems to have changed in a hurry over the past two offseasons, as the Broncos have built a tantalizing young nucleus. The crown jewel is the stable at running back. Phillip Lindsay slashed and dashed through defenses for 85 yards from scrimmage per game, while fellow rookie Royce Freeman served as an effective hammer and added five scores. Expect that dynamic to continue in 2019 and benefit from a bolstered offensive line and zone scheme that should punish defenses' aggression. Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick have the potential to stress defenses on the outside with their length and ball skills, and DaeSean Hamilton showed the ability to move the chains underneath from the slot late last year. The three look like the future at the position for Denver. What's missing is a vertical threat in the passing game. Emmanuel Sanders' recovery can go a long way toward filling that void. Before tearing his Achilles tendon, he was on pace for the second best statistical season of his career. Also expect first-round pick Noah Fant to move around the formation and create space for teammates as opposing defenses figure out how to best cover him.
BACK TO THE BASICS ON DEFENSE
There have been so many "evil genius" and "godfather" headlines about Vic Fangio in Denver that one might think the new head coach is starring as a villain in the next Marvel film. When it comes to his hallmark, the defense, expect well-executed over diabolical. Fangio's focus on avoiding "death by inches" is a fresh approach for a defense that stymied some of the league's top attacks only to be undone by poor tackling and blown coverages. Free agency infused talent into the secondary with the additions of Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan. If the front office can keep Chris Harris happy and Isaac Yiadom develops, the Broncos will have multiple chess pieces to match up on the back end after having depth issues in 2018. Justin Simmons could be the star of the group if an increase in zone coverage lets him play more center field. Up front, Fangio, a linebackers coach by trade, sees room for growth in both Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, so 30 combined sacks isn't out of the question. The interior rush should be strong if third-rounder Dre'Mont Jones provides solid depth behind the likes of Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis. The weak point may be at inside linebacker, as Todd Davis and Josey Jewell aren't the caliber of athletes on whom Fangio has typically relied on. Rangy rookie Justin Hollins might be the answer.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Phillip Lindsay
Snubbed at the combine and during the NFL Draft despite his college production and sub-4.4 speed, Lindsay tore through Denver's depth chart and then the NFL. His 5.4 yards per carry ranked second in the league, and his ability to accelerate around the edge could be deadly in the outside-zone scheme the Broncos plan to rely on in 2019.
RISING: Courtland Sutton
The 2018 second-rounder put up 16.8 yards per grab, good for seventh in the league. Sutton now has a chance to emerge as the target the Broncos envisioned, with Emmanuel Sanders still on the mend.
FALLING: Jake Butt
Once thought of as a late-round steal, Butt hauled in just eight passes in 2018 before suffering his third torn ACL. The drafting of Noah Fant and re-signing of Jeff Heuerman puts pressure on Butt to rebound, and fast.
SLEEPER: Tim Patrick
Special-teams prowess contributed to Patrick making the team last year, but it's his downfield ability that offers promise this season. Patrick's 242 receiving yards after the injury to Sanders led Denver during the final quarter of 2018.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
For all the flack the Broncos have received for struggling to find a quarterback in the post-Peyton Manning era, their luck in finding a tight end hasn't been much better thanks to a long string of injuries. The team seems to be taking a smorgasbord approach entering 2019, headlined by first-round pick Noah Fant and his tantalizing size-speed combination. While Fant acclimates to the pro game, veteran Jeff Heuerman – who was the team's most prolific red-zone threat before going down Week 12 with a bruised lung and broken ribs – seems to be the logical choice to get many of the first-team snaps to start the campaign. Rounding out the group are Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli. Butt was splitting time with Heuerman to begin the 2018 season before going down with yet another torn ACL after Week 3. Fumagalli missed his entire rookie year with a sports hernia, but he's garnered first-team reps in minicamp and exceeded coach Vic Fangio's initial expectations. Whoever rises to the top of the depth chart should enjoy a fair amount of time in the limelight. New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello helped preside over an offense in San Francisco that made George Kittle a young star, and new quarterback Joe Flacco leaned on his tight ends during his time in Baltimore.
JOE FLACCO – QB (from Ravens)
Big-armed veteran moves on after being supplanted by Lamar Jackson.
KAREEM JACKSON – CB (from Texans)
Accounted for five turnovers from multiple positions in 2018.
BRYCE CALLAHAN – CB (from Bears)
Dynamic slot corner brings past experience in Vic Fangio's scheme.
NOAH FANT – TE (Rd. 1, No. 20 – Iowa)
Should quickly emerge as the team's top pass-catching tight end.
DREW LOCK – QB (Rd. 2, No. 42 – Missouri)
A toolsy quarterback with a strong arm and standout athleticism.
CASE KEENUM – QB (to Redskins)
Logged a career-high 3,890 passing yards in lone season in Denver.
DARIAN STEWART – S (FA)
Snagged nine interceptions in four seasons in Mile High.
BRADLEY ROBY – CB (to Texans)
Led the team with 12 passes defensed as a first-time starter.
THE INJURY FRONT
Emmanuel Sanders, WR – Sanders was on pace for one of the best seasons of his career before tearing his Achilles tendon Week 13, forcing him to miss the final four games of the season. He's made it known that his goal is to suit up for Week 1 against Oakland and even said that's realistic given his rehab work. When – and in what condition – he returns likely will determine the effectiveness of Denver's passing attack. Though he's far and away the elder statesman in the receiving corps, a healthy Sanders offers a swiftness and downfield threat the Broncos otherwise lack if he were to miss time.
Phillip Lindsay, RB – A wrist injury kept Lindsay out of the lineup Week 17, and while the Broncos have been cautious with him this offseason, he's not in jeopardy of missing time to start the season. Though wrist injuries can plague backs of all sizes, it'll be interesting to see whether the injury leads the Broncos to play it safe with their star sophomore and rotate backs in 2019, or whether caution will be thrown to the wind and Lindsay developed into a bell cow.
Chris Harris, CB – Harris already had tied a career high with three interceptions when he suffered a hairline fracture to his fibula Week 13, costing him the final quarter of the season. After restructuring the final year of his contract, he's part of a revamped secondary featuring veterans Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, who himself is coming off a season-ending foot injury. With so many interchangeable pieces on the back end and a switch to more zone coverage under coach Vic Fangio, Harris should enjoy more favorable matchups and added opportunities to play the ball in his contract season.