2021 NFL Preview: Yes, the Broncos' ranking will change if they land Aaron Rodgers

·10 min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The first night of the NFL draft was a whirlwind for the Denver Broncos. 

Aaron Rodgers wanted to be traded. Denver was on his reported short list of preferred teams. Former Broncos guard and Denver radio host Mark Schlereth reported that a deal was “about as close to a done deal as can happen.” 

Then it never happened and the Broncos were stuck in a holding pattern. 

Since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season, the Broncos have tried everything at quarterback. Nothing has worked. And with the season getting closer, the Broncos have two realistic options for opening day: Rodgers, the reigning MVP and perhaps the most talented QB ever, or the combination of Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. No pressure to get a deal done or anything. 

The Broncos faced a decision with the ninth pick that was curious at the time and could be a really bad choice as the years ago by. Justin Fields was on the board, as was Mac Jones. but the Broncos chose cornerback Patrick Surtain II. The most obvious guess is it was to keep the door open for Rodgers, which is clearly risky. 

Broncos general manager George Paton said Surtain was too good to pass. 

"The board just kind of fell where Surtain was there and we couldn't pass him up," Paton said, according to the team's site. "He was just too talented, too unique, too good off the field, too good on the field."

Surtain might be great. But if you're a team that has had Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Lock on the quarterback carousel since Manning retired, you don't pass on Fields or Jones — if you like them — for a cornerback. Maybe the Broncos simply didn't like either prospect. Or, maybe they are hoping for Rodgers. 

The Rodgers possibility is one of the most interesting still on the board this offseason because the Broncos could be very good with him. Denver's defense isn't what it was in their most recent championship season, but it's still good. The offensive line has improved. The Broncos have done a very good job drafting skill-position talent. If you look at the Broncos' depth chart and cover up the quarterback position, you'd be pretty impressed. 

But you can't do that in the NFL. Lock had a 75.4 quarterback rating last season and led the NFL in interceptions. He has a long way to go to be a viable NFL starter. The Broncos traded for Bridgewater, who is a great story and a fun player to root for but probably not a top-end starter. The Carolina Panthers took just a fifth-round pick for Bridgewater, will play $7 million of his $10 million salary and are relying on Sam Darnold to replace him. What does that tell you about Bridgewater's stock? 

That's why the stakes are high with the Packers' game of chicken with Rodgers. There has been no indication the Packers will trade him and no indication Rodgers is going to play for them. Anything is possible, but it seems the Broncos are the only real trade partner left if Green Bay does make a move. The Broncos are Super Bowl contenders if they add Rodgers and maybe a double-digit loss team without him. 

The second-biggest question is, how long can Broncos fans hold their breath? 

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Let's start with this: If Aaron Rodgers comes to Denver, the grade is an A+. But that hasn't happened and the Packers have said it won't, so we'll judge what they have done. Defensive backs Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby were nice additions. Being able to retain Von Miller — there were questions if he'd be back — was another positive move. Right tackle Ja'Wuan James was cut after an attention-getting offseason injury, running back Phillip Lindsay moved on and cornerback A.J. Bouye is gone too, but overall it was a solid offseason. That assumes Denver finds some answer at right tackle (perhaps its late addition Bobby Massie). Trading for Teddy Bridgewater was fine, standing pat at QB in part because they had Bridgewater was not. The draft is hard to judge. Surtain is very likely to be a blue-chip player. But if Justin Fields or Mac Jones become good starters and Denver doesn't get Rodgers, it's a pick that will be second-guessed for a long time. 

Grade: B

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Assuming a certain MVP isn't traded, the Broncos seem to have an open mind when it comes to who will start between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. 

"It’s totally 50-50," coach Vic Fangio said, according to the team's transcript. "Maybe I’ll flip a coin to see who takes the absolute first snap of the offseason and training camp." 

Fangio said he'll withhold judgment until training camp and preseason games. Perhaps Lock has the slight advantage because he might still have some untapped upside. There have been games in which Lock looked pretty good, and he has just 18 career starts. If Bridgewater gets the job, it's because the Broncos prefer the steadiness he'll bring. Bridgewater can manage games and a good supporting cast can win games with him — the 2019 New Orleans Saints went 5-0 in his starts — and maybe that's all the Broncos feel they need. It's not an exciting quarterback competition, but it's a crucial one in Denver. 

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The Broncos' win total at BetMGM is 8.5. If you still think Denver will get Aaron Rodgers, that's a very easy over. The fact that the line is 8.5 indicates BetMGM is lukewarm on the possibility of a trade happening, though they're mindful of it. The Broncos opened the offseason at 7.5 wins. I'll take under 8.5. I don't think Aaron Rodgers is coming and I don't trust the quarterbacks the Broncos would rely on without him. I'll take the under with the understanding that a Rodgers trade likely makes that ticket an instant loser. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "I could spent half a day writing a love letter to the Broncos pass catchers, but often times our missives here are about who not to draft. And I'm not going to draft Melvin Gordon this summer, unless the price is a giveaway.

"Gordon enters his age-28 season, his seventh as a pro. He's not only on the back nine of the career, he's getting near the final hole. He's become a nothing receiver (last year he averaged 4.9 a catch and 3.6 a target, both paltry numbers), and Denver's new decision makers aren't tied to Gordon. The team traded up to draft rookie running back Javonte Williams — always a move we need to strongly consider — and added free agent back Mike Boone.

Bottom line, Gordon is the type of player I'd rather be a year early on than a year late on. His career arc makes me nervous. I don't think he'll be this team's featured back for the majority of the year."

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Here are the Broncos' NFL ranks in points scored each season since Peyton Manning retired: 22, 27, 24, 28, 28. That's a long stretch of bad offensive football. We've talked a lot about the quarterbacks, so let's focus on the rest of the offense. The skill-position talent is capable of way more than ranking near the bottom of the NFL in points. Courtland Sutton returns from an ACL tear and if he's healthy, he's a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Jerry Jeudy dropped too many passes last season, but the 2020 first-round pick had moments where he looked good. Tight end Noah Fant is one of the few big-time playmakers at his position in the NFL. The Broncos traded up in the draft and likely stole talented running back Javonte Williams from the Miami Dolphins in the second round; Williams is likely to have a nice role with Melvin Gordon still around as well. The offensive line is on more solid footing too since left tackle Garett Bolles turned a corner last season. It's not a great line but it isn't a liability either. OK, now you're allowed to wonder what Aaron Rodgers could do with that type of talent around him. 

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What can we expect from Von Miller and Bradley Chubb? 

When the Broncos drafted Chubb fifth overall in 2018, Denver envisioned a dominant pass-rush duo with him and Miller terrorizing quarterbacks for years. Both reached double-digit sacks in 2018. Then Chubb tore his ACL in 2019, and Miller missed all of 2020 with an ankle injury. Chubb made a Pro Bowl last season and looked fully recovered from his knee injury. There were questions if Miller would return, but in the end the Broncos picked up his $17.5 million base salary. Miller is 32 and one has to wonder if his status as a franchise icon played into the decision to still pay him as one of the best defenders in the NFL. If Miller can regain his elite form and Chubb looks even better another year removed from ACL surgery, the Broncos will have that menacing pass-rush duo. Miller, who is a likely Hall of Famer, carries the more uncertainty of the two. 

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(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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"Not landing Aaron Rodgers" isn't really the nightmare, though it will feel like it to Broncos fans who got their hopes up on draft night. Rodgers being traded still seems like a bit of a pipe dream. We'll see. Let's assume that doesn't happen. The Broncos could conceivably compete with Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock. The talent is there. The problem is if Lock and Bridgewater play to the level they did last season, and neither helps a team that went 5-11 last season. That means another lost season with a pretty good roster, and another long, excruciating offseason listening to Broncos quarterback speculation. 

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I don't think Aaron Rodgers is coming to Denver, or going anywhere other than Green Bay. The Packers have shown no signs they're going to move him. Then the next move will be up to Rodgers. But that's a longer discussion for a future preview. If Rodgers doesn't land with the Broncos, it's hard to figure them out. Denver can be on the fringe of playoff contention, but with Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater they are likely the third-place team in the division at best. This is a good roster but it has a quarterback problem. It feels like that's been the theme of the Broncos' team preview for six straight offseasons. Unless the Broncos pull off an all-timer of a trade, next year will probably mark the seventh straight offseason preview in which we wonder how they'll finally replace Peyton Manning. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears

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