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Former NFL exec discusses Broncos decline and how Patriots build their team the right way

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The Broncos have an anemic offense and no roster depth. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The Denver Broncos served as the New England Patriots main rival from 2012-15 when QB Peyton Manning served as their starter, but Denver failed to reach the postseason in 2016 with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch at quarterback. The Broncos defense was still outstanding and the team’s failure to reach the postseason rests at the feet of the offense.

Former Patriots exec Michael Lombardi wrote an article at The Ringer highlighting a few key statistics that emphasize the demise of the Broncos offense in the wake of Manning’s retirement.

“When you study the 2016 Broncos, their lack of offensive production in every area is staggering,” Lombardi writes. “They couldn’t convert third downs consistently, couldn’t make big plays (gains of 20-plus yards), and — most alarming for the play-action offensive scheme under Kubiak — they couldn’t sustain drives longer than five minutes. In each of those areas, the team finished in the bottom five of the NFL. The recently mighty Broncos ranked just 22nd overall in points scored last season”

The Broncos ranked 31st in the league on third down, converting just 34.2% of attempts and beating out only the Rams at 31.5%. Denver’s offense trailed the freaking Browns (36.3%) and 49ers (35.1% on third down).

For comparison, the Patriots ranked 4th, converting 45.8% of third downs, behind only the Saints (48.6%), Packers (46.7%), and Titans (46.1%).

The Broncos tied with the Texans for last in the league in 20+ yard plays with a mere 44, while the Patriots ranked 9th with 64 plays. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with 84 plays, with Washington (80 plays) and the Saints (79 plays) close behind.

Denver also struggled to sustain their drives, with just 7.4% lasting more than five minutes, the third lowest rate in the league. The Patriots ranked 14th with 11.0%, but this is a stat where there’s a sweet spot in the middle, with the #1 offense Atlanta Falcons and #2 offense New Orleans Saints ranking 15th and 12th, respectively.

Lombardi raises an interesting point in how teams can produce points. They can either score quickly with big chunk plays- which the Broncos failed to do- or they can score on elongated drives by wearing down the defense- which the Broncos also failed to do.

But despite these struggles, the Broncos did not make any major changes to the offensive roster, other than adding Cowboys OG Ronald Leary and RB Jamaal Charles and drafting rookies OT Garrett Bolles (round one) and WR Carlos Henderson (round three).

Leary will have a serious impact, but Charles has played just 8 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons- and Lombardi notes that drafted players aren’t expected to become major contributors until a couple years down the road.

Lombardi actually highlights the Broncos failure to invest in the middle class of the roster as a major reason for their decline and compared the roster make-up to that of Manning’s Colts teams that underwhelmed in the postseason.

“Currently, Denver has 10 starting players on its roster with a $5 million per year or more cap charge, and 28 players above $1 million,” Lombardi writes. “They have only four backups making more than a million — which includes Donald Stephenson, a free agent last year who started initially at right tackle before being benched during the year, and Jamaal Charles, who signed a nonguaranteed, incentive-based contract that could earn him $2.5 million this year.

“By bringing Manning to Denver, the Broncos copied Bill Polian’s Indianapolis Colts spending model: rely on a few elite players with expensive contracts and fill in the rest with draft choices. Once Manning left Indy, we saw how badly this method worked for the Colts. History is repeating itself.”

Our own Brian Phillips has written about how the Patriots invest more in the middle class of the roster than any other team in the league, in clear opposition to the Broncos roster strategy. Lombardi agrees with Phillips, noting “Bill Belichick wants a full team, not a few high-priced veterans and then all draft picks.”

The Patriots roster is built to overcome the loss of most individuals, but the Broncos can’t afford to sustain any injuries on their roster- and unfortunately for Denver, they might not have too much time to see their roster develop.

While the strong Broncos defense will be almost the same for the next three years due to contract lengths, with only T.J. Ward (30 years old, free agent after 2017) and Aqib Talib (31 years old, but signed through 2019) in the later stages of their careers, the defense wasn’t strong enough to overcome an anemic offense.

And the only two reliable players in the Broncos offense- wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders- will both be on the wrong side of 30 years old after this season. Both are still playing at a high level, but Denver might only have two more years to have a quarterback emerge and take advantage of the talent on the roster before the window closes.

The Patriots, for their part, are still building the middle class of their roster and unlike Bolles and Henderson on the Broncos, the Patriots don’t need their rookies to be immediate contributors. New England’s window will remain open so long as QB Tom Brady continues to play and the Patriots roster is built to overcome a decline in his play.

In fact, the Patriots are still trying to find a way to improve in the “big play” category that Lombardi highlighted after finishing in 9th place in 2016. The addition of WR Brandin Cooks and the return of TE Rob Gronkowski cannot be understated in the Patriots offensive growth.

Over the past two seasons, Cooks has a league-leading 12 touchdowns of 20+ yards and his 33 receptions is tied for the 10th most in the league over that time. Rob Gronkowski has 34 receptions for 20+ yards, tied for 8th most, despite only playing 23 of a possible 32 games. Both of their additions to the offense should make the Patriots more potent and should further help the team overcome any potential decline in Brady’s play.