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Can the Denver Broncos challenge early with so much reliant on youth?

I love what the Denver Broncos have done for Drew Lock in the offseason — there’s a chance things come together quickly for this team, giving them the best chance of chasing the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

To be clear, I’m also far from sold that Lock is definitely the answer at quarterback. But he's flashed enough potential in his early shot at playing time — coupled with the fact that John Elway probably doesn’t have the luxury of starting all over at the position again — that I think the approach the team has taken with him is absolutely the right one. They have to assume Lock is the guy going forward and load him up with as many weapons as humanly possible to maximize that chance. This improves the bottom line in any event. 

[Editor’s Note: PFF’s advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]

Denver had already been revamping its skill position players in recent seasons, but that was kicked into overdrive in the 2020 NFL Draft. Today, there is almost nobody of consequence at skill positions who was on the roster before 2018.

In the backfield, the duo of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman arrived in 2018, with Lindsay the undrafted star stealing the starting role from the third-round pick Freeman. Melvin Gordon lost in his game of financial chicken with the Chargers but has come over to Denver with hopes of becoming the team’s featured back, or at least to take the power carries from Freeman.

The Broncos drafted tight end Noah Fant in the first round a year ago. While his rookie season was up and down, his straight-line speed is imposing. He should become their No. 1 this season, with Jeff Heuerman the only player standing in his way. Heuerman’s PFF grade has gotten worse every season of his career, and he is the longest-tenured skill-position player on the roster — only five years after they drafted him.

Fant has been joined by Lock’s old college teammate, Albert Okwuegbunam, another player with impressive speed. Jake Butt — drafted in 2017 — is still around, but he is now the third tight end on a team that used two or more just 38.1% of the time in 2019. They ran only 77 plays with three tight ends on the field last season, so if Butt wants to be a significant part of this offense, he will need major rotation at the position or to clearly beat out one of the others for that role.

The Broncos drafted wide receiver Courtland Sutton in the second round of 2018, and he broke out last season to become one of the most exciting young receivers in the league. Sutton finished the year as the No. 13-ranked wideout in terms of PFF receiving grade, and the combination of Broncos quarterbacks throwing his way ended up with a passer rating of 104.7 when Sutton was the intended target.

He was a big-play machine and particularly effective after the catch, breaking 16 tackles, which tied for the fourth-most among wide receivers. Sutton is also a contested catch monster, with 10 deep contested catches in 2019 alone — that's an important skill that he alone possesses among this receiving corps. 

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